When Memories Heal

Some memories have the power to lift me like a walk on the Outer Banks with my wife, sand in my toes, watching a glorious sunset. Other memories hurl me down, like the night in college when a group of boys who didn’t like the way I looked tackled me and kicked me in the head. I do my best to push such memories away, but even after decades, my attempts to ignore them has no more effect than piling more bandages on a festering wound. For lasting relief, I peel away the bandages and let in the light.

But when I try to think it through, the memory takes on a life of its own, and leads around and around the same groove. It always comes out the same. The problem with trying to make sense of that night is that it doesn’t make sense. I don’t want to live in a world where people would knock down a stranger and kick them. It defies my sense of right and wrong. I feel stuck and confused and keep going back to the story for some clue that will explain to me how it could have happened, how it could make sense.

Such events have been happening since the beginning of time, and over the eons, humans have learned to deal with their confusion by turning tragedies into tales of the human condition. In stories, shocking events are considered normal. They even intrigue us, as we eagerly look for clues to understand what went wrong and how it will be made right. When we enter the world inside a story, we give ourselves over to it, sitting on the edge of our seat, hoping for resolution. If we could throw ourselves into our own lives with this much curiosity, we could become more accepting, tolerant, and energized by unfolding events, even crazy ones.

To find my way out of the mental loop of my memories, I recast them into a story, and let the story make sense of them for me. At first, this seems like a worthless assignment. I’ve been trying for years, and my story leads nowhere. But is it really a story? If so, it’s not a very successful one. When I try telling it to friends, their eyes glaze over. Instead of interest, I see pity, horror, or even boredom. The fact that it fails to interest others is an indication that something is missing. But what is the difference between my internal jabbering and the thousands of entertaining stories I’ve heard, read, and watched since my mom read to me in bed?

The most obvious difference between those stories and mine is that this is me we’re talking about. When I think about a painful memory, I’m seeing it from inside my own eyes, which limits my ability to see the whole picture. So I use tricks to help me gain some distance. For example, I can change the name of the main character, and instead of talking about Jerry, I talk about George. George has blond hair and comes from Iowa. Why not? It’s just part of the process. This helps, and I begin to get past my whining and tell what happened.

If you have disturbing memories, you may be able to find relief by using this technique. When at first you try to think about it, you might remember a breaking apart of your sense of innocence, the powerlessness and humiliation. The memories come so loaded with disturbing feelings you avoid thinking about them in detail. Now as you look to shape them, slow down the memories and put them in order. Set the stage, and then tell how things unfold. By telling a reader about the busy street in a clean, respectable mid-western town, and the pleasant banter with your friends, you set up the shocking contrast with getting mugged. Gradually with creative effort, your story starts to sound like something worth hearing.

As the story takes shape, you realize that one thing that shapes individual events into a story worth hearing is a “through line.” This is the energy that propels the main character from the beginning and carries him through to the end. In the Lord of the Rings, a Hobbit in a small village must destroy the ring that is destroying the world. At the beginning, he learns of the quest. Fulfilling this quest carries the hero as well as the reader over mountains and through darkness until the resolution at the end.

If I feel stuck in some painful memory, I am suffering from the lack of a compelling through line. When I remember events, the story leads up to the trauma, and then the momentum collapses and the through line stops. No matter how many times I go over those events, they keep stopping in the midst of the pain, or in the ensuing shock and disbelief. This sequence of events is unsatisfying. The story doesn’t have an end, and that lack of an end keeps my mind flailing.

To turn it into a real story, I use the logic of stories and look for where the story goes next. By crafting a story that goes somewhere, I can escape the loop. Take a well known example of someone caught in painful memories. A war vet feels stuck in a battle, and in his mind, scenes repeat over and over. But at the end of the battle, the memory loops back to the beginning and starts over, keeping him stuck in the emotions. He can’t erase the memories, but there is a way he can gain enormous power over them – by extending the through line.

That soldier did eventually return to civilian life, and life went on from there. But his memories don’t carry him from the battlefield back into the ordinary world. Even though life continued, the story stops on the battlefield. The soldier needs to build a bridge into the next stage in life.

A crafted story builds that bridge. In a crafted story, the trauma doesn’t take place at the end. It happens closer to the beginning. This allows plenty of time to learn about the implications of the pain, and then work towards a resolution. So when you tell the story, don’t stop while you’re still in shock. Keep going. What happens next? Use the continuing sequence of events to get across from the end of the trauma to the glimmers of normalcy afterward. This consciously-crafted story takes you from inside the closed loop of pain, out to the path on the other side. And once you learn how to tell this story, it can help you when you feel stuck on the wrong side.

When you find yourself replaying painful events, whether a divorce, a financial collapse, loss of a loved one, whatever it was, when you get to the end of the pain, instead of going back and starting it again, you can now step onto the bridge by saying to yourself, “The next day or month or year, life seemed bleak, but it was clear I had to keep going. And I did. Here’s what happened as I moved forward past those bad memories to steps that lead me back into life.” The awful events become one step in a longer journey

These strategies can be used by anyone, not just people who have suffered violent pain. Anyone can improve their relationship to the present by artfully weaving the story of the past. For example you could remember an uneventful childhood that lead to college, marriage, and ended in a horrific divorce. Of course, while you are in the middle of the divorce, it feels like your world fell apart, as if you’ve reached the end of the story. But now, as you craft the story you start from the divorce and move forward. After that main event, you gathered together bits of strength and new beginnings. And so you began a journey of survival and recovery. You don’t change events, but you incorporate them into a life story worth living.

This is where those pleasant, uplifting memories become valuable. They represent the fact that life is a mix of ups and downs. By including walks on sandy shores and beautiful sunsets in your story, you establish a world that is worth returning to. Contrary to the traumatic loops that pull us into thinking that life is a nightmare, we begin to see how to enter a world that also includes pleasure.

So how would I extend a story of my night out with friends and getting mugged? Well, the rest of the summer I was terrified to walk on campus, skulking through alleys, and keeping to myself. By the next fall, I had pushed this experience out of my mind. The following years were extraordinarily chaotic for me, and when I did finally pull myself together and live a normal life, I never reconsidered how that night affected me. In fact I forgot it altogether until 9/11.

After the World Trade Center catastrophe, I longed to find some way to help people, so I attended a training class to learn how to counsel traumatized communities. To practice, we were supposed to tell each other about some disturbing experience. On my drive to the class, I remembered that I had been mugged. After more than 30 years of silence, I spoke of it that day. As I told of the events, I realized that during the attack I had lost my voice. In those few seconds, I learned a terrible lesson. Up until that point I had been eager to speak my mind publicly, and join in social protests. After the beating, I found myself shrinking. The lesson: it’s dangerous to be different. I never again felt safe speaking about an unpopular position.

Until I talked about my experience in that group, I had never noticed it was around that time that my behavior shifted from protesting in public to complaining in private. Now that I saw the importance of that night, I look at it across decades, searching for a longer view. Energy from the rubble of that night, I see a more complete story. What was once a reason for silence, now decades later becomes a reason for finding a voice, telling other people who I am, and inviting them to tell me who they are.

The story continues. Instead of stopping that night in a story with an unhappy ending, I can write another chapter. After decades of accepting the lesson I had learned that night, I start to see that the lesson was not one I endorse. I don’t want to be silent, nor do I advocate fear or silence to other people. Now, in this next chapter, I pursue my dreams by finding my voice. In the logic of stories, such a transition makes perfect sense. The protagonist had a setback. Then he overcame obstacles, regained momentum, and moved towards a fulfilling life. When I was 20, the events of that night seemed impossible, unthinkable, a tragedy of human experience. But in the story I tell about myself, those events become a milestone along the journey to a satisfying, fulfilling life.