We are confronted with it if we go back to the old homestead, step in through our childhood door, and walk into our early days. We face it if we unpack memories along with the ornaments for the Christmas tree. Either we choose to spend time the past, or it is guaranteed to call on us.
The past is like a closet where you put whatever you don’t want to have on view. Some of it is stuff you don’t want to see. Some is stuff you don’t want harm to come to. We put it all away in that closet. All of it together, the good and the bad.
If you had a great childhood and all the memories of the past are sweet, the fact that they are memories and are not present, makes them bittersweet. That’s what time and the loss of innocence does to memories. You’d want to keep these memories, but they have too strong a flavor to taste always.
If an awful person did awful things to you that you’d rather not remember, you fill your closet with the pain. If a great person did awful things, you’d rather not have to sort it out continuously. Maybe terrible things happened that wouldn’t be too bad if they had happened to an adult. After all, adults have knowledge, skills, resources, coping mechanisms, and supports that children don’t have yet. Either way, few people come out of the past unscathed.
All these memories: the sweet memories turning bitter and the awful memories, you stuff them all in this closet.
You cram that closet full. It gets to be that you can’t even open the door to shoehorn anything more in. It’s jam packed, already. You’re afraid that when you open the door, the bowling ball you perched atop the pile will fall on your head. You’re afraid if you open the door, you’d never be able to shut it again. It’s too full, so you never open the door.
Once the closet is too full of junk to open without being able to close, it has ceased to function as a closet. Similarly, when we have painful memories that we cannot ever look at, then memory, that storehouse of useful information, has ceased to function properly.
Most of the time we can live with that. So, you have closets in your house that you never open, stuffed to the gills with junk you can’t throw out. You have more than one closet filled like that. You might have garages, attics, cellars, extra rooms; all filled. Some of us have years of our past that we cannot permit ourselves to remember.
That’s fine, until one of two things happens.
Perhaps someone, some guest in your house, opens the closet door by mistake; looking for the bathroom, but perchance, opens the closet door. The bowling ball, the wooden tennis racquets, the regrets, the disappointments, and the trauma all come crashing onto the floor. It’s embarrassing. It comes tumbling out and you can’t cram it back in.
The past comes to us this way, unbidden, and causes a flood. You might’ve been looking for something else and the dreadful memory comes up. You can’t stop reacting to it, even though it happened a long time ago. You can’t stop remembering it, though you’d like to forget.
Sometimes it just makes sense to clean out the closet. Maybe you don’t want to run the risk of it opening by mistake and causing havoc when you least expect it. Maybe you want to move, trade up to a bigger, or better, house. You collect boxes, start with the books in the living room, move on to the kitchen, save the closet for last, not because it’s more efficient that way, but because you’re dreading it. You finally get to the closet and go through it, not because you want to, but because you have to so you can move on.
Sometimes it’s just necessary to take a look at your past, so that you can move ahead. You decide it’s time to make sense of it, forgive some people, take some lessons from it. If you had awful things happen to you as a child, maybe you put the memory away in this closet so that you could deal with it later as an adult, after you acquired the knowledge, skills, resources, coping mechanisms, and supports that you needed. Perhaps it’s time, and you are ready.
Sometimes you clean out the closet because you have to; because you can’t shut the damn door anymore.
Once you decide to clean out the closet, there is nothing left to do but to buckle down and go through the junk. Shift through it and sort out what to keep, what to throw away, what to give away, and what to display on the coffee table. It helps when someone can do it with you, someone who won’t judge or make snide comments about the disco shirt you can’t part with. Someone who can help you pull stuff out and who can help you shut the door.
You know what it’s like when you take on a bigger job than you can finish? Everything is all out everywhere and you can’t get it put back in. You don’t want that to happen. You can’t live with all the junk out, getting in your way, getting you disorganized. That’s why you had a closet in the first place, to prevent this from happening.
Whenever you sort through memories, you run the risk of retraumatizing yourself. I’ll write some other time about all the ways to retraumatize yourself, but, for now, here’s one way to watch out for. When you go to clean out your closet, don’t take on more than you can handle in one sitting. It’s important to open that door and get started. It’s also important to be able to shut it again.
You may need a guide to help you with trauma, someone who understands it. Someone who can encourage you to do what has always been impossible, and someone who can tell you when it’s time to stop.
A counselor can be that kind of person. Any counselor who knows anything about trauma can help you clean out your closet, shut the door, and move on. Think about it.