A Different Kind of Grief

Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were…

Barbara Streisand – The Way We Were

Funny story – the song I just quoted, I have never heard Barbara Streisand sing it. I heard it when I watched Big when I was a kid, and I watched that movie a lot because I loved it. Hell, I even linked it but I didn’t watch the video, so if you did, bravo, you’ve gone farther than me.

Any time I think about memories, those two lines play in my head. I hear them like Tom Hanks sang them, real quick and quietly into a phone receiver, in the movie. And I think that that’s what comes to mind because I also see his mother bawling, listening to him sing.

Memories are painful for me. A lot of memories are painful. When I was a kid I was often in survival mode, I was just trying to get through. Later, when I began to feel that there would be no end, I was often suicidal. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to live the way I was living and after over a decade of it, I started to lose hope that it ever would end.

And because of that, there are huge, huge gaps in my memories from childhood. Freud called it “childhood amnesia.” I came across this article, “How traumatic memories hide in the brain…” and it was quite interesting. This article describes these memories as a dark shadow hiding in the brain. To me, it’s often felt like things packed away in boxes. As if my brain said, “I don’t want this, or this, or this…” and gathered those things up and everything around them too, and shoved them into boxes. And then the boxes got bricked up into a room, a hidden room that I can’t find. I know they’re there somewhere, but I don’t know where or how to find them.

What’s strange is that I am, by nature, inquisitive. And so when I want to know something, I look it up. And I realized, when I decided to make this post, that I have never, ever looked up how to retrieve repressed memories. Even though I’ve spent years trying to recall, I’ve never actually attempted to find out what methods there are, already proven to work, out there. And maybe I just really didn’t want to remember as hard as I thought I did.

I’m sure that everyone probably has some gaps in their childhood memories. They’re long ago, and a lot of times were unremarkable, and there was just no point in storing them. You don’t recall the day to day, you recall the trend of things, the tradition, the habits. But, for instance, my first little sister was born when I was just shy of 6. I don’t remember her as a baby. I don’t remember my baby sister being born a year and a half later either. My last memory is of my mom going into labour with my first sister, and then my memory picks up again when my baby sister was maybe 6 months old and the other sister was 2. It’s just almost completely gone. As if that time never even existed. I have memories of brief events here and there that muddle up in my brain, it’s hard for me to remember at what age or in what order they happened. Upon moving back to our hometown after 10 years away, I found that there were people whose names I knew, whose faces I knew, who I did not recall spending a single second with… but they swear we were friends as teenagers. I believe them, because I know them, somehow. I know who they are. I just don’t remember what we ever did together.

It started to become distressing to me maybe 5 years ago, or so. I felt like huge pieces of me were missing. I was told over and over again over the years that my brain has done this to protect me, but all the good went along with the bad and I’m left with these gaping voids in the timeline of my life. When I think back, there’s plenty bad I can remember, and it makes me wonder how bad the things were that my mind felt needed to be locked away?

Lately I have been really feeling the need to get past things. I suddenly have felt damaged again. There are a lot of things I could blame for this sudden… falling apart, but it’s not really relevant. The point is that I wasn’t as healthy as I thought I was, that I really confused feeling very little with serenity or peacefulness for a long time, and that those memories really are like a dark shadow floating around, in the background, just lurking and waiting.

I have, for years, called myself a dude with tits. I’m pretty rough around the edges. I have a crude sense of humour. I say what I mean. I don’t care much for sensitivity and crying, I prefer to be practical. My husband used to call me the Spartan. I had to become tough to survive, and I came out a little crustier than I probably intended. I didn’t cry, I didn’t know how to handle other people’s displays of emotion either. They made me uncomfortable, I’d react awkwardly, it would be even more uncomfortable.

So it was a little funny to me when I went in to a therapist who told me that my issues are what she typically sees in men. The bottled up anger, the not knowing how to cry, the feeling that crying makes you weak, the fact that all of that emotion is in there somewhere and it’s leaking out at the strangest times and I don’t know how to handle it or where it’s coming from.

The first time I went to see this particular therapist (and I’ve only been twice now, but she’s given me a lot to think about already), I told her I spent my teens in therapy. Really, from about 10 – 17. That I thought I was okay because of it. That my mother insisted I go as a child, because she herself had not started to deal with her own childhood until her 30’s and she didn’t want to see me do the same. And yet, here I am, in my 30’s, dealing with my childhood horseshit.

She asked me if I’d ever grieved my childhood. And I had to think. Because therapy in my teens was like triage. It was a bandaid. My life was a disaster, still. I was still hanging on for dear life. Therapy helped me survive it. Helped me get over an eating disorder, suicide attempts, difficulties of home and relationships and poverty. Therapists tried to help me through my earlier childhood issues, at first, but I think it soon became clear that I needed help in the here and now more. I needed to survive and get through before I could do anything else.

So therapy didn’t help me deal with “it,” it couldn’t, I was still in the middle of “it.” So, I said no. I haven’t ever considered that. I have justified, I have examined, I have pushed aside and forgiven and so many other things – but I never allowed myself grief. I didn’t feel entitled to it. I felt that was akin to wallowing in self-pity and of course, I could never be that pathetic. I’m more of a “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, walk it off” kind of person. What function does crying over it serve anyway? What good does it do to feel sorry for myself? None.

When people think of grief, I imagine they think of death. I know I do. But it’s different grieving life. Grief is about loss. In my case, it was the loss of a decent, stable childhood, of a trauma-free childhood.

Hearing my past talked about in terms of grief changed my perspective. Because when I thought about it more deeply, I realized I’m not feeling sorry for myself, I’m feeling sorry for who I was. For that shy and hurt little girl. For that anxious and perpetually sad pre-teen. For that angry, stressed teenager. For everything that she went through and every way it hurt and all the ways she struggled to survive it… and for all the ways it all changed and shaped her.

She is me but I’m not her anymore. She’s a version of me that existed a long time ago, in what feels like a whole different lifetime. She’s a part of me but separate from me, in a way, in my mind. In a way that’s hard to explain. I don’t really know if this is something unique to trauma survivors, or if “regular” folks have a hint of it as well – forgetting, disassociating – from who you were as a child?

Childhood, by which I mean really all the way up to my 20’s, feels very disconnected from me as a person. It’s a different lifetime. It’s like a story, like clips of a movie that I can call up in my mind sometimes. Sometimes I may be able to remember a specific incidence, but I don’t remember how I felt, I imagine how a child would feel in that situation, or try to figure out how I felt by my reaction at the time.

The therapist told me I need to let myself cry when I need to cry. I realized that every time I start to tear up, I automatically tell myself to stop it. Stop it. Stifle it. Not now. Hopefully not ever. Take a deep breath. Tilt my head back. Let those tears seep back into my eyes. Blow my nose. Pull myself together, fake a huge smile, and voila! Done. I know exactly how to do it, it’s almost down to a science. I spent a lot of years doing it.

So that brings me to the point of this rambling mess. All of this explains how I found myself in a park, in a small town in southern Ontario, sobbing in my mother’s arms.

I flew with my mom to Toronto to attend my second youngest sister’s wedding. I spent nearly a week. And since mom and I had never been back together since we left in ’92, we decided to galavant around and try to see people and places that we knew. I rented a car for the weekend so we could do what we wanted. We had all of Sunday and Monday to do with as we pleased, so I made plans to meet a cousin Sunday in the city we used to live in, and after that to go to the small town we lived in from the time I was 3 or 4 until almost 7 years old. Where we lived with my step-dad. I hadn’t been back in probably 30 years, and I am really trying to jog old memories, I thought it would be good for me.

The place has grown, but as I drove into town this excitement bubbled up and soon I was shouting “I know where I am! I know this! That store where you bought me candy. That fountain. The library! The little lake… with swans! That was a doctor’s office. I know where the house is!” And I did, I drove straight to it.

I own a tiny little dog, a yorkie-schnauzer (I call her a snorkie). She’s a teeny bit smaller than our cats. And when she gets excited she yips and jumps and shivers. You can see her vibrate. I felt that way, because I knew everything. It was all so familiar. It was a huge, ginormous feeling.

I parked in front of the house. I got out and stared down the driveway like a creeper. I saw the backyard, the driveway led to a side door, then to the backyard which is long and narrow. I saw the barn, the tree where my swing used to be, two pretty new sheds that weren’t there before. Just stared for a while, until I knew I couldn’t anymore without looking like I was casing the joint to rob it later. Got back in the car and told mom what I saw, still so excited. She hadn’t gotten out to look. I don’t think she cared to, likely because she remembered more than I did at this point.

So we looped around and went the other way, away from downtown, toward the school. I carried on, yammering away. “There’s the place where we went for Chinese food, and it was always seafood and I hate seafood so I thought Chinese food was seafood for a long time and I wouldn’t eat it… There’s the grocery store! But that wasn’t there before… or that… there’s the school… that’s the sidewalk where I tripped on a raised section, and I skinned my knee and I still have the scar. That’s the hill I rolled down and got a stick in my eardrum… “

A bit further down was a park. The “arboretum.” I kept babbling about things I remembered. And slowly the memories ventured into darker territory. “Remember when you babysat that girl, and her mother worked at a chicken place, and she gave me a chick for Easter? And then *step-dad* gave it away without even telling me…?” This chick had become a beautiful black chicken, which I hadn’t known existed, and I loved it. He gave it away because he said I didn’t take care of it well enough, at 4 or 5 years old.

I thought about how I can’t recall him ever being nice to me. Mom said, “… he was nice to you, until J was born, then it was like a switch flipped.” My brother was born when I was just shy of 3, and I became the unwanted step-child overnight. I remembered how my brother, as a toddler, had learned how to climb out of his crib one day and when my step-father checked and didn’t find him there, he chased me down, picked me up by my hair and screamed in my face “What did you do with your brother??” I suppose I was 5. Of course if my brother couldn’t be found it must have been my fault. I was terrified, I had no idea what was going on.

When my mom left my dad, there was an older couple who I believe sort of took her (and I) under their wings and helped us out. Like parents, my mom had no parents left. I called them Grandma and Grandpa. Walking around this arboretum, slower now… I said, “I remember when I was in the car with *step-dad* and I recognized the area we were in, and I asked him if we could go see Grandma and Grandpa. I was less than 5 years old, I don’t think I was in school yet. He snapped at me, “Your grandparents are dead.” I was horrified. I thought he meant the people I called Grandma and Grandpa were dead. Mom said, really softly, “He didn’t know that you called them that.” I said, “Still! He said it so harshly, so coldly. It was cruel. I was just little.”

I walked slowly a few more steps and then the tears came. All the excitement, all the huge feels, just came crashing down on me. Of course my first thought was “STOP IT.” But this time, I dismissed it. I was there nearly alone, with only my mother, only a few people strolling around who will never see me again. Couldn’t think of a better or safer place to cry. So I did. A little bit at first, just weepy, and then mom asked if I was okay and hugged me and I just sobbed.

It wasn’t just the memories, it was being there, it was finally feeling what I felt when I was a kid. Reconnecting with it. It wasn’t just a story anymore, it wasn’t just something that I watched from the outside, it was real and it was painful. I remembered how depressed my mom was then, how sad that made me. I remembered how I was often confused by mind games that I couldn’t win, and where I would be punished for losing. I remembered not measuring up, ever. Being scared and confused, feeling deprived, feeling stressed. I remembered being made fun of at school because my clothes were so old and ratty, kids taunting me, asking if I was on welfare. Because he was just too cheap to provide much of anything for us, and we weren’t on welfare. I remembered my mom crying a lot. I remembered crying a lot. I remembered how terrified I felt when mom said she was leaving and I thought she was leaving me with him, without her to protect me, because she was the only one who was nice to me, who cared about me.

The memories became part of me again, that’s what I really feel happened. It felt terrible, for the moment. Kind of like popping a joint back in, but for the soul. It hurt. It cut deep.

And then… it was over, and I felt better. Lighter.

When Forrest Gump came out, I watched it a lot (I’m on a Tom Hanks roll for this post, I guess). I was 14, 15 maybe. There was one scene that always stuck out to me, that always made me cry. When Jenny went back to her old house and screamed and threw things at it. Because it represented something awful, because she needed to do it.

This was good for me. I needed to do it. That scene played in my mind a few times while I was there, and it was something I hadn’t thought about in a lot of years. I didn’t scream. I didn’t throw things. But I don’t need to ever go back there again, that one visit did what I hoped it would do… and I did it at the right time, when I was ready to actually deal with my shit, when my mother was with me to help remind me, to comfort me.

I still have a huge pile to deal with, I know this. This was a small section of my life, but they were formative years and clearly they mattered. I have 15 more years to tackle, and it won’t be as easy as going to a place. I live in the city where I lived for the majority of those years, it’s made no difference.

But in a way I feel more whole.

I think in the end, that’s what I’m aiming for.

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