This past Sunday I attended my High School reunion (I'll keep the number private, but suffice to say it's been over 25 years). When I received the invitation I was ambivalent at best about attending; you see, high school for me was overall a painful experience, not entirely related to high school itself, and punctuated here and there with some genuine fond memories, but too few to honor the whole high school experience as part of me. And like many people I set all those memories, painful and otherwise aside, never to be considered as part of me again. Yet, as I weighed the decision whether to attend, it occurred to me that I was doing what many of my patients do with their painful memories; locking them away as though they could ever be forgotten or jettisoned from the person I was. And there was something urgent in the demeanor of the organizers that make me take special notice. I rearranged my schedule and said yes.
Patients will complain in therapy that dredging up the past is not a useful activity. I've often heard patients use the "box" image: "I put my past in a box, locked it up and I don't ever want to open it again." "You can't change the past; why keep bringing it up?" It is true that one cannot change the facts of a traumatic event or painful memory, but the mere facts constitute only one dimension of that event or memory. Allowing oneself to take the potentially painful and shaming journey to talk about this material affords one the opportunity to in some real way "change" the past. By exploring how this event (or events) may have impacted the development of current interpersonal patterns, one could gain insight and meaning associated with the trauma that had been previously held out of awareness.
This is not to say that undertaking such an exploration is without some sense of risk. To share the potentially shameful aspects of a painful experience can undoubtedly trigger sad and angry feelings; if not done in an empathic, sensitive and nurturing way, it could even by re-traumatizing. Yet, without taking that initial plunge, those feelings that have been locked away, both consciously and through dissociation continue to hold sway over one's life. The emotional impact connected to that "locked box" can so overwhelm a person that she cannot think about what is happening. When day to day events occur that summon the contents of the locked box to mind, we can become flooded with early traumatic affect and our responses become automatic and unavailable for self-reflection. By slowly and carefully sharing the details in therapy, those overwhelming emotions shift from a place outside of awareness to a place in mind where we can think about what has happened and how it impacts us still.
As for the reunion: I was deeply moved by how united we all seemed to be. Instead of ghosts from deep in my memories regarded with suspicion, I encountered beautiful and unique real women. I began to wish that I had only just met them that day without the high school memories attached. What I realized was that both phenomena were happening at the same time. I found that I could experience these women in the present and gain meaning from my past relationships with them as past and present came together seamlessly. I considered myself fortunate indeed as I left that reunion reclaiming a past that I could hold in mind as an essential part of me in the present.