I came across this interesting passage recently, and had to save it it because I knew immediately I wanted to write about the flood of thoughts it produced:
While straightening up a few bottles and jars on my bathroom counter one morning, I found myself lost in a memory of a bathroom in an apartment I had rented when I was young. It wasn’t a happy memory, and my mood started sinking. But then I said to myself, “I’m not there, thank God.” And the memory evaporated, to my great relief.
For a long time, I fought a losing battle with bad memories. They entered my mind like a train I couldn’t stop. Once they were there, I was caught up in a vortex, wrestling disturbing emotions, overanalyzing, and futilely trying to redo events.
I’ve re-read this passage several times, and I have to say my response is going to be deeply counter-intuitive. For me it’s not the bad memories that cause as much harm or disturbance in our psyches as it is the rumination of endless what ifs or negative thoughts that precede the events that leave the horrible memories.
Rumination is a bad thing. It can foster self-destructive thoughts and spirals of negativity that lead to, or which become, the most awful characteristics and side effects of major depression. I’m very much acquainted with this from past experience going back to childhood.
Back in the 1960s, we didn’t know what to call obsessive, harmful thought patterns that we couldn’t shake. I remember battling with those demons as far back in seventh grade. Since I was too young to know what this was in psychological terms — Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) — I kept it mostly to myself. How many lay people read or even knew about the DSM, the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders? My parents certainly didn’t, understandably. How many people back then, compared to now in the days of Covid and pandemics, fully appreciated the mental health problems afflicting kids in that long-gone era, but which are even more acute in today’s world?
So there’s a big difference between bad memories, and rumination and clinical depression, where bad thoughts run wild and render a sufferer incapable of rational action or decision-making.
Walsh says that once bad memories enter her mind they’re like a train rushing headlong that she can’t stop. She ends up wrestling with disturbing emotions, overanalyzing, and futilely trying to redo events.
I understand what she’s saying, but instead of viewing this as a curse to remove at all costs, I instead seem to need to do this with specific bad memories from my past, several of them related to events that were traumatic in the sense that they gravely threatened my mental health, preservation of which has always been a delicate balancing act, and consequently my ability to function afterward.
One event was so horrible mentally, emotionally, and psychologically, that I believe to this day, 33 years after the fact, that recalling it, facing up to it, and trying to understand why it happened, has been a kind of saving grace, strangely enough. It helped me realize later that I’m not alone in this, that other people go through not just bad, but harrowing job experiences, some for only a very brief period of time, only three months in the instance of the job I am referring to. Friends who have known me for a long time will not be surprised that this nightmarish situation occurred. Others who know me less well, might shake their heads and say, “Thank goodness I never experienced anything like that.”
Without going into the specifics and presenting the scenario and background for this colossal setback, let me just say it involved a college teaching job that I had hoped to land all my life. In a sense that entire, very-unfortunate-for-all-concerned fiasco, was the end result, the culmination of all the bad job decisions I had made in the past. This one was the granddaddy of all failures, but I moved on from it, as I have in the past, teetering on the edge of severe depression.
Why, many would ask, do you go over in your mind those events that caused such upheaval and anguish, and which essentially, in the instance just recounted, effectively ended a teaching career path for which I was completing a master’s degree in journalism? For one thing, trauma becomes seared into your very being. I couldn’t wish it away. It happened. It made me realize that in weakness there is strength, strength to continue on even if I felt worthless for an extended period of time.
You can’t over-analyze a trauma like that because it cries out to be analyzed. I accept that it was mostly of my own doing because I was so desperate to get a job in just about any kind of college. I learned so much about myself from that experience that I would rather forget entirely, but of course can’t. Since I can’t, I accept it for what it is and was. It has shown me that I am a very vulnerable human being, as we all are, and that suffering, whether from bad dreams or traumatic events, has made me stronger. Without that knowledge, what real hope is there?
I’ve analyzed things to excess all my life. I’m going to suddenly turn off the tap and stop the flow of bad memories, or tell them to be gone forever? I don’t think so. I don’t even want to, and that’s the whole point of writing this. No more shame. Just awareness and closure at some point. That time is now, as it has been in the past.