Wherever we go, our past goes with us
We can never escape our past. Old hurts have a way of creeping into the present.
“The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive.” — The Reader, Bernhard Schlink
Rewarding as it is, being a grief therapist is not what you would call a “feel good” profession. Pretty much everyone who comes to talk to me (online, for the time being) is suffering, or they wouldn’t be talking to me.
A long time ago, which is when I started doing what I do, I made the mistake of thinking that whatever difficult, sad thing a person was dealing with at the moment, that was all we needed to be talking about; that was enough, I thought, to explain the person’s state of mind.
After all, if your father is dying, isn’t that enough for me to know? If you’ve been caring for a terminally ill spouse, isn’t that enough for me to know? What more do I need to know to understand why your heart is breaking? In time I came to recognize the importance of knowing more, and especially, of knowing more about past losses and past traumas.
But the event that really corrected my thinking was 9/11. Among the people I sat with in the days, weeks and months following the attacks was a broker who worked at the Connecticut office of Cantor Fitzgerald.
His office had a “squawk box” that provided direct, immediate communication with the company’s New York office in the World Trade Center. When the first plane hit the North Tower, he and his colleagues could hear what was happening in New York.
They were effectively there — there, but helpless to do anything. Of course he was shaken up. Of course he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Wasn’t what he had been through enough to reduce anyone to a state of shock and despair? What information did I need to gather, beyond whatever he could bring himself to tell me about what must surely have been the worst day of his life?
Nevertheless, I knew enough by this point to ask him if he’d ever been through anything even remotely like the trauma of that day, and the answer was an immediate yes. Not just once, but twice. The first time, he was on a trip with his father, and there was a fire in the hotel where they were staying.
He was young enough that everything about this event was terrifying to him — he described the smoke, the smell, the fear on the faces of everyone around him as they rushed to escape. The second time was when he was in high school.
He crashed his car, it started to smoke, and he couldn’t get the car door open; finally, he did, and again, he saw, smelled, and felt the nearness of fire. Both of these times, he said, he was sure he was going to die.
Here’s the thing: as dramatic as this story is, it’s just one example of something that is more common than you might imagine: however impactful a trauma, however devastating someone’s current situation, it’s often made even more difficult, more frightening, by what they’ve been through before.
Right now, I am working with L., a woman in her 60’s who is caring for her husband, who is in the final stages of a long-term illness. She herself is in the midst of chemotherapy, with weeks of radiation to come. What else do you need to know? Of course she is devastated, grief stricken, and terrified of what is to come. Of course.
This past week, she began our session by telling me that she had been thinking about her childhood and that there was “something I should probably tell you: my mother was bat-shit crazy.”
Crazy as in screaming at the answering machine message saying that you weren’t home, screaming at people on the street, screaming at L’s father, to the point where he would leave in the middle of the night when he couldn’t take it anymore.
If L’s mother said the sky was yellow, you agreed, because it was never worth arguing or even mildly disagreeing with her. L. spent most of her session telling me stories until finally she came to the happy story of meeting and marrying her husband. Needless to say, this man had rescued her.
For the first time in her life, she was able to breathe, to live without the constant threat of attack. She was able to think her own thoughts and not have her every perception challenged by her mother. For the first time in her life, she could see herself not through her mother’s eyes, but through the eyes of someone who loved her.
It was pretty clear that L.’s life had begun when she met her husband. Was it any wonder that she could not imagine how she would be able to go on living when he was gone?
The connection with her earlier history was a revelation for L. It helped her understand why, along with her grief and pain in the present, she was so frightened of what was to come.
I’m not saying that anyone who is faced with the impending death of a loved one isn’t disposed to feeling fear. That fear of losing our connection to someone we love is an essential part of our nature — we feel it as infants, and it never goes away.
We have no delete button: the fears of infancy and childhood, the fear of being left alone and helpless, are never entirely gone. But for someone like L., the anticipated loss of the person who brought her from darkness into light is something beyond what many people feel at such times. When she had started to think about what it was like to grow up with her mother, L. said,
“My insides opened up and I said ‘oh my God I didn’t think about that’ and that probably influences a lot about how I look at the world and why I want to cry all the fucking time.”
Over the years I’ve heard lots of stories like this. If you grow up taking care of an alcoholic mother, picking her up from the floor when you come home from school and putting her to bed, checking every hour to make sure that she’s still breathing, it’s a good bet that you’re going to have a hard time not being forever worried about something bad happening to someone you love.
If your sister was constantly making attempts to take her own life, there’s a good chance you’re going to feel that it’s your job to make sure that nobody close to you dies, and to feel responsible when someone does.
We can’t escape the past. We can’t emigrate from the world of our own memories, as much as we might wish it were otherwise. There are going to be obstacles in life, and those obstacles are bound, in some way, to leave behind fragments that can trip us up and bring us to our knees.
Although it’s never easy or comfortable to find ourselves stumbling over the past, we might as well keep our eyes open and familiarize ourselves with the terrain. Better to be well acquainted with the source of our injuries than to have no idea why we hurt.
Better to remember what we’ve come through, to give ourselves credit for having survived, and to be gentle with ourselves when life is hard.