When the Past Hurts


I was sitting in therapy once and found something in my soul I never knew was there. It was as if I was taking a guest on a tour of my home and noticed a door in the hallway I'd never seen before–it was that unexpected. It was a door that I wouldn't be able to open for weeks.

It wasn't that long ago. I was still a part of the Baptist church, but I'd become a black sheep for talking about marriage equality and evolution. It felt like getting divorced–one of the most painful things I'd ever endured. So, I started going to see a therapist once a week.

We were talking about my childhood–my therapist insisted on it. Therapists are always getting you to talk about parts of your life you don't want to talk about. The funny thing is I could talk about what happened when I was a kid, and I could explain what other kids had done to me when I was bullied so much. It didn't bother me, and I told my therapist that I was over all that.

But then she asked me how I felt when those things happened to me. She asked me how I felt when kids would throw softballs at me, or push me over when we were running laps.

I don't want to sound melodramatic, but it was that moment that I saw the unexpected door for the first time. And when I touched the doorknob, it scalded me. It was if that once unseen door was the Gates of Hell itself, and evil emanated from it–an oppressive, terrifying radiation that is not seen, but felt.

I couldn't tell my therapist how I felt. Even thinking about it made my heart pound like a bass drum, while filling me with some awful terror. It confused and disoriented me.

I mean, here I was in a safe place and I was terrified just because a kind, smart woman asked me how I felt about something that happened decades ago. It split my consciousness for a few seconds–part of me was afraid, and part of me was wearing a lab coat, studying that fear.

That was a rough day. I was shaken for the rest of the afternoon, uncomfortable in my own thoughts. Just as uneasy as I'd be at home with a mysterious door to Hell, a few feet from my favorite couch.

Week after week, my therapist would keep guiding me toward that door. I told her why I wasn't able to cry, about how I'd learned to make myself not cry via biofeedback so well that it was automatic these days. I'd become a person who could sob once, before I'd reflexively relax my core muscles and slow my breathing.

And then, one week, my friend Bradley asked me what I would tell the 7 year old me if he was sitting across from me, and the door opened.

A river of grief came out. Grief is a briny river for sure, but somehow it leaves you feeling clean.

After that, I could cry in therapy. We had to talk about some of my childhood feelings over and over. I still felt panicky and afraid when we'd move through what it was like to be a fat, ginger kid who loved computers and science.

The craziest thing was that the more I opened that door, the less it scared me. And each time, the flow of grief was a little smaller, until at last it was just another door.

Don't get me wrong, that's not the part of my soul where I want to watch TV or have a party. But, I don't mind going in there anymore, especially if I can grab a story that will help someone else face their own grief over past trauma, loss, or hurt.

Here's the thing: when you bury the pain of the past it can warp you. On the one hand, my bullies gave me a gift. I have a profound sense of independence and I'm not too worried about the approval of a crowd. On the other hand, I have an acute fear or rejection, and intense doubt when people tell me they like me.

By suppressing all those feelings of rejection from my childhood, I set the stage from some pretty toxic behaviors later in life. It's where I get my love of being in front of crowds, entertaining them, but also controlling the interaction. It also lead me to seek acceptance and validation in some unhealthy romantic relationships.

I was able to drop a lot of those behaviors and live a healthier life when I finally forgive the people who'd hurt me as a child. They were children, after all. The first step in redeeming the wounds of our past is forgiving the ones who wounded us. It's the only way forward.

But it's just the beginning of the healing process. After forgiveness comes grief. You have to mourn the loss that came from that wound. Western people have a profound talent for avoiding grief, and Americans are exceptional at it even by the standards of the West.

This is all rooted in our brains, of course. When you recall events and people from the past, different parts of your brain light up. For traumatic memories, your amygdala will get hyped up just as powerfully as if am imminent, physical threat was present. The power of the human brain in recreating the past means our painful memories have exquisite power.

Why wouldn't you bury something like that? Who would chose to wander into such pain? It's awful.

Awful, but essential. Because every time you recall a memory, your brain changes that memory a little bit. That's how conditioning works. Pavlov's insights apply to people just as much as dogs. I salivate when the microwave dings. It's positive reinforcement. But if someone hit me with a rock every time the microwave did it's thing, I'd probably break into a sweat every time someone reached for a frozen dinner. That's why grief and therapy work so well.

When we recall the painful past in as safe environment, we weaken that memories association with the parts of our brain that drive fear and anger. We rewire our brains to take the punch out of those wounds, and finally allow them to heal.

I think that's why people who've been hurt have to return to their stories over and over. They have an instinctive drive to share once they feel safe. As long as that doesn't become an obsession, it's healthy.

I've found that forgiveness and grief are helpful in living a whole, healthy life.

I'd love to hear your insights about coping with past traumas in the comments below.

photo credit: via photopin (license)