Journey to the Past: On Learning to Live With The Girl I’ve Been.
A few days ago I shared my “spiritual autobiography.” Not shockingly, it’s a pretty rare story for me to tell. The last time I remember answering the question of what I believe—outside of one-on-one conversations—I was thirteen. My mom, (who will someday write a really moving memoir entitled something like 1001 Jobs I had Before 50), was spending the year teaching religion at a Catholic high school. At one point, she assigned her students a version of this question, to answer in a format of their choice. One possible option was a sound collage, scraps of meaningful music pieced together to form a new whole.
Now, I would like to pretend I was never the kind of person who willingly adopts other people’s homework. …But I was. I would also like to pretend that I do not possess the kind of packrat/ nostalgic/ archival tendencies that result in still having this sound collage more than a decade later. But I do. Writing this new essay brought it to mind, and I decided to pull the cassette tape–(zomg, remember those?)–from its box and be amused at my old-school emo self.
I figured, by this point, it was bound to be cute. It starts with a chorus of tiny children, for God’s sake. It includes a shocking number of angsty 90s radio hits and a good deal of Della Reese. Although it comes to a slightly different conclusion than the newer piece (read: theism), it bears roughly the same number of Tori Amos references. It’s endearing, somehow, all these years later.
…It’s also devastating.
Essentially, it’s 13 min, 51 seconds of desperation and struggle, of overwhelming longing and need. I’ll admit that–hearing it again, I didn’t know, fully, what to do with it. Sure, I know I’ve been through some rough times in the past, and I know that I’ve been desperate for someone or Some One to walk through those struggles with me. But I do not often listen to the soundtrack of that longing. I do not often scale electric fences either – for roughly the same reasons.
It’s the nature of trauma, in a lot of ways, to make the past terrifying. To quote one of my most recent reads (Emily White’s Fast Girls) — “the past exerts its dominance over the future. A woman can be […] on the road to the future and find herself in a head-on collision with her old self. Not so fast, this old self says. I’m still here” (186). For a lot of us–myself included–the notion of that old self showing up on the doorstep seems simultaneously apocolyptic and inevitable. White notes that the women she interviewed “sometimes […] talked as if the past was more real to them than the present, and they were sure that if they did not watch their backs the past would overtake them. They would be arrested by their old reputation, stopped in their tracks, and extradited across the boundary of time” (185).
I have spent a lot of time terrified of this exact phenomenon, terrified of not escaping the memory that will cause the ground below me to crumble, the memory that will send me tumbling back into a life I’d prefer to forget was mine . This past year has been (the beginning of) a long process of trying to make amends with that past, to accept that it was what it was and that it hasn’t gone anywhere. On the one hand, I feel like whole years of my life happened to someone else, like I need to build a bridge back in time if I am ever going to recognize that That Girl and Me-Now are the same. On the other, I feel like I can’t possibly escape who that was, like no matter how hard I try, those bruises and breaks will follow me.
And maybe they will. But increasingly, when I see my younger self as someone who cannot be me, I feel unprecedented compassion toward her. I know that girl is not really the threat I’ve worried she is; that although trauma has trained me to fear her power, fear that I might magically be swept back into her world, she is harmless. As her, I hurt, but I do not dissolve into the pain. I’m undone only temporarily, only for small moments, and the undoing is less drastic than it once was. Now, I find myself crying for her, still crying tears that are ten years old or more, crying and telling her I’m sorry—but it’s the sorry of compassion, rather than the sorry of guilt. Because, finally, with the power of being these years’ older and wiser and more removed, I recognize how very young she was. With the power of being these many more years’ healed, I recognize how much more she really did deserve.
People still respond to what I’ve done for Sofia as if it’s extraordinary, and I still say–over and over again–that I do it out of the awareness that we all deserve to have someone fighting for us. I also do it selfishly, to heal my own memories of being in her shoes. And I do it because I am so, so sorry — for myself, for Sofia, and for everyone else who must fight this kind of pain — that in the end we are so alone, even together. There are people I credit with saving my life, people whose impact made the difference. But when I look back, sob and ache in retrospect, I do so for the me who deserved to have someone there 24-7 and never, ever did. — Except of course, for herself. For me.
I am the only person who can support me with 100% consistency, and the only person who really did trudge through every moment at my side. For most of my life, I have seemed like small comfort, like a lacking consolation prize. But I’m grateful now, to know someone was there. Maybe not who I wanted, maybe not someone I could always see, but someone I am increasingly grateful to know.
In recovery—and the pop psychology/ self-help culture that informs it—the past carries a lot of weight. It’s the location of the injury that explains the current crazy or it’s the dark day with the ability to steal the thunder of your present and your future. We’re told to reach back and love our inner child, and/ or to focus on today and stay excited for tomorrow. The past is the trauma that explains our present state of shittiness or the past is the shittiness that will keep us from realizing our potential. Either way, the past is dark. So quickly now, pass go, collect $200, and catch the next bus out of dodge.
I am not a huge believer in a lot of pop psychology. Or at least, I haven’t been since around the time I made this sound collage. What’s more, while I totally see the value in remembering to stay in the present and to have hopes for tomorrow, I also don’t really buy that the past is escapable. In fact, I don’t really buy that the past is separate from the present. It’s frightening to know that my past and I are inseparable, as scared as I’ve been of it for so long. But it’s also freeing. It means the past has already caught up with me—has never, in fact, fallen behind–and the world has not come to an end. It means that I’m here, in the past, present, and future to look after what needs looking after.
As it turns out, it’s not my past that’s haunted me. It’s the meanings I’ve made of it, the narratives that do not serve. And as I risk recognizing, bit by bit, to who I was/am and what I felt/ feel–I discover that those stories can change. I may have to carry the wounds forever, but I can understand them differently. And I have someone now — I am someone now — who can help to carry them.
Like most things, I secretly believe this is best explained in terms of YA lit. Specifically: that scene in the third Harry Potter book, where Harry—lying nearly-dead at the lake’s edge, his soul draining from him—is saved by the future self he does not yet know exists. This is the experience: your future self holding your hand as you do the work that will create her. It’s the tesseract that leaves you– if not in the arms of the angel–secure by your own hands.