I experienced an intense heartbreak many years ago, one that I kept revisiting immediately afterward. I revisited not just the memory of it, but every iota of pain that went along with what happened. I couldn’t stop the memory from entering my dreams, my waking thoughts, or my interactions with others.
My life – everything I was – revolved around that one searing instance of loss.
Then, within the sphere of that heartbreak, a television program premiered. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I’ve always been a science fiction fan, Star Trek in particular, and I’d been looking forward to this program since long before the trauma. It was the pilot, and I thought it’d take my mind off things.
In the episode, Benjamin Sisko, the main character, had to leave his dead wife pinned under rubble after a devastating attack in space. Their ship was in danger of imminent explosion and he was forced to flee to an escape pod with his unconscious child.
The character was immediately a tortured hero. My tortured hero. My burnt heart identified with that.
During the course of the episode he re-lived those wrenching moments over and over, literally, as a result of encountering beings who existed outside of linear time and wanted to understand how humans coped with a limited, linear consciousness.
At one point, in utter anguish, he cried out, “What is the point of bringing me back to this?!” To which one of the beings responded, “We do not bring you here. You bring us here. You exist here.”
Sisko: [seeing the image of his dead wife]I don’t know if you can understand. I see her like this, every time I close my eyes. In the darkness, in the blink of an eye, I see her… like this.
Alien: None of your past experiences helped prepare you for this consequence.
Sisko: And I have never figured out how to live without her.
Alien: So, you choose to exist here.
Alien: It is not linear.
Sisko: [crying]No. It’s not linear. [and he finally starts to grieve properly]
Months had gone by since my breakup, nearly a year. And yet that scene hit as though someone had written it for me alone. I’d spent months wondering why I kept being ceaselessly tortured by memory.
The answer was right there: I chose to exist there.
Time and time again, I re-lived my breakup in perfect detail. I wasn’t learning anything from it or attempting to move on from the experience, I was merely existing with my pain. “You bring us here.” Those four words instantly opened a control mechanism in me I didn’t know I had. Ending the pain became a matter of personal agency: if I could bring myself there, I could also stop.
Learning to let go of the past and move forward in spite of the pain you might have suffered requires various steps…
Delete The Past
The function of memory is to protect us. If all we’re doing is re-living the past and poking at old wounds, we’re not learning from those memories, we’re making sure we stay locked in a loop.
If a memory serves no immediate benefit or purpose, let it go. Distract yourself in any way possible: push hard on a project you’re working on, immerse yourself in a book whenever your mind wanders, or occupy yourself with other mentally stimulating tasks. As part of its protection mechanism, the brain will begin to chemically delete the painful responses to memories we don’t actively reinforce.
This is not suppression, but, rather, a neural reassignment of resources, effectively allowing only the actions of the past – and not the attendant emotions – to pass through us upon recollection, which in turn allows us to see who we were at that time and, hopefully, prevent us from being a person in those same circumstances again.
Ben Sisko also experienced the painful memories in perfect detail. That’s something we, as real people, put ourselves through all the time, forcing our eyes to stare at painful shards until every edge is razor sharp. These focusing attempts reinforce the encoding of our emotional experiences. Sometimes it’s best that a memory, if it has to be recalled at all, be vague.
Often, we don’t want to let go of the past in order to heal our wounds because we don’t feel a future. We haven’t allowed ourselves to properly grieve or move forward. But how can anyone feel a future if their mental and emotional resources are focused on painstakingly recreating the past?
It may be clichéd, but the truth is, whether we feel it or not, there actually is always tomorrow. A future exists for each of us that doesn’t need the hurtful past in order to carry us forward.
Realizing that makes revisiting old wounds less tempting.
Allowing ourselves grace and compassion after someone has emotionally hurt us comes with considerable difficulty when it concerns our own healing. Too often we turn our pain inward in an attempt to blame ourselves for what we perceive as foolish weakness, and to shield others from true culpability, because otherwise we’re additionally shamed under the stigma of naivety.
Yet self-healing is vital to every aspect of our wellbeing. Self-compassion is the first step toward emotional healing. We can be hurt; we will be hurt. There’s no shame in that. Let the pain run its course, then let the brain and heart do their jobs reminding us how precious we are; that we’re not defined by anything that has hurt us. We have been and always will be more than pain cocooned in soft, pliable shells.
Usually, if we’re returning again and again to a painful situation, there’s something we haven’t resolved. Resolve to find what that sticking point is. Process it, and in processing it, drain it of its hold on memory.
It may not be easy to do so. The process will be painful and bumpy, but we often forget how many times we’ve come through pain. We’re made of strong stuff; we should give ourselves credit for that.
We may not have aliens assisting us in coming to our realization of strength and sense of future, but we’ve got something better and much more reliable: our selves. The moment we realize old wounds offer no insights, pain loses its power over us. The truth is, we learn who we are in how we heal, not how we were harmed.
The past is what happened. The present is you happening. As for the future, you bring yourself there.