I’m the kind of person who likes things tied up like the ending of a book. Neat. Tidy. Well explained. Like the rom-com novels I refuse to put down, I expect things in life to have a beginning, a middle, maybe a twist or turn, then a definitive end. Unfortunately, life isn’t quite as clear cut as the pages in my favourite books would have me believe, and I’m slowly trying to wrap my head around the fact that hurt, grief and heartbreak aren’t the end of your life or the ashes that a new one will spring from.
I still wake up in the small hours of the morning from the clutches of a nightmare about high school bullying. The experience, at the time, was traumatic. I was so scared to walk through the school gates that my heart raced enough to make me believe I was about to die. Burning hot shame swelled from my chest, turning my cheeks red each time I heard my name uttered as a vicious whisper in a classroom or a corridor.
I’ve had apologies from some of the parties that caused me unfathomable amounts of hurt. I’ve sat in a therapist’s office, unpicking symptoms of anxiety and matching them with feelings that stem from the bullying in a rather bleak game of snap. I’ve forgiven and let go of the hate. To feel those emotions seven years later in the middle of the night after believing I’ve processed the trauma doesn’t make sense, but it happens.
Other times, I’ll be on the bus, daydreaming happily and looking out of the smudged, dirty window. I’ll be on my way to see a friend or travelling home, listening to a funny podcast. Then I’ll remember the cutting words I had screamed at me by an ex-boyfriend from years ago. The plant pots smashing as they impacted on the ground. The fist on the roof of a car. I’m over that relationship, I’ve processed my emotions and as Taylor Swift sings, for the most part, ‘I forgot that he existed.’ So why, then, can intrusive thoughts like that hurl me back to times I don’t want to remember?
After another break up, I was in such a bad place that one of my friends considered cancelling their holiday to stay with me the week it happened. One actually flew over from Sweden to nurse me, feed me and wash my dishes. I woke up on multiple mornings to find that I’d scratched my skin in my restless sleep. I smoothed on fake tan to make myself feel better and it got caught in the canyons between my visible ribs. More therapy appointments were booked. Conversations upon conversations upon conversations were had with flatmates, colleagues and parents, running through the why’s and the what happened’s. I processed the situation. Time passed and I regained the break-up weight (and a little bit more on account of the amount of wine consumed). The scars on my limbs from unconscious scratches and scrapes are almost healed. I’m healthy, I’m happy and I feel more myself than I have done in months. So why will I be going about my day and sometimes get a sharp pain in my chest remembering words that were said?
Human brains are complex, magical things, but the intricacies of our neural pathways and nerves mean that sometimes they make us remember something that we thought had been locked in an airtight box.
The reason that these thoughts pop into my head months and years later is that regrettably, healing is not a linear process. Human brains are complex, magical things, but the intricacies of our neural pathways and nerves mean that sometimes they make us remember something that we thought had been locked in an airtight box. While neuroscience still doesn’t know exactly how our memories are stored and filtered, there is a reason for your mind dredging up sad and bad past events seemingly at random. In an article on Vice, Ming Zhou, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Physiology said of recalling past trauma:
“Evolution-wise, it’s very important to survive. If people treat you badly, you remember it for the rest of your life. It was one of the key evolutionary functions to keep us alive.”
So no, we’re not mad for shuddering when someone’s laugh sounds like our mean old school teacher’s, or when smelling a stranger’s aftershave or perfume makes us hurriedly scan the tube for our exes.
Thinking about a hurtful experience doesn’t mean that I haven’t moved on, it simply means I’m still doing a bit of processing and reflecting. As one lovely CBT counsellor taught me many moons ago, I can choose to engage with the thought or let it go. Sometimes it’s easy to move past it, sometimes it’s a bit harder than I’d like. Healing is a continuous journey, which is both frustrating and exhausting. Very rarely are days black or white, good or bad. Trauma finds a way of weaving itself around our cells and isn’t something that’s likely to be erased completely.
Healing is a continuous journey, which is both frustrating and exhausting. Very rarely are days black or white, good or bad.
There’s a reason that the books I mentioned fall into the ‘fiction’ category – they’re fantasy. Their carefully plotted storylines make for a delicious escape from normal life, but they aren’t a reflection of what my days, or yours, should look like. While that fact is incredibly annoying, realising it has made me feel a little bit better on days when I’m berating myself for going over the same sorry situation in my head again and again. While I feel like the hurt, the heartbreak and the grief I’ve endured are closed chapters, they’re bound to be referenced later in the story. It’s normal – and I’m glad I’ve started to understand that.