Repressed Memories - or - The piece of Cheese that touched the plastic
Think back on some of your most favorite memories- close your eyes and try to remember everything about that moment. What do you see? What do you hear? Is there a smell or sense of touch associated with that memory? And how did it make you feel? Allow yourself to be fully immersed in one or two of those moments, I'll wait.
Now that you're in a nice cozy place mentally, let's talk about the opposite.
I won't ask you to spend any time in painful memories, but I'm pretty sure that everyone has at least one experience in life that doesn't bring up positive feelings. But- do you have any experiences that you've blocked out? Ones that you know of only through being told or through obvious gaps and missing time in your memory, where something happened but you don't actually remember the specifics? A clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. by the name of Maury Joseph explains repressed memories as being "dropped into a ‘nonconscious’ zone, a realm of the mind you don’t think about" when your brain registers something as too distressing. The concept of repressed memories is actually a bit controversial among psychological experts; there is no concrete proof that the mind can actually repress memories (I don't know how one would prove or disprove this, but being someone who loves research, I get that empirical data and research is important). There have proven to be situations where through leading questions, suggestions and memory coaching, people under hypnosis have generated completely false memories. Perhaps a better term for my forgotten 3rd grade school year would be dissociation, where a person detaches from what's happening because the brain is finding it too traumatic to process.
I can comfortably say that almost my entire school-aged years went quite well. There were a few blips here and there, but I was a popular kid and well-liked by most. I had close friends and flitted around between social groups, generally accepted by those I came into contact with (except one girl in high school that hissed at me - I mean like feral cat hissed - every time she got near me. She scared the bejesus out of me).
The thing about this hissing girl, and anyone else that didn’t like me, it stayed with me, ate at me, and kept me up at night. It was a constant source of rumination and I would lose sleep for days if someone made it clear that they didn’t like me. What bothered me most wasn’t the fact that I wasn’t liked, though, it was that I was worried that they somehow could see beyond my bubbly, outgoing, blonde-haired-blue-eyed-valley-girl exterior. I was terrified that they could see who I really was and they would decide that I really wasn’t likable. When I thought about this feeling that has stayed with me into my 40's, I had a lightning-bolt moment where I suddenly realized where this all started:
When I was in grade 3, a girl in my class had been held back from advancing to grade 4. In grade 2, I was very popular - well, as popular as grade 2 kids can be. I had a few “boyfriends” and lots of friends that I played with all the time and that wanted to hold my hand - but this girl that was held back instantly decided that she hated me. On the very first day of school, she told all of my friends they were not allowed to be my friend any more, and unbelievably (to me, anyhow), they all agreed. I suddenly found myself without a single friend, because this one girl had shown up and turned my world upside down, showing me just how fickle my friends were and that they didn’t really like me. I get that this was only grade 3 - but even in grade 3 I felt things more deeply than most, and I'm pretty sure this would be traumatic for any child in this situation.
I have almost no recollection of grade 3. If you're thinking "well, you were pretty young and wouldn't necessarily have many memories", I can tell you that I remember a lot from Grade 2 - so much so that when I heard the voice of my grade 2 teacher a couple of years ago, I instantly knew who she was. I think grade 3 was so emotionally scarring that I have blocked it out or my mind refused to retain what was happening. But I do have two very clear memories of that year, and the first will sound bizarre, but it has a point: the mean girl would get a stack of sliced cheddar cheese every day for lunch. It was still in perfect rectangular form, and was wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and she refused to eat the pieces of cheese on either end that had touched the plastic wrap. But her way of showing another child that they were her daily favorite was to bestow them with the gift of the soft, shiny "plastic cheese" for their eating enjoyment. I clearly remember this ritual that happened every day at lunch, and I can say that the response of the chosen child was nothing short of jubilation and triumph.
My second vivid memory is something I think I did often - I am sitting behind one of the imposing cement dividers in the centre court of our school, peeking out from behind it to watch the older, mean girl playing with my friends, and bossing them around. I was terrified that she’d see me and say something to me, calling me out. My name rhymes with literally nothing, but she made up things like "Chiara the chair", and "Chiara the fat Care Bear" (and I was anything BUT fat), and whenever I would get near her or she'd catch me looking at her, she'd say these things and my old friends would parrot what she was saying. If I think about these things now, it seems utterly ridiculous that this could have such an effect on me, but I still keenly feel the the sting of abandonment, of rejection, and of thinking that I would do absolutely anything to be with them and to prove I was worth being friends with.
This was my entire grade 3 experience, on repeat 5 days a week. On the first day of grade 4, I expected things to be like they were in grade 3, so at lunch time I started walking to a spot at a table far away from my old group of friends. Mean girl calls out to me: "Chiara, come sit over here". I was petrified, almost unable to make what felt like the 1000 mile journey to that table, but also feeling like I wasn't in control of my body because I really didn't want to go over there. I sat down on the far side of the table from her, not knowing what she would do next. "No, here. Come sit beside me", she said. So I did, and said nothing and didn't look at her, keeping my gaze downward, staring intently at a spot on the table. I was holding back the tears that were welling in my eyes because I just knew she was going to say something awful, or maybe even push or hit me. "Here", she says. I don't look up. Certainly she's not still talking to me. "Here, Chiara." So I lift my eyes the tiniest bit, and see her hand resting on the table with a soft, shiny piece of cheese in it. She has chosen me as the recipient of the cheese, and suddenly all is well in the world. And my friends were my friends again and I had returned from exile and I felt like the world had been lifted off my tiny newly grade 4 shoulders.
Even writing this today causes a visceral reaction in me. I get a sense of heaviness in the centre of my abdomen, I feel my shoulders and neck tightening, and I just opened my mouth to take a sip of water and realized I had been clenching my jaw for a really long time.
As I process this now, I know without a doubt that this girl had other stuff going on in her life, something that made her think that she needed to behave that way. Whatever that was wouldn't have been a positive experience for her. No child truly wants to be mean, or unkind; They are learned or reactionary behaviours. I have forgiven her and as our lives went forward beyond elementary school we formed different friendships and forged different paths.
So I forgave her in a cheese instant, but it took me a long time to forgive myself. I looked back at myself, hiding behind the cement pillar, and thought "How could you let someone treat you that way? Weren't you stronger than that? Weren't you smarter than that? How dare you let yourself be so vulnerable".
But that Chiara, that little girl, she did the best she could with what she knew. I had to forgive myself for something that really didn't require any forgiveness at all, because I was being entirely too hard on the grade 3 me. And then I had to let her go, because I don't want to carry her or her baggage any more, and those experiences don't define me. I have worked hard to let go of my hatred and fear of being vulnerable, and see it as a way to fully experience all that life has to offer, and that it doesn't mean hiding or being pushed around or being made to feel like less. I choose to stop feeling sorry for myself and find my joy.
Memories are interesting concepts, largely because of how subjective they are. I guarantee that if you were to ask this "mean girl" of her memory of her repeated grade 3, she would have a very different take, as would the other kids in my friend group. Let's go back to the science behind repressed memories: Dr. Joseph Breuer (Sigmund Freud's teacher) stated that "memory is highly flawed. It’s subject to our biases, how we feel in the moment, and how we felt emotionally at the time of event.” But if we set aside the technical, physical happenings of a moment, event, or experience, isn't how it made us feel more important than the event itself? I can relate it to war movies - I don't watch them because they cause such an immense sadness in me because of the loss of life, suffering, and dehumanization, and I have nightmares for days. Some people love watching war movies for various reasons, perhaps because they're historically relevant and show bravery and human spirit. Same physical movie, different response. Is any response more or less valid? Don't let anyone tell you that you're not allowed to feel how you feel. As a child I would often hear "nobody can make you feel anything", but as I've learned about psychology and emotional responses, I don't agree with this. Situations are what we respond to emotionally, and that response is often immediate and inherent to our makeup, history, and current psychological state, not something we can change in that moment. We can choose two things though: how we respond outwardly, and whether we need help to alter emotional responses that may be harmful or inappropriate.
Did you have a mean plastic-cheese-gifting type person in your life? Have you forgiven them? Have you forgiven yourself? Or are you still carrying that heavy baggage?