“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us…”

About three months ago, I wrote a story—a short story—about a childhood episode (“the Nikki incident”, I sometimes call it) that ended up having enormous influence on my life. Emerging from a period in which I got divorced, moved into a place of my own for the first time in a decade, and began re-thinking just about everything, it seemed to be the right time to confront—and dispose of—this difficult memory and what I had allowed it to do to me.

However, as the movie Magnolia puts it, “we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

About three weeks ago, I had a huge panic attack while driving home from my weekly swim. It was bad enough that none of my usual strategies for dealing with them worked; I had to resort to calling 9-1-1, and spent the afternoon in the ER. Although I have a history of panic attacks going back to 1989, it had been several years since I’d experienced one that was bad enough to send me to the hospital.

In fact, the only other time that I’ve had a panic attack end in an ambulance ride to the hospital was in 1992. On that occasion, not realizing what was really happening (I thought I was having a heart attack), I hyperventilated myself into a state of near incapacitation—muscles cramping, mouth nearly shut, and a horrible tingling sensation all over. So, this time, when I began to feel that telltale tingling sensation in my arms and face, I didn’t just know what was happening—I also flashed back to that horrible June morning 21 years ago.

Even though I had been experiencing some anxiety during the previous few weeks (which I’d managed to get under control), after well over a decade of no serious panic attacks (just a few close calls), I wasn’t expecting anything like this. It shook me up—I’ve found myself resorting to coping strategies I haven’t had to use since the late ’90s, and I’m back on the antidepressant I’d been able to stop taking about three years ago. And the anxiety has lingered.

*  *  *  *  *

During the last three weeks, I’ve gone to hypnotherapy and craniosacral therapy, and my conversations with my business coach have come to resemble therapy sessions. All of these have helped me to regain some perspective, and even relax a little.

They have also pointed my attention back to the Nikki incident. It would seem that simply telling the story—even though I was able to find humor in it for the first time—was only the beginning.

In talking about it over the last few days, I’ve come to understand a few things that hadn’t occurred to me before.

First, my memories and impressions of the incident have long since obscured my memory of Nikki herself. When I review the scene in my mind, I no longer see Nikki, just an outline. Except for a nerve-wracking couple of weeks when she somehow ended up in my sixth-grade class (I took a bit of creative license in my original story by leaving this detail out), I never saw her again after third grade. (A good thing, because my memory of the sixth-grade Nikki is that she was kind of obnoxious.) I don’t even remember her last name.

Second, because I’ve had no encounters of any sort—not even accidental—with Nikki since then, the only thing that’s been keeping the memory and its influence on me alive has been…me.

Third, my expectations of what I’d hoped to achieve by offering her my gift, and my reactions to what actually happened were the product of an eight-year-old mind. I simply did not have the maturity and experience to be able to analyze what happened beyond a very narrow scope.

Finally, because of that limited perspective, I took the rejection of my offering as a rejection of me. I let it redefine my view of myself—to the point where I began to see mostly my flaws and my shortcomings, only rarely recognizing my good qualities. Needless to say, this has had enormous implications. Career, relationships, my confidence and sense of self-worth—even my ability to simply ask for what I need—have all suffered along the way.

Even worse, at the same time I looked to others for validation and approval, I rarely trusted anything positive that people would have to say about me. I assumed they were just being nice, didn’t know what they were talking about, or were saying those things out of obligation. Also, for the longest time, I found it nearly impossible to take a compliment; even now, I still have to remind myself to simply say “thank you” without adding disclaimers. On the rare occasions that I was able to accept that any of the nice things that people were saying to or about me were true, I felt a greater sense of shame that I had these all these great qualities but still couldn’t seem to do anything with them.

*  *  *  *  *

Clearly, I still have work to do.

A huge chunk of the past twelve months has been devoted to doing some of this work; the recent re-emergence of anxiety has provided the impetus to redouble my efforts.

One thing I know I can do right now is to acknowledge some of the positive qualities I do recognize in myself:

  • I treat other people with respect—that includes accepting them for who they are.
  • I am kind, generous, compassionate, and helpful.
  • I have integrity.
  • I pay attention to detail.
  • I have a good sense of humor.
  • I can be counted on to show up on time.
  • When I apologize for something, I avoid trying to justify having done or said the thing for which I am apologizing.
  • I am able to see more than one side of a situation.
  • I am versatile, talented in several different areas: among them writing, editing, photography, and graphic design.
  • I have an excellent grasp of the English language.
  • As much as I like to be right, I am willing to admit when I am wrong.
  • I believe in fairness.
  • I am patient.
  • I am independent in thought and behavior—i.e., I don’t subscribe to particular views just because everyone else does, or do things simply because everybody else is doing them, too.
  • I am flexible.
  • I am loyal.

Some of the other stuff will take time. I remember one of my high school teachers saying that it takes ten positive impressions to overcome a single negative impression. I’ve given myself a lot of negatives to overcome.

Fortunately, I am lucky enough to know several people who either are (or have been) on similar paths in their own lives and are willing to share their stories, work with other people going through such changes, or both. If it were not for their examples and their help, I’d be in a very different place right now.

Because, “as the book says, ‘we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us…'”

(24 December 2013)