Memories: The Good, The Bad and The Manipulated

©Andreea Ilie

I dug out this picture from the 7,061 images laying dormant on my camera roll, waiting to be rediscovered as memories when their time came.

And this time, it came with an unprecedented sense of awe and wonder, as I looked at past me and wanted to be in her shoes again. This, as far as I can remember, has never happened before. 

Here I was, in a place where life felt good, and a little less scary than usual. I now look up to my own joy at the time, my confidence, excitement and ambition, to my love of life and of myself-of my body, that took me places, and of my mind, that took them in, marveled at them, learned. I look up to my own sense of comfort and ease in places that were as new to me as I was to those who were there first.

Perhaps, I look up to the determination that brought me there the most, to meet with friends when they wanted me to, and to be with them wherever their ‘there’ was. I knew that the clarity I lacked, at times, while working towards that goal would be found once it was met. I knew it wasn’t about the journey but all about the destination, so I left no room to be fooled otherwise- and in the process, I refused to take my own nos for an answer. All of it, a first. 

Here is an ensemble of positive words that I never thought of associating with my past or my memories before, and one that I’m still not entirely comfortable to put in writing and press Publish. It’s not often that I look back on my past with happiness-at most, it’s acceptance and closure that bring the most satisfaction. And that’s not the same thing. 

The past has never been a place I’d ever seriously considered  returning to, as I’m constantly pushing myself to keep moving. In the name of the progress that we glorify and chase as a status symbol- and at times mindlessly so- we work under the assumption that what we’ve left behind is there for a reason. Dwelling on the past brings you down. I know this without reading it in self-help books, and without mental health gurus having to reveal it to me in podcasts that spill secrets only I thought I had.

Digging through the muck of what once was, on your own, is deceptive. You think you’re there to understand, cleanse and heal but the process ends up negatively impacting your health, mentally and physically. You persistently poke at it and it hurts. Of course it does.

There’s insomnia to keep you awake, anxiety to keep you on cold toes, obesity to make you wish there was less of you so you can finally matter, anorexia to keep you shrinking out of mind and out of sight, and depression to make you wish you were neither here nor there- just struggling to stay afloat in a perpetual purgatory of want and loss.

Keep dwelling on the past and you’ll never leave it- atemporal and aspatial, it’s a place where all deeds are sins and nothing is cleansed, nothing is purified. There’s no grand entrance to Heaven. It’s a place that seems to be of little positive consequence to the present and so are you, if you’ve stayed there too long; unimportant, a waste of space, broken and lost. I know that rhetoric all too well.

At best, the past can be a hazy place of bittersweet lessons, and dwelling on it mostly feels like immersing ourselves in a simmering symphony of nostalgia and stagnation.  Giving it more mental space ‘than it deserves’ could distort our present and restrict our transition into the future. The journey we make into it, on occasion, is best done under guidance- with every step towards it taken along a trail of breadcrumbs, so we can remember our way back home. We write in  journals and talk to friends and therapists as we walk the tightrope there and back. Because home is supposed to be here, right now. Not there. 

And our memories, then? Stack them up in a corner, pull the blinds down, let them sink in the comfort of darkness? Pull one out when it’s time to tell ourselves a story? Here’s the normal process, the survival mechanism, our way to cope: our minds redesign memories so that we remember not how things were and felt, at the time when they occurred, but how we want to keep viewing ourselves and what we want our life story to be. The only version of our life that matters and that we are capable of bringing into being, after all, is the one we can tell ourselves first. We don’t just edit our pictures to show a version of our bodies that we’d like the world to see, we edit the contents of our minds, past and present, and believe it to be unquestionably true.

As our very own sensory storytellers, we move on with embellished recollections of bad things made worse and good things made better. Often, we turn off bad memories entirely and repress whole realities because they are too much to bear and interfere with our ability to cope with the challenges we face in our daily lives.

In the good news department, however, we can use that evolutionary feature of our psyche not just to conserve our present reality, mentally and physically, but to create better outcomes as well: if we commit ourselves to mostly recalling events as positive, we create an optimistic narrative with cheerful memories- whether having been positive or negative in the first place- that become even more upbeat over time.

With a capacity for recollection that is as flexible as it is fallible, we can hope for a better world because we could build it ourselves, if we keep looking for the right tools, within and without. Conversely,  in an effort of self-preservation, our minds can lead us to self-sabotage in an attempt to defend us from threats that we only perceive as real- and then, we are constantly in the way of achieving our own dreams and ambitions.

This comes from dwelling on negative memories, which leads us to believe that the worst is the usual outcome in any situation. Then, as all memories grow darker with time, we only come to remember what fits the narrative we have created, which is always grim, always hopeless. Our entire outlook on life, at present, naturally follows suit, and begins to erode our reality and change our circumstances for the worse.

As memory manipulators ourselves, we also respond well to psychological means of distorting reality that are at play in our environment. Our memories can be easily altered, implanted, enhanced or wiped out, and it’s usually with very little input from novel technologies or natural and synthetic substances. In fact, it only takes someone we trust and regard as an authority figure to blend forged memories with real-life events in their discourse for us to become convinced that their version of events is accurate, beyond any trace of doubt. Usually, applying social pressure in the direction you want to steer personal, social or historical narratives gets that job done even quicker, and more than we find it comfortable to admit.

As such, it may well be that I remember the thoughts and feelings I had at the time that picture was taken as being far better than they really were. I did have worries and concerns, and I did fear my usual fears, and I felt empowered by my achievements and circumstances at the time mostly in hindsight. But that taught me that the past can be a good place, too. I have made it so myself, because I once worked on creating a present that I liked and it liked me back.

Now that it’s gone, I know where to look if I ever need to find comfort and reassurance in my memories, and I know my way back from that, too. It’s not a place I can stay in, but it’s not one I’m running from either. I wish I were her, now, and I know I’ll wish it again in the future.  I know each time I’ll remember that day, it will be a better version of its previous recollection and not one of the day itself- until what I’ll make of it will not resemble what happened in the slightest.

However, it doesn’t feel like I’m reading the same chapter over and over again and creating a different plot or ending- I keep myself grounded by accepting narratives of the same events that come from the subjective realities of those also with me at the time. However differently we may remember the same thing, being open and accepting of the wide variety of truths our minds are able to generate around a single moment in time is our only hope to keep a decent degree of objectivity in both our memories and present realities.

If all else fails, this glimpse of my past is one that reminds me that I know how I want to feel, and that I can achieve that, because I did it before. The past can send glimmers of hope, if we let it. It’s not merely a place of roadblocks and self-sabotage. What we leave behind, however beautiful or challenging or both, I now know, can be good, too. There’s billions of present moments, bundled within our reach, to help us make it so- and even more time ahead that we’ll spend coloring it in and adding nuance. It’s choosing your color scheme that’s the hard part.