Do I really have permission to indulge daily in “a memory of comfort” in order to “grow my emotional tank”?
This question has dogged me since my latest counseling session on Tuesday.
Even though it’s been two years now since I started visiting a counselor monthly to work through unresolved matters in my life, I find I’m still barely scraping the surface of my many struggles, especially childhood trauma.
Why else would my counselor’s latest suggestion — to simply sit for a moment in a single memory of comfort — vex me so? Why else would his words cause me to mull over this question for the past four days?
And very likely, many more?!
How did this latest epiphany happen?
If I’m to point a finger at a potential “culprit”, then it must be last Saturday’s writing session.
In April, I started attending a weekly synchronous online memoir writing course. Last Saturday was the course’s midpoint, with another four sessions left to go.
Each week, I submit an essay of between 500 and 750 words to be critiqued by a writing coach. It’s a great opportunity for me to share parts of my book-length memoir draft to be dissected and polished by a trained eye. And the part I submitted for comments last Saturday was one of the most deeply personal chapters in my memoir.
In that chapter, I spoke about a vivid childhood incident. I was mercilessly horse-whipped by my hard-fisted father for failing to complete a task he gave me. Then, I was just 8 years old. Had it happened in this day and age, instead of back in the 1970s, my dad could have been arrested for what he did to me.
When I wrote that piece three years ago it was raw, like the open welts I sustained under my father’s merciless hands. Yet when I rewrote it again for last Saturday, it felt like I was not only writing it for the first time, I was also reliving that moment for the first time.
Surely that can’t be?! Surely I’ve overcome that memory by now and moved on, no?
The body keeps the score
In his ground-breaking book, The Body Keeps The Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, Dutch psychiatrist, researcher, and world-renown trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk points out that our memories of adverse or traumatic experiences do not only reside within the deep recesses of our minds.
Our bodies actually have far longer and faster recalls.
Dr. van der Kolk should know. He spent years working with US war veterans who struggled to return post-war to their loved ones, and their old ways of life. They lived through unspeakable horrors, like WWII and the Vietnam War, and were deeply traumatized. Many of these veterans lost sleep, tempers, and their hold on reality. They often displayed physical violence without any apparent good reason, leaving family members in terror and despair.
Many of these former commandos and Navy Seals were also suicidal.
My childhood trauma was real too
Now I won’t dare compare my childhood trauma to the horrendous experiences endured by these patients Dr van der Kolk spoke of in the book.
However, I’m convinced I cannot underestimate what growing up with an abusive father did to me. My adverse childhood experiences damaged my ability to handle my thoughts and emotions well when adversely triggered by stress and daily anxieties.
These daily triggers often cause me to respond in sudden, visceral ways I’m unable to control. Ways like a swift surge of anger at something as mundane as accidentally dropping a set of keys. Or a clenching of the body for fight or flight when someone makes a rude comment oft-hand.
According to trauma experts like Dr van der Kolk and Aundi Kobler, these physical reactions reveal the clear “elephant memory” our bodies have, compared to our often forgetful minds that remember the past poorly.
That would explain why last Saturday when my coach read aloud my work, I suddenly broke down and wept when he paused momentarily (while editing my chapter) to offer his sympathy for the traumatic childhood experience I had.
“Stay in that memory of comfort”
When I shared that moment with my counselor (let’s call him T) at our monthly session on Tuesday, the following conversation ensued.
T: Tell me, did you break down because you felt relieved that your writing coach showed sympathy?
Me: Yes I did. Like a burden lifted. Cos someone understood what happened to me was wrong.
T: So what happened next?
Me: I immediately felt silly for crying, and tried to quelch my feelings. It seemed ridiculous after all this time to still cry over something that happened a million years ago.
T: Why? What’s wrong with crying and sitting in that moment of comfort your coach offered?
Me: Isn’t it self-indulgent?
T: Well, if holding on to a moment of comfort will grow your mental and emotional capacity to handle life’s challenges, then indulge away!
Indulging daily in “a memory of comfort”
And there I have it. A legitimate, counselor-sanctioned right to daily sit in “a memory of comfort” and indulge!
For far too long, I’ve never believed I deserved that. It always felt like a self-centered moment of navel-gazing.
Now it seems, instead, if I’m to eventually nip my childhood trauma in the bud, I must first indulge in a memory of comfort. To — in T’s words — help my “emotional tank” grow larger in its capacity to weather the vicissitudes of life. To absorb unpleasantries without letting them consume me.
As a parting shot before our hour-long session ended, T shared a helpful analogy to bring home his point.
T: If we mix a spoonful of salt into a cup of water, it would absorb the salt and the water would instantly taste salty. But if we dip a spoonful of salt into a swimming pool, the water would still absorb the salt, but it wouldn’t taste any different.
So if I wanted to “grow my cup into a pool”, I had to follow T’s advice to daily sit in “a memory of comfort”.
And a good memory to start with might just be reliving again that moment last Saturday when my coach stopped and said:
I’m so sorry for what happened to you.