Unlocking Memories

Unlocking the Past: Healing Through Memories and Trauma Recovery

My earliest years I don’t remember. And there are far more people than I expected that do have at least a couple of memories of the first few years of their lives; I have nothing. When I was seven, maybe eight years old, I'm aware that I sat in a small tree outside my house in the base housing neighborhood at Mather Air Force Base outside of Sacramento, California. I know that I sat in the tree looking at my shadow cast on the ground below, and thinking of it in the same way as one might when getting lost in the reverie of the clouds: I see a young boy sitting in a tree, I see a Leopard, I see a lifetime of lost memories. I’m aware that I used to drag sets of Japanese futons that we brought back with us from living abroad, out into the driveway of the same house with the small tree in front of it, and then I would climb up to the roof, and then jump or fall off onto the futons below. I’m also aware that there was a punching bag hanging in the garage of the same house, that witnessed only the occasional efforts of a young boy who knew as much as to throw his arms haphazardly at the blue Everlast bag. I’m aware of these things, but I don’t really remember them. What I remember are my thoughts, and they act as subliminal messages flashing behind my eyes that are triggered by similar feelings, smells, and reflections, and I am able to piece visuals together through the context of my thoughts.

            I often wonder why I don’t remember much of my childhood before I was eleven. The earliest strings of memory that unfold sequentially in time, in my mind begin when I was eleven, when I was in the fifth grade. We all suffer some degree of trauma during our infancy and adolescence, and because it is actually so common, I feel like the connotation that the word trauma carries with it, especially today, is too affecting or triggering (depending, of course, on the circumstances). Our childhoods, for all of us, will, on the other hand, render “upheavals,” that follow and shadow us throughout our lifetimes, and that constitute a “jumping in point” for the emotional and spiritual work that we’ll do as adults; that will give direction to the development and the growth that all of us should be efforting. Not every child that is expected to be independent at too young of an age develops telekinesis in order to cope, like Matilda, although, like Matilda, we do age with the subconscious belief that we need to figure things out on our own, rather than that we can. I have almost always recognized the need to grow through work, emotional work, and passionate work. At a fairly young age, I recognized that work carries meaning, and I will go as far as to insinuate that the work that we do is actually the meaning—and I’ve come to understand an even greater truth and depth to that notion. I’ve been working to unravel where many of my less admired characteristics have come from and how I reinforced and developed those traits over the years. Recounting memories has been difficult, it’s been less difficult, although still challenging, recounting and exploring my thoughts and my feelings. The memories I do have, until much later in life, feel like they happened to a different person, because I am nothing at all like the person I was even in my mid-twenties, and I am radically different from the person I was before my teen years.

 

My dad was in the military, and because of that my family moved fairly often. I was born outside of Sacramento, California, on an air force base, and within six months we had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas; I remember nothing about living in Arkansas, but I know that it was there that I took my first steps. My family moved from Arkansas to Charlotte, North Carolina; and I remember nothing about living in North Carolina, but I know that it was there that I was nearly caught in and snuffed out in an all-consuming house fire. My family moved from North Carolina to Fussa, Tokyo, Japan; and I remember nothing about living in Japan, but I know that it was there that my sister was born. And we have more home movies of our time in Japan than anywhere else. My family moved from Fussa, Tokyo, Japan back to the air force base outside of Sacramento, California.

Almost every summer consecutively for three years, since my family moved back to California, after having lived overseas for five years, I managed to break a bone in my arm. It started with my right wrist, followed the next summer by my left wrist, and then a couple of summers later, I not only broke my right arm, in multiple places, I also managed to dislocate my elbow. In those days, and this was a time well before streaming services, social media, and iPhones, we lived for being outdoors: for riding bikes, sitting on curbs, climbing trees, digging holes to China (I don’t know, back then it was always “to China), playing in sprinklers, and basically disappearing for the entire day, and our parents would have little to no idea where we were until it was time to eat dinner. When you begin your summer breaking a bone and wearing a cast—knowing that I would be wearing it for most of that summer—it’s real bummer, man; it almost ruins the entire summer.

My family enjoys watching home movies, in part I think because we’re not all often together, and watching old home videos creates an air of cohesion. Some of our favorites include a few videos that were taken throughout the holidays, my sister and I would build things using our gifts, like a throne and forts; I don’t know that my sister actually enjoyed that work, but she did it because I seemed to enjoy it. I watched myself show a lot of interest in my sisters’ gifts, and sometimes more than my own. And although I don’t actually remember, I do know that it was never because she was getting what she was getting, and I wasn’t. But rather it was because I wanted my sister to be happy with whatever it was that she got. I believed or hoped that if I showed an interest in her gifts, then my interest would make her appreciate her gifts more.

The first summer that I broke my arm, we were still in California. I have tried to remember the layout of our house, but I can’t—I can’t remember the layout of any home we lived in before we moved into the home my parents still live in today. I think the kitchen was in the rear of the house in California, and that there were a lot of windows facing the backyard, and I think what we called “the backyard,” was actually a shared park that several families referred to as their “backyard.” I think there was a glass sliding door from the kitchen to the park at the back of the house, but I don’t know. None of that is relevant to the story, it’s just a fun memory experiment. There was something in a kitchen cabinet that my sister and I desperately wanted, but we weren’t supposed to have—I’m speculating. Regardless, I found myself standing on the kitchen counter (that’s a testament to how old I must have been), to find myself standing on the kitchen counter in order to reach something from a cabinet—doing all the dirty work—and my sister was standing on the floor, behind me. And I managed, somehow, to trip over my sisters’ head, and I fell backward to the kitchen floor. That was a frantic, hurried trip to the emergency room, but it would be one of many, eventually, I’m sure, we would start stopping for take-out on the way.

After moving back to California, I was old enough now to have started school, and I was in the first grade; I would ride my bike to school pretty much every day. I’m aware that one afternoon, after school had ended, I walked to the bike rack where I would leave my bike, and my bike wasn’t there—in fact, all the bikes were gone. I remember thinking—I remember the thought and have since built the context around it, as is the case with all of these stories—that the school must have moved the bikes for some reason, and so I started walking home. There are a few things about growing up, and going to school on military bases, that are different than in most places, and that you would never consider until your experience changed. 1.) the diversity on the base, and in the classroom, it’s remarkable, albeit sensical how much more diverse life on base is, and 2.) that $hit just doesn’t get stolen, such as a bike. It never occurred to me that my bike was stolen, I genuinely figured that it would either be where I left it in the morning, or that after visiting the office tomorrow, it would be returned to me unharmed. On my way home, I happened to see my blue Huffy leaning on the side of someone’s house, and so I grabbed it, and I rode it home. And that was that. I don’t remember the experience per se, but I am aware of it.

The following summer, when I broke my arm, was our last in California. We were moving to Texas, and when I say we were moving to Texas, I mean that the green semi—[moving]—truck was right outside our house and was being loaded in real time. I was in the park in the backyard, and I was climbing a tree, as we did before technology ruined everything, and I think I slipped, but caught myself, and found myself dangling upside down from the tree, with my arms and legs wrapped desperately around a wide limb. And unable to pull myself up, although I tried, I couldn’t hold on any longer, and I slipped again, and fell twenty feet to the ground below, breaking my left wrist. I can’t remember the experience exactly; however, I am aware of it. So, we had to take a detour to the emergency room before our long drive through America’s Southwest.

My family moved from California to Abilene, Texas, and just like the rest of my life before, in Abilene I remember my thoughts and feelings that are not attributed to visual memory, and I’m left with filling in the context. We lived for a time in an apartment complex, and there are some broken and misshapen thoughts and feelings that I can’t recount. We bought a house in Abilene. Our house was in a cul-de-sac, and our neighbors had kids of varying ages, there was a man living on the corner of the cul-de-sac that kept ice cream sandwiches in his freezer, and the neighborhood kids would all go over in the summers and make off with his ice cream. I started second grade at Allie Ward Elementary School, and there we had to sit single file in line on the floor in the cafeteria with our classes before school every day, and I know that I liked it, because we never had an alternative, and we were allowed to talk to one another. We rented our house in Abilene to a young couple, and we moved to the edge of downtown Boerne, Texas, off of Roeder Street. There were a number of kids on the block that were both my age and a little older, and we played street hockey, basketball, and baseball, and we even started a garage band. When we played in the street we would yell, “Car!” when it meant we needed to haul everything off the street, and stand on the side of the road, while a car passed. I know that I played with Pogs on the street, and while sitting on the curb—I spent a lot of time sitting on curbs next to streets in those days—I didn’t like playing Pogs, but I did enjoy collecting them. I also collected basketball cards.

My third, and most drastic break skipped a year, maybe two: we moved to Boerne so that we could help care for my grandmother who was suffering from ALS. A year or so after moving to Boerne, my family moved in with my grandparents, my grandmother and grandfather moved into the guest house while my family lived in the “big” house. Eventually, my grandmother had to move to a facility where she could get around the clock professional care, and my grandfather lived alone in the guest house. That summer, I was playing in the yard—we had six acres, and differentiating between the front and back yards was rather subjective—there’s a wire fence that surrounds the property, and for some reason I was climbing that wire fence, and wearing a pair of plastic sandals while I did it, the sole and pads of the shoes were beginning to separate, and I managed to get one of the thick metal wires wedged in the flap in between.

These upheavals that shadow us throughout our lives are results of unconscious dynamics that we occur when we interact with people, mostly our parents, at a very young age. Those of us that think better through movement or feel and express things with greater emotion are shut down and are told to stop moving or being so sensitive (maybe not in those words exactly), and as a child we couldn’t possibly understand the reason for that, as it might have been intended; and into adulthood, making the connection between being limited in our adolescence and how it affects us later in life, is a very difficult one to make. Most people don’t give the nuances of their childhood a second thought. Even something as simple as being exposed to regular adult conversations, as a child can warp our grasp of adult concepts later in life. I do sometimes wonder, if I was able to summon, and to reconcile my thoughts and actions as a child would that help me to understand myself better now? On one hand, our immediate thought might be, well, of course, but in reality, It shouldn’t make a difference, because we’re doing the work, and yet I have a few deeply rooted behaviors that have been considerably more difficult to resolve than most, and I don’t know why. But I want to.

Still on the wire fence, I started to yank my foot backward to get it loose. I was unprepared, and when it finally did come loose, I fell down and forward, very hard, and hit the ground with my elbow. After collecting myself I walked inside our house, someone looked at my arm, and noticed that my elbow was not at all where it should have been, and so we made that all too familiar trip to the emergency room again. I learned that I had broken my bone in several places and dislocated my elbow. The doctors performed minor surgery. I was put under, and they stuck a wooden skewer into my arm and popped my elbow back into place. I woke up several hours later none the wiser. And I was forced to wear a pretty gnarly cast for a very long time. I still have trouble with the motion in my right arm. The hole where the skewer went is still noticeable, to me.

Do you ever wonder if a memory isn’t your own? I don’t mean, like, you were cloned or programmed with another person’s memories, but rather how much of our memories are pieced together with context—our own context, or our subconscious brain’s context—and the way that we remember a thing happening, and how it might have actually happened, are dramatically different. You mean like, when we get wasted, and everything’s all blurry, f$&ked up, and awesome!? No, actually, that’s not what I mean. I mean memories that have a solid foundation in the development of our character. The way that we remember a particular happenstance, and how an integral part of who we have become might have been established solely by how we remember a particular event, but not necessarily how the event may have actually happened.

As a young adult, I catalogued my memories as everything up to fifth grade, and then everything after. I have since rearranged the “everything after” collection quite a bit, but everything before remains mostly the same. Most of my memories before fifth grade are of me watching myself living my life. My mother had the wherewithal to go everywhere with a video recorder, a heavy camcorder planted on her shoulder. And because of that, I know that with platinum hair hanging over my eyes, I ran around outside endlessly, it may as well have been in circles, with a chain around my neck, attached to a wire staunch between two trees, because I was insane. I have never been able to make out what the hell I was talking about in those recordings, and the way that I imagine myself thinking, and the way that I see myself behaving do not correlate at all. That’s a strange thing to reunite.

So much of what we go through in our childhood are very basic chains of circumstances that can easily be overlooked when parenting, and yet each can have a serious effect on our understanding of the world as we age. Memory can be a strange thing when it comes to how even the slightest consternation is when we’re young, and how that might stunt or redirect our growth, the way we develop and why, even before adulthood, well before the jumping off point, becomes too clear to us, develops un-, and subconsciously. How we remember a thing might have more of an impact on our development than the thing that actually happened, because the memory of the event, and the story that we tell ourselves about the event, can be hugely different. I have wanted so badly to articulate things that I was never able to, I struggled desperately to voice, coherently, the things that I thought and felt, and it surprised me when I couldn’t. In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m still trying desperately to articulate something that I can’t, or at least, that I am expressing myself differently than I believe I am, and somehow my intentions are still getting lost in translation. 

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