Caregiver's Pesky Memories

We all have memories we try to suppress

It would be the first time back to New York City since I visited my daughter five days after 9/11. While excited about the trip, I wondered which of the emotions I experienced during that terrible week would return. A chronic sleep disorder dulled or wiped out many significant memories. I was hoping 9/11 would be one of them.

Futility of Suppressing Memories

As my wife and I came to the twin pools commemorating the people who died on that day, horrible images along with the grief I experienced gushed into my consciousness as if they were moving through a thin layer of cheesecloth.

The memories I thought I was able to suppress indefinitely made it clear they had “a mind of their own.”

Although the subway walls were spotless, I saw the thousands of “missing” posters, hastily placed on walls when loved ones who worked in the Twin Towers didn’t return home. Instead of smelling the crisp air of a New York Autumn morning, I smelled the nauseating odor of building dust and human remains.

Memories of a Pre-Caregiving Life

In caring for your loved one, you’ve probably thought back to what your life was like before you became a caregiver—before he contracted an illness that changed both or your lives. The reaction of many people to painful memories is to suppress them.

Just as I couldn’t currently suppress what I felt fifteen years ago, you may be upset by memories of what life was like before the onset of your loved one’s chronic or progressive illness. Because of our neurology, positive and negative memories are stored in a way that allows them to be easily retrieved—regardless of our wishes.

How Memories are Stored

The retrieval of memories is made easier, by the way the experience is stored. Without getting too technical, the current theory is most of our experiences are stored chemically by modalities, then combined during the retrieval process.

We can experience an event through sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

The more of these modalities that are used, the easier it will be to retrieve the memory.

When a specific stimulus is present, as it was for me in New York City (e.g., subway wall) the complete memory was triggered. In my mind I heard subway musicians tearfully playing their instruments. Felt the balmy temperature. Saw the hovering cloud covering parts of an incredibly silent Manhattan. Experienced the graciousness of its people, and smelled the odor. And it all came from seeing one clean subway wall.

Think about the memories you have of your pre-caregiving life. When did they occur? Most likely, they weren’t spontaneous but rather triggered by something specific. For one of my clients, whenever she walked through the park and saw the tree under which she and her husband would picnic, an overwhelming sense of loss returned.  

What to Do About Pesky Memories

You can approach painful memories in one of two ways. You can suppress them as long as possible, hoping they don’t surface at inconvenient times, or bring them closer and learn from the pain they create.

Even if suppression can work indefinitely, it takes a great mental effort. Sometimes trying not to feel something may take more out of you than allowing it to surface. An alternative approach is to welcome the memory. The Tibetans have a saying, Bring closer to you those things that are painful in order to get over them. Some people believe the suggestion is counter-intuitive; that purposefully remembering painful events does little other than increasing the pain. I found the opposite. Allowing the memories to surface not only reduces their power, but also can provide an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.

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