Memory. It’s a tricky thing. I’m not talking so much about our short-term memories: where are my keys? what did I come in this room for? I’m referring to long-term recollections, those shape-shifting phantoms that cannot be validated. When I get together with my sisters, we will inevitably discuss an event from our past, each of us spackling in what we remember until a revised sketch emerges. Our memories of these episodes are often incompatible, which should no longer surprise us, but does. At last, reluctantly, we allow these collaborative versions, figuring the truth is in there somewhere.
In the beginning of her book CAT’S EYE, Margaret Atwood compares time to “…a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of the other. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that…” What a perfect description of memory: a still, fecund pond with murky green water. In near constant succession, images float into view, displacing those around them before sinking back down. Because none of us sees the world the same way, my pictures do not look like your pictures, and what is real for me is not real for you. Each one of us is walking around with a cache of fluid memories from which we derive our identity. Who we are is what we remember.
It’s a flimsy arrangement for sure, and little wonder so many of us flock to therapy, desperate for clues to ourselves. The blurred, random images that represent our lives are not sufficient; we want verification, confirmation, something more solid to stand on than the squishy bottom of a pond. Surely a trained professional knows more about us than we know, can tell us what is wrong with our pictures and lead us out of the mire.
I recently watched a video about the fragility of our minds and how easily our memories can be corrupted, either by natural causes, like stress and aging, or by the intervention of others, specifically therapists. In some cases, I can see the value of dislodging troubling memories; indeed we probably all have painful memories we wish we could break free of. Good therapists are born healers, and I have talked to several people who are endlessly grateful for the treatment they received. Other folks have told me that therapy did not help them at all, and some even regret their sessions, claiming that therapy only made them feel worse. One woman told me she felt lost afterward, unrecognizable to others and a stranger to herself.
Our ability to remember is what enables us to learn: we need our memories to keep us alive and comforted, and to remind us where we are in this world. There are many therapists out there. The best ones, aware of their extraordinary responsibility, proceed with caution and compassion.