Let me hit you with a little theory…
We’ve all heard people talk about “owning the narrative” of your own life—controlling the story told about who we are, where we come from, how we got to the current moment, what it all means, etc.
I guess this makes sense in the abstract, but I’ve always felt weirdly burdened by this idea. Maybe it was all of the gaslighting of my childhood, but I couldn’t seem to figure out how to own my story if the main characters in that story didn’t believe me, or if they wouldn’t listen in the first place.
But early in 2022, something peculiar started happening to me…
I started remembering things I hadn’t thought of in years, in decades. It wasn’t ever anything earth-shattering, just little nothings.
But these little nothings felt profound, somehow. And strange.
The “first person” experience in my mind’s eye seemed weirdly unfamiliar considering these were, after all, MY first-person memories. But these nothing memories—a lab partner here, an art project there—felt like flashes from another person’s life.
So, here’s what I think happened…
I think my younger self was in really severe trauma, and didn’t have the tools to navigate her way through any of it. My childhood (and young adulthood) made so little sense to me, in real time. It’s almost like I had to use all of my energy to just keep those traumas close to the surface, so I could try to figure out what to do with them, or how to avoid more of them, or something. It all felt like such important data. Like pieces of a puzzle I’d need all of my energy to solve.
So, I think I built an entire story (an identity, really) around those white-hot trauma memories—the ones I couldn’t understand, and couldn’t process. Of course, it wasn’t on purpose. It’s more like, that’s just all there was ROOM for.
Everything new got weighed against that painful through-line, and either incorporated as part of the ongoing story, or tucked away as a fluke, irrelevant, bad data.
But. My mom died in 2018. I left BYU and officially/publicly sloughed off Mormonism in 2019. And I went no-contact with my dad in 2020.
I think it took a little while for all of that ^^ (see also: pandemic) to normalize a bit, and then…those trauma memories started going out of focus.
With the primary triggers/dangers farther in the background, my nervous system could let its guard down.
And that has made space for my brain to wander into new places.
I’ve started thinking of it sort of like an elevator in a tall building. Each year or major life event is a new level, with additional floors being added all the time. Most of the time, our entire experience with each floor is just the moment we whiz past it on our way up or down (usually during like…a panic attack. right?).
And I kind of feel like whatever we can see right in/from the elevator shaft—that’s the primary narrative, the most visible and important memories. It’s the through-line from the past to the present. And if there’s a lot of unprocessed trauma in your past, those traumatic memories are bound to make up the bulk of that through-line (dissociation, aside).
So, as my nervous system started to chill tf out, I think I started just like…getting off the elevator sometimes, walking past those front-and-center memories, and just exploring the rest of the floor.
But listen. I found things that didn’t make sense to me.
I started experiencing memories that felt true, but that didn’t fit with the through-line. I had memories of myself doing and feeling things that seemed “off brand” for the version of me that emerges in the context of the trauma-centered memories.
This “looking-out-sideways” experiment was an obsession for me all summer and fall.
It goes like this:
- First, think of an age or a big event (like changing schools, or getting a new pet, or going on a trip)
- Then, notice the particular, more-detailed memories most easily associated with that time (an interaction with a bully, a secret note from a crush, testing out your new roller blades)
- But then…try to think of other memories from that same time period, ones that aren’t as easily accessible.
What do you notice? Does the self in the first memory seem like the same self you find in the peripheral memories?
Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but for the first time, I understand that “owning the narrative” doesn’t have to mean explaining my perspective of those elevator-shaft memories…
It can mean carving out space for a rope-ladder-fireman’s-pole situation that takes me through the building using whatever route I most prefer. In fact, maybe I want to just imagine it all Swiss Family Robinson treehouse vine vibes. And in fact, I shall. 🐒
Anyway, this still feels new to me, but I’m pretty into it. And I’m discovering all sorts of interesting things.
I’d like to tell you about a few of them, but like…I think this email is getting too long. So, I’ll have to do story time next time. Ok?
If you feel like it, I’d love to know how this theory/construct/exercise hits you. Do you have other interpretations? How do you think about owning your story?
I want to hear all the things.
P.S. More coming soon re: my interior design project…
^^ Just me, looking out sideways from under a laundry basket for some reason, circa 2007.