Hell or High Water

For writers, the past is a bottomless well we return to again and again, but what do you do with those painful memories that never quite heal?

For writers, the past is bottomless well we can return to again and again, but what do you do with those painful memories that never quite heal?

“There are things that are so serious that you can only joke about them.” ― Werner Heisenberg

First off, let’s be clear. This is a story I find no pleasure in telling, but one that remains fundamental to my sense of self as it defines both who I was, who I am, and helps chart the course of that evolution. It’s not necessarily a tragic story (in fact, some people find it amusing), but as the years pass, the gravitas increases — adding extra layers of depth and emotion.

At 18 years of age, I made a series of increasingly stupid decisions that culminated in an ankle broken in three places, requiring surgery, pins, and two scars that will never completely fade. I find it surprising that what I remember most clearly about that night is the sound — a deep, bass-toned crack that thrummed through my bones. The events leading up to the injury are blurry and chaotic. The night began with a homecoming football game and thermoses full of hot chocolate spiked with rum. Then a house party with more rum, sloppy dancing, and a game of pool that resulted in more than a few bruises and an 8-ball that refused to stay on the table. Finally, the turning point — the decision to head to the local laundromat and take turns spinning around in the dryers.

After so much buildup, the actual event was subtle and, in some ways, anticlimactic: I simply stepped back awkwardly, placed one foot wrong, and snapped my bones.

Fractures and Treasure Hunts

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” ― Cormac McCarthy

Turns out I experienced what’s called a Pott’s fracture, named after English physician Percivall Pott (who was also a victim). Basically, your ankle rolls inward until the sole of your foot sits sideways. It’s not pretty and it’s not a simple fix — I started out with about five pins holding my bones in place, and three still sit nestled in my joint. They are not quiet tenants and, as I get older, increasingly let their presence be known. The twinges and the aches keep that one night firmly top-of-mind, and I still shiver when I think of that low thrummed snap cracking low and loud on a cold, fall night.

As writers, the past represents a valuable gold mine, full of treasures we can unearth for our stories. So while most people can at least try to leave the past behind, we cannot so be so flippant with our memories. This becomes a tricky proposition when it comes to painful experiences. Reliving those moments of heartbreak and pain (both physical and emotion) can be harrowing and not necessarily lead to the healing and peace many of us need to move on.

Your past can be a beast — tame it to chart a course to a better, more creative and productive future.

The Past in High Relief

“No tree…can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell’ ― Carl Jung

Nobody enjoys being played for a fool, and yet we’ve all placed our trust in the wrong hands, left our hearts to the mercy of the merciless, and allowed ourselves to be dazzled by promises rather than practicalities. It can be very easy to blame yourself when the blinders are finally lifted and you see a situation clearly for the first time. It’s a bit like pulling back that curtain in Oz and seeing the wizard as a tiny, frail, little man.

I sometimes imagine my memory as a rocky shore guarded by a dispassionate lighthouse. As the beam flows across the landscape, the spotlight dissolves shadows and reveals ugly truths. It can be bewildering to see those familiar nooks and crannies of your past thrown up in high relief, with every imperfection revealed. Suddenly, you’ve lost your touchstone and your sense of self —who are you if your past is different than you remember…if the pain you ignore and deny suddenly flashes up bright and clear and glaring. Without a map, how do you navigate your way back to the real you?

The short answer? You don’t.

Let Yourself Down Easy

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it makes way for a better future. — Paul Boese

Each new epiphany, each instance of deeper understanding, each question suddenly answered, alters you. Just like you can never return to the guileless, relatively carefree (depending on your personal experience) ease of childhood, you can never return to the “you” that existed before a particularly traumatic event. We are all Frankensteins — a sum of parts, connected with sloppy sutures and trying every day to become a little bit more human.

In a recent episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, one character wonders if anyone can truly be forgiven for their past actions. He’s told that, in truth, people don’t ever really forgive because, essentially, what’s done is done and the past can’t be changed.

“After all, you did do those things, there’s no changing that,” explains his friend.

What do you do with forgiveness? And what if you are the one carrying the blame? When bad things happen, many of us try to find the pattern so that we can understand where things went wrong and how to protect ourselves in the future. It can be easy to view all the evidence – all the bad choices, the missed red flags, turning left when right was the safer option — and conclude that you are the guilty party. After all, in the end, we are all responsible for our own lives.

I once exited a toxic friendship that had managed to survive many ups-and-downs but was beginning to creak and crack under the weight of recriminations, unrealized expectations, and impenetrable resentment. I felt as if I was stuck in quicksand and no matter what move I made, I only sank deeper. In one final attempt to save the relationship, I offered up a get-out-of-jail-free card. I suggested we ditch the past, start fresh, and see if we couldn’t create a better, happier friendship.

The offer was declined. “I can’t ever forget, because it happened,” she cried. “I don’t feel like you have suffered enough, and I can’t let it go.”

And so, I let two decades of camaraderie slip off my shoulders and sink into oblivion. It was a relief to release the burden, but I never really shook off the sense of failure: why couldn’t chart a course that would have allowed us to escape our past?

Ashes and Shadows

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner

Recently I found myself on the receiving end of a breathtaking betrayal and began to understand what it feels like to feel as if someone hasn’t suffered enough. It is not a comfortable feeling (and one I hope to ditch soon). Nevertheless, I can see that I will need to face every emotion head on — it may be the only way to tame that beast and find some respite.

With this recent emotional catastrophe, my trusty old lighthouse didn’t just cast a casual beam into an unexplored area of my life. The spotlight was more like a nuclear bomb — a flash of blinding, radioactive revelation that turned everything it touched to ash. It’s been disorienting, as up turns to down, black to white, and all my assumptions crumble. As I wake up each morning to this new, confusing landscape, I find myself encountering new challenges and heading off in unanticipated directions. On the one hand, it feels exhilarating to see all those road signs disappear — without the boundaries of that relationship, I can wander wherever, whenever I want.

If only that long, cold shadow of hurt and anger would just stop casting a pall on everything around me, I could maybe find a way to enjoy this next evolution. After all, as a couple of wise friends keep reminding me, “Nothing bad happens to a writer. Everything is material.” With such a rich new resource to tap, I need to find the courage (and the protective gear) to start excavating this new goldmine.

As writers, we must be willing to strap on those headlamps and dive in, because those treasures from our past will enrich all of our creative pursuits. I’m starting to feel ready to begin. After all, the option to stay in place is no longer viable. When it comes to heartbreak, I believe Winston Churchill’s advice holds true, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

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