Anxious memories broke into consciousness when I was almost three. They stuck like glue. The article “Memories of Trauma Are Unique because of How Brains and Bodies Respond to Threat” by Jack Debieck explains how the body’s heightened reactions, especially as a child, turned threat into embodied memory. I’d learned similar lessons from Robert Bosnak’s Embodied Dream Work. Of course, I knew none of this as a girl.
I was never physically or sexually abused and no one I loved tried to hurt me, but still those traumatic memories stayed. Many of you have more difficult examples, but my first memories were about threats I didn’t understand. Most were about helplessness and the fear of death that filled my childhood home.
I remember Daddy in a big hospital bed. I was confused and alarmed as I touched the white sheets. Around that time, Mommy lay face down on a pew in a hospital chapel, sobbing into her arms. I saw rays of colored light from stained glass windows bathing the world with hope, but hope couldn’t erase the fear.
Daddy was dying, whatever that meant. Grown-ups whispered, trying to hide the truth from the hyper-alert children. Mommy collapsed on the tile bathroom floor, sobbing into her arms and hiding her face.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” This time, I cried, too.
She faked a smile. I wasn’t fooled. I remembered her helpless sobs even though Daddy lived.
I had eye surgery at five. A mask pressed against my face drowning me with saccharine ether nausea. Huge white bones fell from above, burying me in a death dream. I woke up blind, my arms tied down.
“They took out my eyes, Daddy.” My heart pounded with terror.
“Lanee, the doctors bandaged your eyes. They tied your hands so you wouldn’t tear the bandages off. You’re OK.” I believed him. I trusted him. He didn’t lie.
At 9, a burst of memories when Grandpa died. I didn’t see him dead, but grownups said he was. For nights after his funeral, Grandpa talked to me from somewhere above my bed. Sweet and reassuring, but gone. I learned that people disappear.
We moved to Michigan when I was 12 and Daddy was too sick to run his business. He had a degenerative kidney disease and had long outlived doctor’s predictions.
At 14, I tried to say goodbye to him in his white hospital bed, but I cried and ran away. No one came for me. No one said it was OK to cry. The next time I saw Daddy, he was in a coffin with a waxy face. I tried to talk to him that night the way I’d talked to Grandpa five years earlier, but there was no answer.
Memory captured more than trauma after that, but the dark threatening times of descent and helplessness were fixed in memory. I never forgot the ether dream or Daddy in a coffin. The memories were embedded in my body and heart.
After meeting Vic when I was 22, we shared each other’s stories and soothed each other’s fears until those last few years of cancer, suffering, and death in 2008. By then, I had tools to help with loss including dream exploration, Jungian psychology, teachers like Marion Woodman, and friends who understood the process of descent. Mythological stories of descent like Persephone and Daphne helped me trust the experience.
Like those early persistent childhood memories, Vic’s suffering and death became embodied and unforgettable. After his death, he lived within me as a constant but somehow bearable heartache. He visited in my dreams, bringing meaning to my fragmented life. By then, I trusted I could descend and rise again.
I’m curious about other people’s early memories. Are your first memories traumatic, affirming, or a mix? It could be that I’m a Persephone type, one who descends to the Underworld, but I think my experience is common. Fear brings bursts of waking consciousness and remains in memory. For another article about Descent, see Descending into Darkness with Persephone.
I’m giving a workshop called “Finding Wisdom in Aging and Loss” for the Jung Association of Central Ohio in Columbus on May 17-18. I’ll talk about personal experiences of descent, but focus on examples from ancient mythological stories. Follow the link for details.