What Does Being Stuck in the Past Really Look Like?

There is a perception in our society that people who talk about past traumas, illnesses, losses, or hardships are “stuck in the past”. The truth is, though, that being stuck in the past, or as I’ll call it not fully living in the present actually can take on many forms. For me, the times that my brain was in the past actually was not when I was actively talking about the trauma and hardships that I had been through and/or was having repressed memories. It was when I simply told story after story of the past and desired to go back to a “better time” or to just “reminisce”.

This tendency of mine started in the sixth grade, if not earlier. It was at that time that the sexual abuse that I was experiencing officially turned into child rape. I felt like everything had changed, and I longed to go back to a time when things were better for me. I would look at photographs of happy times, and tell stories of happier and better times to myself and others. From the outside I looked like a child who was just sharing or reminiscing about earlier times in her life, or possibly even bragging about it. What I was really doing, though, was keeping myself from looking at my present life and what was actually going on with it. In other words, this was a survival mechanism, and I learned it pretty early on in my life.

I continued to do this type of “reminiscing” for most of my life. As my drinking habit grew in college I began to look at this as something related to my drinking, as I would look back at times that I had fun drinking and wish that I could repeat them. I thought this for a lot of years even after I had stopped drinking. The truth was, though, that this really didn’t have all that much to do with my drinking. I’d been doing it for years before I drank habitually, and it happened in regards to my drinking just like it happened with many other events and parts of my life.

When I got to AA, this kind of thinking and behavior was perpetuated. Everyone told stories of their drinking plus stories of their sobriety. During all of this, the person was encouraged to look back at their life on a regular basis in order to stay sober. For me, this just concreted my habit of wishing for and regurgitating the past in a way that I didn’t have to fully process my present situation/life and feel the emotions that went with it.

It wasn’t until I started to have repressed memories in 2015 and work through my trauma that I slowly started to live in the present, despite having frequent memories of abuse. What I found was that even though I was exploring my past, I wasn’t just regurgitating it in a way that continuously brought me back to it. Still, many people assumed that it was then that I was stuck in the past, not moving forward, etc simply because I was having repressed memories, talking about trauma, and was being affected by triggers.

What I found though is that examining the past and the trauma that I went through gave me a better understanding of my present situation. It explained so much about not just the past but about my present life. I began to understand the reasons why I developed the health problems that I did, and was able to start to really accept the current problems that I have that arose from trauma and difficulties in life. What I have learned, basically, is that for me it was impossible to fully live in the present without accepting what had happened in the past.

I just think that society, too, really does not promote true healing. We are supposed to do things like move on in a way that ignores the problem, not let things bother us, pick ourselves up from the bootstraps, etc. But the problem is that if we don’t process a hardship, then we will be stuck in that place of time without even knowing it. And the truth is that unresolved trauma or life difficulties result in many consequences. The types of consequences that can occur from not addressing life difficulties are long term health problems, problems with handing emotions, particularly anger, relationship issues, parenting problems, difficulties with a person’s job, and interpersonal problems. And the truth is that if a person hasn’t worked through the life event that is causing these difficulties, they probably don’t even know what is causing their problems. They just know that they have them, but because they are not willing to address past difficulties, they typically just stay in these unhealthy patterns their whole lives or until they decide to actually heal from past and present life events.

As part of my journey of moving into the present, I have found that organizations, family, and friends all can attempt to influence me to move backwards in my healing process. In AA, this simply happened because of the group norms. For a long time it felt like whenever I went to an AA meeting that I could almost feel myself sliding backwards. It was a fight to stay in the present while going to AA, and even more of a fight to continue to heal in a forward way. This caused a lot of distress for me, and is one of the primary reasons why I initially started to question the health of AA and it’s members and eventually left the program. All it was doing was holding me back.

I also experienced that same pull when I hung around my or David’s family. Both families look down on working through things, and would subtly let me know this in many ways (and sometimes do it directly as well). Both families did a lot of things to try to hold me back from moving ahead in my life and working through trauma, and also tried to keep me in the “family role” that I had always been in or that they wanted me to be in. It was extremely uncomfortable and at times their insistence that I was doing something wrong or should be a different person resulted in extremely abusive and neglectful behavior towards me.

Because of this I eventually started to really limit my time with both families. I don’t need anyone holding me back, even family members, and I do not deserve abuse or ill treatment because someone doesn’t agree with how I’m handling my life. I’m worth more than that. Today I don’t talk to my family at all, and try to only see David’s family on special occasions such as holidays.

Even though I’ve been doing everything that I can to heal, I still find myself looking back sometimes to the life I had and who I was before I started working through trauma. I appeared and believed myself to be really happy, confident, and self-assured, even though deep down I wasn’t. However, even though I thought that I loved myself and was truly confident, I see that today that I didn’t. It’s only been in the last few months that I’ve really been able to see myself as truly worthy of things like self-love, self-compassion, and self care. Looking back, I can see that before this I practiced self care only to survive, but today I do it because I’m an important and worthy person and deserve a good life. I never truly valued myself like I do now.

I also have been realizing lately that I do not need to be that self or person who I was before I started healing from trauma, and that I can become a new person who is true to myself. Today I have strengths that I never knew of before, and I am more complex and even interesting in ways that I never knew. Although this is an important step of the healing process, I still feel some loss in terms of losing the “old Meryl”. I was very attached to her, and on the outside she seems to have it all together. But on the inside I and she had completely fallen apart. So as hard as it is, I need to scrap this idea that I was better off before I worked through trauma and became severely depressed. It’s just not true.

It’s been a difficult journey to get to where I’m at today. I’m proud of myself for how far I have come.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment below.

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