Past becomes present

It’s taken me many years to realize the past is never truly behind us. No matter how hard I work to process memories, to build coping skills, to make a safe place for myself in the world, to keep grounded in the present, at any moment the past can become my present. Despite all of my work and awareness, it still surprises me that past trauma leaks into the present.

I was traveling recently, spending a few days in Albuquerque with my wife enjoying New Mexican food and time with new friends. Like all travel there were ups and downs. Visiting the Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe and lunch at The Pantry were both definite positives, the altitude, summertime heat, and sparsity of the Albuquerque’s downtown distinct negatives. Yet, as we wound down the last night our trip was leaning into the positive experience column.

Then a cousin reached out to let me know she’d heard my mom was in the hospital in Florida. Her electrolytes were very low and things were serious. It was too late to call anyone on the east coast, so I had to sit with worry until morning when I could call to my mother’s best friend for more info. It was a long night, and fortunately I found the situation had improved overnight and mom was out of danger. Yet I’ve been reeling ever since on an emotional time travel journey I didn’t expect or need.

ABQ as seen from the air

Anxiety has become my almost constant companion. Arms crawling and aching, an ongoing drop in my stomach, fuzzy and disconnected from the world, I have just been getting through each day. Every time I talk to my mother, it throws me further off, to the point my wife takes one glance at me post phone call, and asks what’s wrong. And yet, I still struggle to connect to whatever these feelings are because I am once again the child who could be unsafe at any moment.

For years after my childhood memories came tumbling out of my head, I was completely disconnected from my mother. Interacting with her was too much of a trigger for me. I’d wind up struggling and anxious, yet disconnected from those same emotions. Instead I’d feel flat and numb just like I had been as a child. Which made sense – I’d never been able to deal with what happened to me in the moment. I was a child with no tools and no means of escape, so the experiences and emotions got bottled up and stored in the cellar for another day, or maybe forever.

For a decade, I’ve been operating on the premise that time and work in therapy would lessen the impact of these past experiences and emotions. That they were being processed into manageable chunks. Since the Pandemic, I have slowly, cautiously reconnected with my mother in small ways. Occasional texts, comments on posted photographs, or a card might pass between us, but never real contact. Finally last year we met for dinner on a visit to Florida at a restaurant familiar to both of us. My wife and my mother finally got to meet, and I was OK. Still, we went back to occasional contact, which has been ok until now.

I guess I am learning that there is a difference between playing in the shallow end of the pool next to the stairs where I can easily climb out to walk away and the power of a deep ocean filled with towering waves and tricky rip currents. Suddenly I’ve been tossed into the abyss, with my meager swimming skills from the kiddie pool swamped by the swells. All I can do is keep floating and wait for the current to let me go so I can swim back to shore.

Emotional Time Travel has been part of my experience before, but it’s never been so pervasive as this, lasting for weeks. If I am so affected by interacting with someone who was adjacent to my childhood experiences what will it be like if I reconnect with someone who experienced them with me? Or worse, how could I cope with running into an abuser from my past? I fear I will be lost at sea.