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Livi Michael: When Memory Becomes Toxic

Livi Michael: When Memory Becomes Toxic I’m relaxing by watching TV. At this time in the evening my attention tends to drift. Frequently, this wool-gathering state is pierced by a memory, painful and sharp as a dart.

I might remember shouting like a lunatic at my children when they were small, or finishing rather brutally with a boyfriend. Or (most shamefully) being very unpleasant to my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s.

The memory itself might vary, but the response is the same. I can feel a physical reaction to the shame; heat, and tension around the jawline, in the stomach. My heart rate might actually increase. It can take several moments to recover. In those moments I try desperately to distract myself, or shut the memory away again, back in its box.

These experiences have certain things in common.

Firstly, randomness.

It’s hard to know why a particular memory arises at that particular time. It might be something on the telly that’s jogged my memory, more often it seems inexplicable.

Secondly, negativity.

The pleasant memories rarely recur. I can remember, for instance, out of thirty years of teaching, the half-dozen times when a session went really badly. One of those occasions was a lecture in which I completely dried up – couldn’t think of a single thing to say and none of my notes made sense. That was the lecture where I was being observed by my immediate superior and line manager. Of course it was.

The memory of being given a beautiful bunch of flowers by a group of students because they had enjoyed my course so much never arises spontaneously. I conjure it, when necessary, to counter the other, painful ones.

Thirdly, pointlessness.

All these experiences are from long ago. It’s not as if I can do anything about them now. My sons have grown up and apparently don’t bear me a grudge (they might even, who knows, remember occasions when I was actually nice to them!). My grandmother died 40 years ago. I loved her, and she loved me. It might be too much to hope that somewhere in her damaged mind she retained that memory, but it’s true, nonetheless.

One theory about bad memories is that we can learn from them, to act more skilfully in future. It’s an attractive idea. Hopefully, now, I would be much more sympathetic and patient towards someone with Alzheimer’s, or with the grandchildren I may one day have. And tactful and sensitive on all other occasions, to everyone else.

If I have learned from my painful lapses, therefore, do I need to keep punishing myself?

Might there be other ways of coping?

When these memories arise, I tend to push them away. If I stay with them, however, allow them to happen, they develop a context, and the context can take the sting away. I can now see, for instance, that at thirteen, I had no understanding of Alzheimer’s. I didn’t know what it was, or how to cope. Similarly, I had no previous experience of finishing a relationship, so I managed it badly. Possibly, there is no painless way of doing it, and I should cut myself some slack.

Maybe the real purpose of unwelcome memories is to teach us to navigate the dark waters of painful experience, rather than drowning in them.

But what happens when those memories can’t be navigated? When they undermine us to the point of poisoning our lives?

These questions informed the writing of my new novel, Reservoir.

Reservoir is about a woman who does everything she can to escape her painful past. This includes reinventing herself, changing her nationality, her social class, her name. She has suppressed many of her own memories. Nobody, not even Hannah, knows the full truth about herself.

Hannah is a psychotherapist with a specialist interest in neuroscience. In the course of writing Reservoir, I read several books on neuroscience and on memory, such as Veronica O’Keane’s The Rag and Bone Shop: How we make memories and memories make us. O’Keane is a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin. In her book she explores the intimate connections between memory and identity, while demonstrating the random, untrustworthy nature of memory itself.

Neuroscientific research tells us that what we think of as reality, and identity is just a narrative constructed by our brains.

Our memories, therefore, reflect our self-esteem, or lack of it, rather than any objective truth. We can’t ever be sure that we’ve remembered the painful incident truly, or that other people would remember it the same way.

So when we are suffering from punishing or toxic memories we should perhaps ask why we are telling ourselves such dreadful stories?

And perhaps, we could remind ourselves that they are just stories after all.

Reservoir by Livi Michael is published by Salt on 15 March as a paperback original at £10.99. Available from all good bookshops, from Amazon  or direct from Salt

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