Unless your symptoms can be relieved without an excavation of your ancient history, most counselors will encourage discussion of your past. For some patients this is at their fingertips in fine detail and painful intensity. For others only the emotions are reachable, without being joined to specific memories. A blank slate is found in still another group of clients: they own few recollections, feelings, or interest in bygone days. Yet if the healer believes you were damaged early, he must find a way to assist you in the search for them.
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of a particular aroma or flavor evoking a childhood recollection. The most famous literary example comes in Swann’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The narrator unknowingly refers to the therapeutic dilemma of retrieving the past when it does not come easily of itself:
It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.
The narrator tells us how the enormous world of his early memories was opened by the simple act of eating the crumbs of a petite madeleine (a small French sponge cake) mixed with tea, reminding him of this treat offered by his aunt and leading to more and different recollections. Here is the attentive therapist’s key to assisting his patient: a knowledge that the sensory world can help unearth the client’s excavation of his early life. You must dig with your bare hands — get your fingers dirty, literally — if you spent youthful time playing in your backyard in the grass, clay, and soil. There, in the movement, scent, and contact might you find a piece of yourself.
We all recognize our five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Thus, the therapist can suggest his client return to his old neighborhood and walk the path he took to school or the playground, or once again ride the bus along a familiar route. I have even known people who persuaded the new occupant of their old apartment to permit a brief tour. If the patient lives far from this place, an imaginary journey is still possible.
Photos of yesteryear can do some of the work — the heavy lifting of evocation. Songs of the time or those sang by babysitters can spring the release of powerful emotions. Proust’s example leads us to recall what foods we ate when we were small, what sounds were present in our flat and nearby, what games we played and TV or radio programs we watched and listened to, what childhood possessions we treasured. None of this is foolproof, guaranteed to open yesterday’s locked door. Yet such efforts sometimes work like a domino game, one toppled piece striking the next and that piece hitting another in turn, as if each object were a newly triggered memory. Nor should consultation with an old friend or relative be ignored. Their recall may trigger your own.
A similar occurrence recently happened to me. Since crayons will find their way into my grandson’s hands before long, those coloring sticks became a topic of discussion. In my early school years, Crayola Crayons — the Cadillac brand of coloring hardware — were on the equipment list for the summer’s end march to your new daytime captivity. Mom, ever frugal because of her own impoverished childhood, bought an economy size for me, perhaps only the smallest box of eight or the next step up. To my chagrin, however, all my classmates (or so it seemed to me) had larger boxes, several hugging and lugging the giant 48 (or was the number 64?) cardboard container to Jamieson School. Apart from saving me from a possible hernia, I can now remember a sense of shame and loss of status connected with my small Crayola box. Size, long before I understood anything about sexuality, did matter.
Recollections like these are grist for the treatment mill, capable of revealing the origin of insecurity, depression, anxiety, and more. You can also use them as adjuncts to self-understanding outside of therapy. Distant memories tend to be available for retrieval because of an attached emotional charge, whether joyful or dispiriting. The thrill or disappointment or humiliation of a childhood event seems to bind the occurrence to a place somewhere in our consciousness, even if we must struggle to find it.
As Harvard psychologist Robert Kagan said:
The task of describing most private experiences can be likened to reaching down to a deep well to pick up small, fragile crystal figures while you are wearing thick leather mittens.
Searching your past is not for the faint of heart: you do not know what you might find. Yet among the detritus uncovered in your archeological dig, there may be sharp-edged treasures, perhaps even a key to release you from invisible tethers restricting your enjoyment of life’s fullness.
The old joke tells us that if you find yourself in a hole you should stop digging.
Funny how psychotherapy advice is sometimes just the opposite.
The top picture of the Madeleines de Commercy is the work of Bernard Leprêtre. The photo of the very First Version of the Crayola No. 64 Box comes from Kurt Baty. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.