Last week I started a series of weekly research trips, the practical end of my maternity leave
(my administrative leave technically doesn’t end for a few weeks, but that’s only there so Columbia keeps paying me while I’m not teaching this semester). Partially out of a conceptual closing of a life chapter and partially from the boredom of sitting on a tarmac, I went through and cleared out my voicemail. My voicemail has been full since right after I gave birth, and I hadn’t bothered to clean it up, unlike my emails, texts, and IMs. Among the calls from the Red Cross asking me to donate blood and the check ins from my nurse and pediatrician were three messages from my grandfather. I didn’t listen to them, but just hearing him say hi jolted me back to the exhaustion, frustration, and timidity I felt at that time. For weeks after my sons were born, my Zionist grandfather would not stop hounding me about holding a bris, despite the fact that they had already been circumcised in the hospital. There was no real congratulations, no mention of my postpartum complications, the only thing that mattered was that I had brought two new Jews into the world and I needed to properly induct them into the right kind of Jewish community. My grandfather’s requests quickly became aggressive and manipulative, telling me that I was rejecting him and upsetting my grandmother (who is senile and has no idea who I am), and insinuating that he might cut me out of his inheritance. In addition to the messages, he left me several emails and talked to my parents as well, even though they also told him to leave me alone. We finally reconciled (spoiler: there was no bris), but this was the truest expression of what I’ve felt in my extended family for my whole life – being Jewish is the most important thing about me, and if I’m not actively engaging in the orthodox community (or at least paying lip service to its expectations), I’m not worth anyone’s time. I call this the original bullshit in my life, and like all bullshit, at some point I have to let it go.
The idea of letting go, of closure, is hard to do and maybe even harder to understand. How can I suddenly not feel what I feel? How can I ignore this mental trauma that is so easily triggered by a name, a voice, a memory, an image? If you can’t tell, this is not the only bullshit in my life, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years exploring how to reach an emotional state where I can encounter reminders without feeling the trauma itself. Don’t yogis spend years perfecting this kind of achievement through meditation? How can I expect myself to be free of these painful emotional reactions when I’m not removed from them mentally, socially, or physically?
For me, closure is the point where the reminders of past pain have no meaning anymore because they are truly in the past. The circumstances have changed to the point that those memories are no longer threatening, they no longer represent real fears in the present. I think this is such a hard point to reach because major life events or relationships that become so negative in this way seep into other aspects of our lives. It’s not just that extricating ourselves from these reminders implies removing ourselves from all these other aspects of life, but that the circumstances that created the trauma, the conditions and systems and social dynamics are now blaringly obvious. It’s not the reminders that are the problem, it’s the lingering real threat that it could happen again.
This is one of the overarching points of one of my favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The characters try to erase painful memories but find themselves repeating their mistakes over and over. The implication is in part that those memories are not isolated, but have become inextricably woven into their experiences and can’t be fully forgotten. But the movie also suggests that the memories and their causes are part of the characters themselves, and so their nature is to leap back into the same situations. As an older teenager, this explanation really appealed to me because it removed my agency from the already massive trauma I’d experienced through no fault of my own. It helped satisfy my fear that I really did have some control over what had happened to me and made me feel that my pain would be just as great regardless of my inaction.
But as I’ve gotten older and more of the upsets of my life have relied on my involvement and my choices, I’m finding that I need a new way to understand my pain response that encourages me to take responsibility for my own actions, the relationships that I create and the circumstances that I seek out that ultimately end up hurting me. At the same time, if protecting myself from further harm, closing the book on that chapter in my life, means separating myself from the systems that I know cause it, I can’t just put every part of my life at a distance, I can’t just throw out everything. Why not? Because aside from the impracticality of ending all my relationships, including familial ones, doing so makes the trauma bigger by justifying my response with extreme action. I would remove my own agency so completely that the only way I could avoid pain would be by acting as if the things that cause pain don’t exist. Again, I’m reminded of this in some favorite media, Regina Spektor’s song “Small Town Moon”, in which she sings: “I must’ve left a thousand times/ but every day begins the same/ ’cause there’s a small town in my mind/ how can I leave without hurting everyone that made me?” She’s not talking about literally leaving home. She’s asking, “how can we escape our patterns and ruts that hold us back without rejecting all aspects of our life and all past experiences that make us who we are?”
Some relationships are worth ending, purging from life. Some people are toxic, or at least toxic in combination with ourselves. But when total purging isn’t possible or it means severally limiting myself, I also have to find closure. Avoiding a place, an event, another relationship isn’t a way to live. Accepting the trauma does nothing good for me. So as much as I’ve been able to find closure, I’ve looked for the ways that these past traumas still represent real threats. One bad relationship caused me to reflect on the same damaging dynamic in all my relationships, and now I find ways to limit that dynamic before it becomes so massive that I have to abandon the whole relationship. I choose my battles, consider what information certain people just shouldn’t know. And I confront head on the dynamics that can be changed, when the other party is also willing to do the work. That is closure – disarming the threat, finding safety, and calming my pain response. It helps me turn anxiety and fear into a dull regret and sadness, and maybe one day to happiness at the good memories and the personal growth.