Saturday, April 28, 2012

Trying to Keep the Past in the Past

Hello Friends:

So did you ever experience a time when you did something that should have come back to bite you, but it didn't?  (This really does have to do with the title, honestly.)

The time I'm thinking about is when I was in college.  I'd burn candles in my bedroom now and then.  I'd leave them for a few moments while I was in the kitchen or whatever, and then come back.  My favorite candle holder was a heavy, sturdy, thick glass votive holder that gave me a safe sort of feeling.  My OCDs were much worse back then, and so I was very, very careful about the sort of candle holder I used and where I put it.  It was on my dresser with nothing flammable anywhere near it.

You can see where this is going.  One day I forgot.  I just forgot - an OCD kind of nightmare.  I walked out with the candle burning in my bedroom, and didn't come back all day.  Makes me nauseous just typing those words.

Fortunately I had that nice thick candle holder, right?  Wrong.  While I was out, it apparently got so hot that it shattered.  Exploded, really, given that when my boyfriend and I got back there were pieces all over the dresser, all over the carpet, and splashes of dried wax everywhere.  I had two immediate reactions at the time.  The first was "OMG (except in those days we spelled it out like this - "Oh My God") I can't believe I left that candle burning!  The whole place could have burned down!"

The second reaction was "There is glass everywhere!"  So while boyfriend tried to get me to calm down, he had to clean up all the glass.  (He still has the job of cleaning up all the glass almost twenty years later.)   I sat and thought about how in spite of the fact that my room was now contaminated with bits of glass, I still had a room.  I'd done something dumb and hadn't had to pay for it.

Except ...

Right, first thing is what you'd expect from OCD.  It is a challenge for me to burn candles.  For years I couldn't do it at all.  And you can bet when I do light them, I check them like crazy.  Checking.  Checking.  It isn't worth it sometimes ... but sometimes it is, and I'll light them for dinner, but blow them right out afterwards.  My husband, who does not want to clean up more glass, is happy to help me keep tabs :)

At least with OCD I know how to push my limits - when I have the emotional resources to burn a candle and when I don't - how to insert positive cognitions, you know the drill.  I hate it and it hurts, but I feel like OCD is a beast I am in the process of taming.

The issue is the second thing, I suppose.  A beast I have not tamed - I have flashbacks about this candle thing.  It is so bizarre.  Nothing happened.  I flashback to a sort of mush of images all at once, all on top of each other - lighting the candle, not blowing it out, the candle holder shattering, seeing the pieces all over, and knowing I just dodged a bullet.  I didn't even see the actual moment of shattering, of course, and yet that is still part of the melange of pictures and feelings.  My flashbacks can be intense and instantaneous, one moment I'm making tea, and then next I'm reliving every image I just described, with all the associated feelings, all at once.  It is jarring, painful, and upsetting in a manner totally different from a panic attack, say.  I confused my flashbacks with anxiety and panic attacks for years, but I can often spot the differences, now.  That's assuming I'm not so thrown by having a flashback that I can think rationally at all.

If you don't suffer from CPTSD, it is hard to describe how time can bend.  I don't really experience time in a line, ever.  Time for me is fluid.  It wraps back on itself in a way that allows past events to unfold as if they were happening right now.  Sometimes multiple events start playing all at once, with all the associated sounds, smells, and emotions, but no visual.  That's my usual - and it is really scary.  So you can believe I'm trying hard to make sense of it.  Why is it that the past won't stay there?

I don't mean this strictly biologically.  I understand about the amygdala, how memories and emotions get stored, why trauma seems to be associated with certain memories in some people and not others, blah blah.  I mean this from the position of my daily life.  It is almost a spiritual question - why isn't the past, past?

So I think about this candle incident a lot.  I have plenty of flashbacks to nasty things that really did happen.  Why has this experience, of all things, become one of the experiences I flash back to again and again?  How did this non-trauma become a trauma?  I wonder if figuring this out might help me figure out other bizarre parts of my psychology.

Wait, wait.  I ... just got an idea.  I wonder if it isn't really so different after all, the OCDs and the flashbacks.  I was thinking of OCDs as a problem with "now" and the flashbacks as a problem with "then" but that's not true, is it?  They are both problems with bringing the past into the present.  Not the same way ... but every time I light a candle, it's like I'm lighting that same candle from back then.  The one that exploded.  Hmmm.

This needs more thought.  What are yours?

Your Hostess With Neuroses

Image credit/info: Candles by Fotodawg on Flickr via Creative Commons, CC 2.0


Kate Kiernan said...

Why isn't the past, past? What an intriguing question. I think some of it keeps coming back because we make a point of trying to remember it, not just with photographs, videos and writing, but when we come upon some visual or auditory trigger that makes us think of a person or a similar situation. Humans are always trying to figure stuff out and not only that, but we are very sensitive to any kind of threat in our environments which makes us more vigilant than we realize. Basic instincts. It's important to compare what you do in the present moment with what you've done in the past because that's how we know whether we're doing it right. We remember to confirm and maybe to try something different. It gives us an orientation and foundation.

I suffer from an anxiety disorder and some fairly minor OCD. I've lived with it mainly within these last several years, though there was some before that. I think the anxiety might be a side effect of one of the drugs I'm taking -- Abilify. I'm on the highest dosage of that drug. I currently take a small dosage of a non-addictive drug called Buspirone for the anxiety, which has been helping, but which needs to go higher. Anyway, I understand some of your perspective. I steer clear of candles mostly. I'm nervous about leaving an incense burning in my house if I go downstairs.

Kate : )

MakeThisLookAwesome said...

I had a counselor once who explained this to me. Our brains have millions of connections. And one way we problem solve and avoid repeating bad experiences is by bringing up the catalogue of experiences in our memory when we feel like we felt back then. That gives us quick access to information we need. But it also reminds us of every time we were in this situation before and it didn't work, too. Which can feel pretty awful.

Time is not linear in our minds. Every moment we live in the present, we are remembering the past and anticipating the future. We have to anticipate the future all the time. Our nervous system takes time to process this moment and show us what's going on. We're always living in the past and anticipating the future. It's how we function biologically.

It wouldn't surprise me if every time you think, "Now, I can't forget to do [blah]..." you'd get the flashback of the exploding candle. It would make sense to me that every time your mind was trying to figure out how to avoid a potential catastrophe that you'd be reminded of the near-miss catastrophe.

Additionally, studies show that when we experience a near miss, we beat ourselves up more than when we lose completely. If it's a near miss, we can imagine all the little things we could have done differently to get a success. If we lose by a long shot we just accept it.

Fascinating how our minds work, eh?

71 & Sunny said...

I know you called it a non-trauma, but I think it really was a trauma for you. It sure would have been for me.

I've had times in life where I had near-misses like that. Afterwards, I tend to spend a lot of time thinking, "Oh no, what if . . ." over and over again. I totally get how this was terrifying for you, and I'm sorry.

Tina Fariss Barbour said...

An excellent post!

I have a really hard time keeping the past in the past, too. I allow the past to continue to affect me. That's one of the things I'm working on in the CBASP therapy for what my therapist calls my chronic depression--learning how to relate to others in a more healthful way than the way I learned as a child.

I wonder if part of the reason we obsess over past near-misses is the OCD component. It's a way our OCD can get our attention: "See, I told you bad things can happen if you don't do those compulsive rituals," the OCD seems to be saying. It's like added fuel to the OCD frenzy. I have some experiences like that that I return to again and again too. I hope that as we tame the OCD more and more, those episodes will fade.

Burning candles causes me a lot of anxiety, plus, we have cats in the house. So I burn battery-powered candles. Maybe I'm practicing avoidance, but even if I didn't have OCD, I would have to be very careful of candles so that a kitty wouldn't be able to knock it over. So battery candles seem the safest alternative. (Maybe I'm just in denial, but I don't think I am. :-))

Sandra said...

Thank you for sharing your OCD experience. I find it really helpful to hear about others experiences with OCD because it makes me feel like I am not dealing with this alone. For those that still have OCD and want to control it, I recommend visiting I hope this is helpful!

The Blue Morpho said...

Hello Kate - Thanks for the comment! I agree that humans do have strong needs to remember what went before, to learn and to survive. Trying to keep it functional seems to be the key :) I was also on Buspirone in the past (past again) and it seemed too subtle for me. It helped, but the dose had to be pretty high to feel anything.

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey there MakeThisLookAwesome - This is a really interesting find "studies show that when we experience a near miss, we beat ourselves up more than when we lose completely. If it's a near miss, we can imagine all the little things we could have done differently to get a success. If we lose by a long shot we just accept it" That rings true for me - coming in second, or just missing, seems so frustrating. I can see why this would be a trigger. That makes sense.

The Blue Morpho said...

Hello 71&Sunny - Exactly ""Oh no, what if . . ." over and over again. I totally get how this was terrifying for you" That's something like what MakeThis was saying, too. The what if over and over. It did fell pretty traumatic, at that. Thanks for the comment!

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey Tina - Yep, the OCD voice ""See, I told you bad things can happen if you don't do those compulsive rituals," the OCD seems to be saying." That is it exactly. Then somehow checking once is never good enough. I also burn some battery candles, especially if it is a party or some such, so I can just try to relax. Hard enough with my social phobia at that point :)

Popular Posts