Monday, December 14, 2009

‘We Are Cured Because We Remember’

By Kevin Murphy, MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

I have had a number of clients in recent weeks who have all said the same thing in their own different and unique ways. They have no memory of their childhoods. That's not to say that I insist on people having a memory of one thing or another. One of the fundamental 'rules' of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy is that people choose to speak about whatever they want. There is no direction in terms of 'you must speak about this'. It is a freedom that runs to the heart of analytic work.

That's why the comment had such resonance. These were very different people from different walks of life who each came up with the same statement by different routes. Each had a sense of simply not remembering large chunks of what is, essentially, their past. They did remember bits and pieces here and there but their own perception of it was that this part of their personal history was, to put it bluntly, forgotten.

The second interesting thing about it was that all of them saw nothing unusual about this. So essentially, you have a situation where people go through life unable to remember much about what they were like in their earliest experiences. And, hand in hand with that, they are quite accepting of it.

Now it should be said that there will always be parts of our childhood that remain forgotten. Very few of us remember every detail although there are some people who do. Remembering is a patchy experience for most of us. But the experience, and it is not uncommon to come across it in practice, of 'not remembering one's childhood' has other aspects to it.

Often we forget not because we simply have bad memories but because we unwittingly push things out of consciousness. Why do we do this? Sometimes yes the memory is bad, or sometimes the experience of being dependant was unpleasurable for us, or we may have acted in a way that we care not to recall, or we may have had a fright or a scare or a fearful moment or disappointed someone dear to us, or even disappointed ourselves. Our memories are being repressed all the time. Even as adults, we often forget the name of someone we are less than enamoured with, or we forget an appointment that we never really wanted to commit to, or we have no memory of a holiday that was ghastly. It is part of our defence system and sometimes it is useful.

But being unable to access or visualise memories of this kind can often have a downside too. You particularly find it with people whose lives are being badly affected with anxiety or depression or sexual issues or even obsessive and compulsive symptoms. These kinds of conditions are usually experienced by people as being of relatively recent origin. Most point to their teens as being the time of onset. And, for the most part, that is true in the sense that this was a period in their lives when they became aware of their symptoms.

But becoming aware of something is not the same thing as pinpointing when it started. Often you find that the roots of anxiety or depression or many other debilitating conditions reach much further back. The person who became badly affected by a teenage or late childhood experience was already emerging as the kind of child much earlier who would be susceptible to that.

This is why having access to memories can be so important. Understanding who we are now is as much to do with understanding the present as it is to do with understand our past. Someone once said that if we do not understand history we are doomed to repeat it and the same could be said of individuals. Within all our memories, especially the ones we cannot access, there is valuable meaning tied up and unexplored. There is also a degree of energy being used to keep it from view. Memories don't just stay inaccessible without some effort employed to keep them that way.

Yet it is surprising how many people believe that memories are of no value and should not be considered when looking for answers, or that they are intrinsically painful and should be left well alone, or that they are impossible to recall and so no effort should be made in that direction at all. And so a vital avenue of exploration gets closed off.

And yet what analytic practice teaches again and again is that memory can unfold slowly, bit by bit. Once one memory is recalled, then it is possible for another to follow and then another. A foothold is all that is needed and then the links which bind all our memories start to operate and more and more pictures emerge. If we even get a glimpse of who we once were it is of huge value in adding the missing piece to the jigsaw of who we are now.

French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once said we don't remember because we are cured, we are cured because we remember. The act of remembering is the cure. Being able to remember is a sign of health. Being willing to remember is a sign that fear is abating and confidence is returning. It is the lifting of the veil, the new light that we shine into an old part of ourselves that brings new meaning. And we use this meaning to combat the emptiness, the lack, the void, the agonising puzzle that is at the heart of anxiety and depression and so many contemporary ailments.

  • Next week I'll be highlighting an upcoming Psychoanalytic Festival of Film in Dublin.

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