How To Deal With Strong Memories (& Keep Living)

20.09.20 12:28 PM By Heather Kleinschmidt

[Trigger Warning: SA]

Two stories

1. A Story of Fear
A few years back, it was still dark out. It was early — 5am — in the Lower East Side of New York City as I walked out the door. Still the weekend, it was quiet when I stepped out onto the sidewalk. I was running late for a gig and hustled on to make up some time. The trains are unreliable that early on weekends, my bank account was too low for a Lyft, and I didn’t have any time to waste — so I decided to walk.

At some point, I realized there was someone following me.

In an instant, a million things happened…

He grabbed me from behind, and we began to struggle.

This thought flashed through my mind: This might get really, really bad before it gets better.

This thought also flashed through my mind: To get out of this, I need someone who’s (1) close enough to hear me, (2) strong enough to intervene, & (3) cares enough to do something about it. And the likelihood of somebody meeting all three of those criteria at this moment on this block felt infinitesimally small.

This guy was bigger than me. I knew that I could hold him off for only a little while and that my best chance of getting away was to catch someone’s attention. I knew that my voice was my best weapon in that moment.

Help! Get off me! Help!

I repeated over and over, for what felt like an eternity.

At one point, he covered my mouth. His grip was too strong; I couldn’t move his arm. I need my voice. I couldn’t move his hand. So I bit, hard. He let go and I had my voice back.

I continued screaming for help.

Finally, a woman called out from down the block.

Please God, let this person help me.

She called out again.

The guy didn’t relent. We continued to struggle. The other woman went quiet… (which in hindsight I realize is when she was on the phone with the police… but in the moment, it felt like she had abandoned me).

My stuff was all over the sidewalk.

We continued to struggle.

Help! Get off me! Help! — over and over.

I still didn’t know how bad this would get before it got better.

And I was getting tired. I couldn’t hold him off much longer…

2. A Story of Joy
Another time, another memory — a brighter day.

This one in a riverside park in New York City.

It was a beautiful evening with one of the best guys I’ve ever known.

We’d been going out for a few weeks and were still in the hormone-soaked honeymoon phase. During dinner, he found out I’d never been to this park before — it’s an iconic one in NYC and not far from where I live, so he was surprised — and eager to take me there.

The weather was perfect. Late fall, there was a warm breeze and a perfect, clear night sky.

He was a gem among men. Nerdy, fun, reliable, insightful, patient, and super hot. And he treated me like a million bucks.

His touch was like a shock of lightning.

City lights across the river. A gentle breeze created ripples on the water’s surface. Just the sounds of the water and his voice.

We spent some time there talking, laughing, smiling, kissing.

It was one of the best nights of my life.

Two Transitions
Neither event lasted forever. Every experience in life — positive, negative, intense, or mundane — eventually transitions. Like every experience in life, both of these stories eventually came to a close.

In the first one, the stranger finally gave up and ran away. I collected my stuff scattered across the sidewalk, crying, and then began to leave too. I ran into the woman who had called out, and she had me sit in her car while we waited for the cops to arrive. We drove around looking for the guy, but never found him.

The second story ended bittersweetly. A few weeks after that night, we broke up. We wanted different things and wouldn’t be able to go on much longer together. So we called it off while still on good terms.

Those two experiences still evoke strong memories for me.

Dealing with Strong Memories
For months after the encounter with the stranger, I had a hard time walking around outside. Especially when it was becoming dark. Especially in that neighborhood.

Any time it was moderately dark out — even at 5 or 6pm — everything sounded like footsteps behind me. I was on edge everywhere I went. I didn’t like walking through the neighborhood where it happened. I wondered if that guy worked or lived in the area, if he might see me on the sidewalk again. If I might interact with him somewhere — in a store, maybe — and not even realize it.

But I also knew that I needed to live my life. I knew that I didn’t want to mark off this 10-block radius as “to be avoided at all costs,” where I could never go because I’d had this experience one time. I didn’t want to have to put those restrictions on myself — to stop living because someone had done something to me that they shouldn’t have.

So I didn’t avoid the area.

If I needed to go there, I went there. When the memory flooded, I reminded myself of where I was going, I stopped and looked around and saw that I was safe, and I reminded myself that I didn’t want to have this space where I just couldn’t go — I wanted the world to remain open to me.

And little by little, I developed a new relationship with that neighborhood. A much more mundane relationship. I gained new (boring, day-to-day) memories on those streets. I developed a new emotional response to that environment — a much more boring, daily-grind type of feeling. I no longer heard footsteps behind me everywhere I went. I no longer feared the dark streets or running into that guy — I rarely even thought about him anymore. I was able to live again, despite the experience and the memory.

A similar thing happened in my riverside park…

The first time I returned, we had been broken up for some time and I thought I had moved on… until I arrived at the spot where we’d stood six months earlier. Instantly, all of those emotions came flooding back, and I missed him.

I realized I needed to do the same thing I had done previously — I needed to give myself new memories in that place, so that I could function without being overwhelmed by the emotion of the past experience.

And so I returned. Again. And again. And again.

With each new day there, I developed new memories in that park. Going for runs. Looking across the river at the skyline. Watching the ferry come and go. Watching kids play or skateboarders pull their stunts or families picnic and laugh.

With time, the new experiences, the new images, started to take the place of the old strong one. Now when I go to that park, I just enjoy the park. Sometimes the strong memory comes back — but it’s not as overwhelming as it once was. I’ve continued to live, and life has given me new thoughts and memories about that place.

Different People Are Different
None of this is to say that my process is exactly like anyone else’s. Or that all difficult events are merely “strong memories.”

Both of these stories were complex and involved a lot of other things to sort through. But once those things had been sorted through, the strong memories lingered, and they flooded in in specific contexts, specific places.

This is about how I learned to participate in those contexts again functionally and openly.

The How
It wasn’t about pushing those old memories away or trying to stifle them.

It was simply (though not easily) about putting myself back in that context over and over — and continuing to go through the motions of living while I was there.

The first few times, the memory was overwhelming. The feelings were so strong. The choice was to avoid the situation and that intense feeling or to stay there, to let the memory be what it was, and to feel everything.

I stayed.

The memory was strong. But I stood there, shoulders back and looking up — and while I was feeling everything, I also looked around at the hustle and bustle going on. I looked around at the people passing by or hanging out. I looked around at the buildings, the river, the scenery. I looked around at everything else going on with the day, even while I was feeling that pain.

And then I went home.

And returned again another time.

The same thing. The strong memory came rushing in. the intensity of emotion overwhelmed. I teared up. But I stayed. I looked around. I saw people living and doing interesting things.

And then I returned again. And again. Gradually, those new memories took over.


Now when I’m there, I don’t feel a rush of intense emotion. Those places hold different meaning to me now.

That sidewalk has become like every other sidewalk in the city. That park brings new small joys to me.

The old, strong memories still exist — but they merely add depth to those places. They no longer take over my muscles, my brain, my attention. They just deepen the new experience of being there.


Resisting Memories vs. Moving On
Those memories are part of my story — they’re part of who I’ve become.

I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for each of those experiences and everything that came with them.

So I don’t resist those memories or the pain that still comes with them whenever I think of them.

But I do move on. I continue to put myself in a position to develop new memories. I won’t let the intensity of the old ones stop me from living my life and from experiencing new thrills.

Those memories are important, but they’re also in the past. It’s time for new things.

Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.

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