Memory Modification: A Tool for Recovery

 

memory modificationLike many busy moms, my wine habit began with a glass of wine to help me fall asleep at night. It helped smooth the edges off the one part of my day I dreaded: laying in bed, alone with my thoughts. I have written about this in several other posts, and spoken of it often on The Bubble Hour podcast.

Stillness was my enemy, because old memories would jab my brain until shame and regret became an unending loop. Eyes open or closed, I couldn’t look away: a teacher embarrassing me in elementary, the terrible way I sometimes treated my friends in high school. Inexplicable moments of scattered promiscuity, cruelty, apathy, or weakness. Shitty mom moments of being short tempered with my kids. Instances of insensitivity towards employees because I was overwhelmed myself. I never knew what old gem would come floating back if I laid my head on the pillow but it hardly mattered. They all affected me the same way – bringing tears and eventually long silent sobs into my pillow that I hoped my husband wouldn’t hear.

I drank to skip that. I drank to fall asleep the moment BEFORE my head hit the pillow, to avoid the torture of looking inward. I’d been raised to pray before I slept, to take a quiet moment to reflect and give thanks or ask for help to do better. Over time this morphed into self-loathing, until I no longer felt worthy of involving God in the conversation. The more I drank to avoid my inner landscape, the more I had to hate about myself. It was a vicious circle.

Navigating these thought patterns was daunting without a numbing agent, but I had no choice once I left alcohol behind. I’ve talked myself through it, revisited my old rItaly of prayer, and when all else fails I just allow myself to cry.

Thanks to a friend, I’ve learned a new technique that is proving to be the most effective tool yet for banishing those ruminating thoughts.

Memories, it turns out, are neither all that reliable nor accurate. Every time we yank one out of long-term storage, it is momentarily vulnerable to change. Plastic, if you will. So if we retrieve it in a moment of sadness or self-loathing, it will be affected by that perspective and highlighted or tweaked to conform. Likewise, it can also be altered in a more positive way.

My friend shared that her therapist had been helping her rewrite a traumatic memory from her childhood by imagining what characters she needed there with her in that moment – a protector, a nurturer, a companion. She learned to pause the story and bring in those characters, to change the outcome into a happier ending. If it’s all in her head anyway, what’s the difference? If she was remembering an inherently inaccurate version anyway that was painful, why not invent a better, safer version?

This is the basis of memory modification, and here’s how I’ve adapted it for myself. Now if I find myself fixating on an old memory that’s painful, I pause it like a photograph. Then I step into the memory as I am today, taking the form of my highest self – the nurturer, the grandmother, the mom, the wiser, kinder me. I step forward into the thought and face the old me in the memory, coming between she and the other person in the frame (and there’s always another person involved, it seems). I wrap a favourite blanket around the younger me’s shoulders, and I pull her close in a warm, strong hug. In that instant, I can feel in my chest everything that I had been needing in that moment (assurance, affection, acceptance, love, forgiveness) and I am able to transfer that very thing from me to her. I tell her she is safe, that everything will be okay.

Then I take her out of that moment and tuck her into the passenger seat of my car, still wrapped in the blanket. I drive her through Starbucks and buy her anything she wants, and we head for the mountains – then me and now me like the closet of friends. It’s a beautiful drive. She feels calm and safe in my presence. We arrive at our cabin, the stuning mountain home she doesn’t know she will one day own, and I usher her inside. There at a large dining table are three handsome young men playing a board game, laughing together. These are your sons. A blonde, fun-looking grandpa with two little boys. This is your husband and grandchildren. Three radiant young women: your daughters in law.

This is your family. This is your future. All this happiness awaits you. You are safe here. Stay and play. 

Its amazing how this process deflates the negativity out of old memories. If the thought returns, I can say, It’s okay, she’s safe at the cabin having fun with the people who love her. She found what she was looking for.  If a new memory surfaces, I know what to do: blanket, hug, Starbucks, cabin, future family. It works every time.

I’m not a therapist, I don’t pretend to be, but I hope my version of memory modification sparks your curiosity – especially if you are haunted by your past. Think of it like a photograph, one you keep pulling out to reexamine. It’s time to take a felt marker and draw a moustache, a bluebird, a rainbow. It’s time to stop carrying that photo in your wallet and cut it into a snowflake.

You are that powerful, that creative….that free to change.

 

 

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23 comments

  1. Jean, I have been wanting for quite some time to thank you for your blog and podcast. I am a grateful recovering alcoholic (although I’ve said that ‘A’ word before, I realize this is the first time I’ve put it in writing!) I wanted you to know how grateful I am for you, your blog, and your podcast, as these were instrumental to my journey of recovery. Although I was completely miserable, ashamed, and embarrassed because of my drinking, for years I was able to convince myself I was not “one of those” — as I had in my mind a distorted view of what an alcoholic is (e.g., a man in a trench coat drinking out of a bag walking down the street). I experienced no legal consequences because of drinking, I had a good job, doctoral degrees, a house, nice car, wonderful husband, and I hid my secret life of drinking well. In reality, deep down I knew it was a huge problem and it was destroying me. I started listening to your podcast, and I heard your story — which was so similar to what I was experiencing. Like you before you stopped drinking, I thought my story was so unique. I thought no one could understand what I was going through. And then, here you are… saying exactly what I was feeling. It was because of your story and your insights and your Bubble Hour interviews with guests that I was eventually able to accept that I needed help, that I was not alone, and that I was able to gather the strength to finally seek support. Nearly 8 months ago, I joined a 12-step program — and I continue to be sober to this day. While I do not want to take my sobriety for granted, and I want to always be aware of the work I need to continue to do to stay sober, I never thought I could go without drinking more than a few days, much less several months. I didn’t tell even my husband for the first 2 weeks that I 1) had a problem, and 2) started a program — all because I didn’t think I could do it and didn’t want him to know when I failed. Today, I am happier than I ever thought I could be. I am grateful for this second chance at a fulfilling life!! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!!

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  2. Thank you so much for this post. This is one of the things I’ve really struggled with, remembering all the horrible/embarrassing/cruel/foolish things I’ve done, often because I was drunk. And dwelling on these things makes me want to drink to stop thinking about them (and drinking makes me more likely to do new stupid/horrible thoughtless things to keep me awake and make me want to drink!). It never occurred to me to try to modify the memory which now you’ve said it seems geniously simple! Day 36!

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  3. Thank you so much for this. I’ve spent the last week either drunk or riddled with sickness from drinking too much. I made the decision to quit drinking January of 2016 after my second DUI, a few trips to jail, over night detox and waking up in the ER a couple times too many. I struggle with anxiety and crippling depression. I haven’t had a drink today mostly because I can’t even keep water down. After 8 months of sobriety here I am right back at the bottom of the bottle in desperation. I am not in control of my life. Every single aspect is falling apart. I feel completely lost and overwhelmed with shame. Thank you for your blog. The bubble hour was a huge tool when getting sober the last time. I have to quit before this thing kills me and i leave my sons motherless…

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  4. WOW ! I love it. Seems i have been doing my version of this without knowing the term ‘memory modification’ I learn something every time i come here Jean, i will use your guidance here and grow for sure. I feel comforted already

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  5. Another wonderful post! Thank you for sharing these personal experiences. I admire your honesty and vulnerability so much. Reading your posts always gives me such enormous strength and leaves me with so much to consider. Day 24 and feeling great! (And you are right, it is getting easier!)

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  6. Thank you! I have over 2 years sober but still have the guilt and shame show up sometimes, especially in regards to my kids. I’m moving forward but this is a great idea to try when those feelings come up and I need some comforting.

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  7. I have fallen down the rabbit hole of the past again. I grew up in an abusive, alcoholic home and some recent contact with family members has poked all the nasties up, leaving me sleepless and agitated without my “checking out” bottle(s) of wine. This strategy is just what I needed today. I have had excellent therapy for PTSD, but much of it has been rather abstract. This is real and immediately usable. I have built an amazing life, I need to spend more time inhabiting it. Day 203 😊

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  8. Thanks Jean so much. I really love this, and it will come in handy as I continue to rewrite my story. Really helped with my reflection today. I told one friend about what I am doing, and while it felt great the self-doubt and the “i let everybody down” stuff came online…but this will really help in the am especially, which is my prime-time rumination central. I now read at night which does a wonderful job of knocking me right out 🙂

    Hugs to you and your leg, onward to day 44

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  9. Yes! I have much the same process and heartily agree that if it’s all in our heads now, which it is, it’s ours to do whatever we please. I have mountain cabins in my visions, too, though not in the same way. And, I also have a smaller version of myself who I buy whatever she wants — at Starbucks or wherever there’s a pastry counter. Except in this case she’s the innocent, wise, joyful, loving part of me. While I’m more of a plain maple bar sort of gal, she loves the pink, gaudy, sprinkled doughnuts, and I say, whatever you want, babe.

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  10. Wow, I love this technique. Loving kindness to yourself is such an important part of healing. This imagery is really great , I will try it. Thank you!

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  11. So thankful to be sober. It’s been 6 years since I was on the merry go round you described. It’s been the best decision to give up alcohol.

    The memories that are full of guilt and resentment still raise their ugly heads from time to time. Some are still very painful. I look at them and realize they are part of the past, gone forever. I try to learn from them and make peace with them. I can’t let myself wallow and dwell on them too long or they rob me of my present.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  12. I have some painful memories from childhood, first marriage and Iraq. When these wonderful slideshow rear their head, I will give this a shot.

    I’m 18 days sober now and thinking about small changes I need to make. thanks for updating us on some methods that may help in our recovery.

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    • I found counseling very helpful to tear the wall down. If you can find someone who specializes in substance abuse, even better. Congrats on your 18 days!

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    • Hi Waterlover I used to work with vets and used a variant of the technique that Jean meantioned and it really does work! It takes a abit to get used but as with anything it is a skill that helps tons. Congrats on 18 days and know that you can always hit pause on that slide show. Send you Hugs (if you’re a hugger) and loving compassion.

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    • Waterlover here is my reply again with edits, sorry I am typing on my phone.

      Hi Waterlover I used to work with vets and used a variant of the technique that Jean mentioned and it really does work! It takes a abit to get used, like any new skill, but it does helps tons. Congrats on 18 days, that is a big deal! Know that you can always hit pause on that slide show. Journaling has really helped me, as have grounding techniques (I use something tactile like a rock or pebble) or something that smells soothing (lavendar, eucalyptus, etc), I also listen to the bubble hour podcast which is incredibly helpful (but it took me a a bit of time to be able to do that. That might be all you can do at this point and that’s ok. Sending you Hugs (if you’re a hugger) and loving compassion.

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