When Places Are Tainted by Memories

By Eleni Stephanides 10/25/21

There’s catharsis in breaking free from negative past associations.

Image: 
Woman alone in blurry lit background, in bar or club
Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

"When I walked in there my eyes went straight to that table in the corner where they were sitting. I remembered that stupid candle and the way they were looking at each other so intently--it was like they were eye fucking.”

Passenger Melody* was referring to a once beloved Silverlake bar at which she'd seen her ex on a date with another girl two years prior (after two of them had only been broken up for a week).

Since then, every time she entered her body would tense up and she’d go into shut-down mode. She remembers how alone she felt afterwards--unable to make conversation, disconnected from the group she was with.

"The laughs and shouts of everyone around me felt maniacal, and the bro spilling beer on my shirt as he passed by felt intentional. I tried going back to the bar again after that but my body just steeled itself. I can’t for now.”

Talking to Melody reminded me of the powerful associations that certain places can carry. Memories get stored inside our unconscious, sometimes forgotten by our conscious minds. Years later, the slightest smell, sound, or touch can convoke them.

I’m reminded of this each time I climb Magnolia Avenue, the curvy street I used to ascend to get to school as a teen. All of a sudden fuzzy headphones are covering my ears, my disc-man jostles around in my gym bag (the track sometimes skipping), Megan Frock’s* cat shimmies around overturned cleats on the front porch of her tangerine colored house. I'm back in my high school body.

These conjured memories aren’t always so welcome or benign. As you could tell from the opening quote, Melody’s were more negative and prevented her from wanting to re-enter the place. I definitely related, as for a while I too had to avoid certain places in my college town that carried too many painful associations.

Driving past a freeway exit that bore the same name as my college ex’s new “friends with benefits” on the way back to Davis from my parents’ house in Oakland, for example, always evoked the same visceral reaction that overtakes me when my cars' tires pass over a dead animal.

For a while I also didn't want to go back to the brewery where another ex girlfriend and I had our first heated conflict.

Bad things don’t even need to have happened inside the triggering place. Even having been merely thinking of something negative, or going through a rough time when you were last there, can be enough to resurrect those same feelings the next time you step foot into the place.

When I walked in to certain spaces, I’d instantly feel depressed. I always tried to CBT my way out of it, but these undeniable black drapes hung from every wall. Negative emotional energy left by memories still circulated the air.

A former client of mine once said: “I studied in a specific cafe—usually my happy place, filled with plants and murals and LA sun streaming through— every day when my mom was fighting cancer. I tried to take in information about organic compounds and hydrogen bonds, but instead what filled my mind were images of her in bed, the pain on my dad’s and sister’s faces, thoughts of life without her. I can’t go back there anymore. The place is tainted. It will always be filled with memories of memories that are just too painful to revisit.”

It’s not even necessary to have spent time with a person who triggers painful emotions while inside the place in question. Even just thinking about them the last time you were there is enough to summon memories and unlock old painful feelings.

"Your memory of a thought is married to the place in which it first occurred to you," writes Jennifer Ackerman, author of The Bird Way.

~~

What I’ve found helps is that if I’ve been experiencing a hard time at the same time that I’ve been going to a certain store, or taking a particular road, I will sometimes avoid that place--not for forever, but at least until the wounds are less fresh. Or until enough time has passed for the negative associations to clear out.

Passenger Trey* stayed away from a Hollywood Hills hiking trail that he used to run at often when his dad was dying. If he were to keep going back to it before he had healed, the negative feelings and associations would just continue to compound upon one another. His mind might permanently categorize it as a negative place—“and I don’t want that to happen because it’s a kickass place and I love it; the hills are rad and I can get a really amazing workout, am always sweating by the time I’m done.”

In Melody’s case, after she stayed out of the bar for a year, when she finally did go back, it no longer had power over her. You might think of it as temporary avoidance— a strategic and proactive (rather than reactive) move. I want this place to go back to doing what it once did for me, so I’m gonna give it some space. What's more, putting yourself in new surroundings gives your mind novel details to pay attention to, which is great for preventing rumination.

There’s catharsis in breaking free from negative past associations. And once we take that temporary break, we can watch as positive associations repopulate once fraught places, breathing new life into them.

 

*Names changed to protect confidentiality

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
eleni.jpeg

An LGBT bilingual writer, Eleni was born and raised in the Bay Area of California. She has been writing since elementary school, where she handed out her stories and magazines to her classmates. Her work has been published in The Mighty, Thought Catalogue, Elephant Journal, and Uncomfortable Revolution. You can follow her on IG eleni_steph421 and read stories from her time as a rideshare driver at lyfttales.com.