You know how there’s a coping mechanism of putting stressful or damaging thoughts/memories in an imaginary box and closing it until you feel ready to deal with them? I have two literal boxes of potentially upsetting artifacts, and I don’t know what to do with them.
Condensed backstory: My parents had a very long, acrimonious, complicated divorce throughout my elementary school years (age 6ish-11ish). I’m an only child. I haven’t had contact with my father in about 25 years.
I have very few memories of this time, and what I do remember is vague and blurry, with brief instances of clarity. For example, I remember that part of the custody agreement at one point was that my father could never be alone with me in a bedroom or bathroom. I remember locking myself in my bathroom and refusing to go with him and the cops being called. (I was an intensely obedient child, so this was almost indescribably outside my normal scope of behavior.)
During these years, my mom recorded everything. She wrote pages and pages documenting everything every day and, I think, recorded (and transcribed?) family therapy sessions. She kept all of this in a couple of boxes in a spare room until she downsized to a condo several years ago. At that point, I ended up with the boxes. I don’t remember if she asked me to keep them or if she told me to or if we even had a conversation about it at all. (My relationship with my mom is quite complicated, and I don’t see a path to having a productive conversation with her now about this.)
I was lucky enough to have friends who agreed to keep these boxes in their storage space for me for a few years, but I’ve since moved states. Now, these boxes are in my home. I don’t know what’s in there, and I don’t feel emotionally ready to unpack them right now. I’m afraid of seeing what’s inside — both the content and the framing of it. I’m also afraid of blindly tossing them out. Keeping them unopened in my space has been a workable temporary solution, but it’s beginning to wear on me.
Am I tying myself in knots for nothing? Am I tying myself in knots completely appropriately??
Thanks so much for your time and perspective,
Living with Literal Baggage
Dear Living With Literal Baggage:
Your instincts are right that this has gone on too long, this has been allowed to take your attention for too long. I think this situation calls for rituals. Rituals assign a space and a time for complicated stuff, so you have a structure for dealing with all of it.
One ritual could be: You acquire/hire a therapist, you open the boxes together and deal with what’s in there in the course of your therapy. The story about the very specific rules regarding your dad, the itchy feeling you have about holding onto the boxes vs. opening them, the complicated relationship with mom (“Here are boxes with every feeling and thought I ever had about you as a child, but, no conversations please!”) all indicate that therapy might be something worth doing even if you never open the boxes.
Another ritual could be: You ask or even hire a trusted friend to sort through the boxes for you and read what’s there. They can give you the executive summary version and maybe help you make a decision about what to do next, if anything. The friend could be the one who disposes of them for you.
Another ritual could be: You incinerate the boxes (safely, legally) and say some kind of words, maybe something around the idea that whoever you were in the past, and however your mom saw you then, this is who you are now. You are yourself, you do not have to carry all your mother’s thoughts and memories about you or that time with you forever, you relinquish all these things that were to the fire so that you can enjoy the things that are. You can burn the boxes now, unopened, or later, after you go through them. Deployed safely, cleansing fire is always there for you like a warm burny friend.
After any these rituals you’ll probably want to schedule something nurturing and non-taxing for yourself.
This is an honesty zone and I am an honesty blogger, so: I’m a person who always wants to know the true story even if it’s a painful story or a scary story. In a murder mystery or horror film I’m the lady with the flashlight going into the creaky attic by herself while the audience yells “nooooooooooo!” and peeks through their fingers, I’m the one that brings the cursed photo album home for a look-see, I’m the spunky neighbor who just won’t stop asking questions, I’m the person who wants to know “Is there microfilm?” or “How far does this cave go back?” I was adopted as a baby and pieces of my history were missing from me always, so I wanted to know them all. So in your shoes, I’m probably blocking out a couple of days later in the month, laying in some wine and snacks, and inviting a trusted person to sift with me. Then, I’m opening all the stuff and setting it out in the sunlight and watching the dust rise off it while I read every word, examine every scrap. I’d have to know. No matter how fucked up or mundane, I’d have to know. So that part of me is like, come on, open them open themmmmmmmmmmmmm…
But I’m not you or the boss of you, and you are probably a person who is 99% less likely to be eaten by a monster b/c you got absorbed in something juicy in the haunted archive and didn’t keep good track of sunrise & sunset times. There’s a reason you’ve never opened these before, there’s a reason it makes you uncomfortable, and you’re not obligated to ever open these. You are complete and wonderful exactly as you are, it’s okay to let go of childhood memories, and your mom’s fucked-up record-keeping is not your problem or your burden. Whatever is in the box is more about her than it is about you, her perceptions and memories of you are not The Truth about you and they don’t have to be important to who you are today. You can be like “thanks for what’s probably 15 years of post-it notes, cancelled checks, and grocery lists, time for the dumpster” right now, today. It’s okay!
You are also absolutely within your rights to ship these things to your mom, unopened and without prior discussion or permission, with a note that says: “Mom, turns out I don’t want to store these old boxes of yours anymore, here they are!” Let her curate/store/deal with them/throw them out/find a spot for them in her condo. I realize that this is putting off the problem in a way, but, honestly, “I recorded all our family therapy sessions, here they are!” is NOT a normal or usual thing for a parent to give to their child. If there is a story your mom wants to tell you left over from that time, then let her tell it. If there was a reason she was saving this stuff, let her give it. If there was something in these boxes that you absolutely needed to know, it was her job to tell it to you, long ago, way before now.
It’s okay for dusty old boxes to just become dust. It’s okay for a nice friend to take the boxes
to the town dump for a ride to the country, to live out their days on a farm with a lot of horses. It’s okay to literally return unwanted emotional baggage to sender.
Whatever you decide, do it soon? Don’t let it build up more or occupy more space in your house or your mind.
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