#1129: “Help with emotional baggage that is packed in literal boxes.” + Summer Pledge Drive Continues

Hi Captain,

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
(she/her pronouns)

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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240 thoughts on “#1129: “Help with emotional baggage that is packed in literal boxes.” + Summer Pledge Drive Continues

  1. No comments on this except to say that I understand the ‘literal baggage’ feeling. I have a duffel bag that was given to me by an ex-friend I had to disconnect from for my mental health.

    1. I mention it only to invite everyone who has something that sucks that they need to burn. I once burned the entire year of 2016. I’m bringing snacks.

        1. 🙂 If you make it this year (they’re burning him on August 31), look for the lady with 5 children. We have an extra camp chair!

      1. Yesssss over the years I have burned/shredded/destroyed/donated anything that caused me stress or pain. It’s wonderfully freeing.

      2. That sounds pretty boss!

        I burned 2016. Nothing so dramatic tho. I was all alone on New Years Eve, so I cut 2016 out of paper, put it in one of the larger pots, made myself an irish mule, set the year on fire and mumbled “Auld Lang Syne” to myself as it burned (in cut-time. It burned very quickly.)

      3. We burned 2016 in effigy that new year’s. It was sort of a memorial tip everyone we lost that year.

      4. This sounds like exactly what I need to get rid of all the paper related to my PhD. Except, you know, the actual degree, because that piece of paper might be marginally useful at some point. Gonna try to make it out to Santa Fe this year for it!

    2. My friend has a thesis burning party once where she invited all her mates to ritually burn something in a firepit. Cathartic and it smelled great.

      1. At the undergraduate college I went to, we would ritually burn our senior thesis drafts in a bonfire to kick off the campus wide end of year party while the underclasspeeps sprayed us with champagne. It was extremely therapeutic.

    3. WOW. I remember attending Zozobra once when I was a kid, but I didn’t know anything about attendees bringing their own papers etc. to add to the blaze. THAT IS SO COOL.

      I once burned all the materials, drafts, notes, etc. for my unfinished master’s thesis on a nobfire, the year I embraced my decision never to go back and finish it, because I didn’t need to, didn’t want to, bye. Bliss.

      Also, if you were my friend I would be offering my services unhesitatingly to sift papers, pour wine, check boxes for emotional minefields, etc. In my world, this is a thing that friends do. (I have had friends read mail and check the internet for me at various times, when I suspected minefields.)

      1. The Santa Fe Reporter puts “Gloom Boxes” up around town in the weeks leading up to Zozobra and there’s a couple of tents with gloom boxes if you make it all the way there without dropping off your gloom. This year will be my kids’ first time and my fifth.

      2. I’m now super sad that I flung my grad school papers into the industrial shredder rather than ritually burning them. Burning them would have been way more satisfying.

        1. I just dumped all my lab notebooks from my PhD into my recycle bin. I was tempted for a half second to pull them out, but honestly the idea of them becoming a piece of paper that a poem might be written on feels better.

          1. There’s something anticlimactic about shoving all your stuff into the shred bin, even when it’s the shred bin at your office and you’re sneakily dumping all your personal papers into it before you move house so it’s slightly subversive.

            My grad school experience was such that setting all my notes on fire and dancing around the flames would have felt amaaaaaziiiiiing.

        2. My classmates and I burned the reading list for our Masters of Literature exam immediately after sitting the 4 hour-ish test. Gathered around a bit of concrete right outside the door, lit ’em up, and invited others to join in. It was very freeing.

      3. I WISH I’d ritually burned all the papers related to my unfinished PhD thesis. Instead I hauled them around with me for six years and three moves then unceremoniously dumped them in the recycle bin because like fuck was I going to move them AGAIN.

      4. Such friends as these are forever saving us from the teeth of the shark.

        That’s a line of poetry I read somewhere and have never been able to find. I thought it was Bukowski but even a Bukowski scholar couldn’t find it. It doesn’t matter. You, walking minefields for friends. Such friends as these are forever saving us from the teeth of the shark.

        Thank you for being that sort of person in this sort of world.

    4. Oh. My god. I love this. I fucking hate Burning Man and everything involved with it and everything it stands for (yeah some baggage there). But this. This. Having read your link and more, I fucking love this.

  2. When my husband and I were getting divorced (he left me for an affair partner and just wanted out) I boxed up all the couple stuff like our wedding photos and special gifts and handed the sealed box to him. Let him decide what to do with the memories of the life together that he had thrown away. I think returning the boxes is a good idea.

  3. Or, take all the paper good to a UPS store. They charge by the pound, but they will shred ALL OF IT. So much less labor. I did that with my mothers papers and my late husbands papers.
    Sweet, sweet relief!

  4. “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!” ”

    These boxes could be full of bombs or full of ostrich feathers, literally or metaphorically, you don’t know, and furthermore, you are not obligated to find out.

    I do wonder why your mother would give you such things without prior conversation. If it were utterly benign, why give it to you? If not, why give it to you without context? Seems like giving you unmarked bombs (Oh! I didn’t know you would [be exploded], [react that way], [made aware that such and such happened]) in an attempt to circumvent any responsibility for the contents. Yeah, the more I think about it, the more passive-aggressive the whole thing seems to be.

    My SO is a physician, so I have the following thought: Will knowing the result of a test change the course of treatment? No? Then why do the test?

    1. Honestly I think the mom wants to feel like she shared whatever is in there with LW without having to deal with the emotions that might happen if she, you know, had an actual conversation about it.

      I am currently trying to practice not committing myself to emotional labor on behalf of others that is either not asked for or won’t be reciprocated so if it were me, I would be inclined to call up a shredding service and wash my hands of it unless and until Mom wants to have a real conversation about it. But I say “trying to practice” because I know it’s easy to say but not so easy to carry out.

      1. Lynn I came here to say this, too. Mom’s “giving” you these items in such a way that she won’t have to deal with any emotional fallout. LW, if you’re not in a good place to deal with what might be in those boxes on your own, here’s what I’d do. I’d call mom and say, “You gave me those boxes. I’m no longer able to hold onto them so, I’m going to send them right to a shredding service. If there’s anythign in them I need to be aware of, you have until X date to let me know, other wise, I’m sending them off to the shredder.” Give her that one last shot to have a real conversation than, send them off to the waste bin guilt free. You don’t have to hold onto other people’s junk boxes for them and you certainly don’t have to become the guardian of other people’s emotional baggage.

          1. Yes! The mom didn’t give child notice. If the boxes were legally important or whatever she should have said so

          2. Agreed. Mom dumped it all on OP worh no apparent regard for how it would affect her.

            Ok then.

            Now it’s OP’s property to do with as she will. I say shred it all and *if* the mom ever asks then she can tell her.

    1. Me toooooo. I’m itching with curiosity just reading this letter. Also, Veronica Mars is one of my favorite female characters of all time and I know what she would do here.

      But OP, you do whatever is right for you.

    2. I would normally be with you on this (I’m just about the nosiest person I know), but I’m concerned about the part of the custody agreement that dictated Dad wasn’t allowed to be alone with Daughter. That threw up enormous red flags for me – if I were OP, I would only crack the box open in the presence of a trusted therapist, if at all.

      1. And the bedroom/bathroom thing. That’s a whole USSR May Day parade of red flags. Nobody should go into that alone.

    3. Honestly, in my experience going through family paperwork that I thought would be a thrilling montage in a murder mystery (my family has some messed up stuff) it was actually SO BORING. That paperwork is probably not gonna reveal the secrets of the ghost that has been haunting your family, it will just be really mundane. It builds up in your head as this big thing, then it is just paperwork. Paperwork from when your grandfather had your grandmother committed because she had personality of her own is still really boring paperwork. I know this stuff isn’t paperwork, but it will probably be very repetitive and dull. Unless your mom like to sensationalize things, which means it probably mostly won’t be true. Tell yourself you are saving yourself from a dusty, dull afternoon and ditch the stress boxes.

      1. Oh your trove sounds amazing. I have a penchant for documents and documentation. I love ephemera and the stories they tell. The handwriting in which the doctor wrote the entirely unremarkable prescription. The letterhead that lacks a zip code on the address because zip codes didn’t exist. The transmittal document saying ‘enclosed please find the files you asked for’ and the files are no longer enclosed. A phone number written in the margins with no indication of whose it was, or whether it was ever called. The physical makeup of the paper, whether it’s onionskin, or carbon copies, or cotton rag. I love that stuff. Pointless, useless, beautiful, amazing documentation. I’m the kind of person who sniffs paper.

        In LW’s case of course, those papers contain god knows what. It’s like Here Be Dragons at the edge of the map. These documents are from the place where her life falls off the map. And she doesn’t owe it to anyone to descend into the lair of dragons out of some misplaced obligation to her mom and definitely not out of romanticism for old fashioned handwriting.

    4. As someone who had a rough childhood, some of it hazy, most of it unfortunately not…I wouldn’t want to go through that box. I don’t even know if I’d want to know. It’s so hard rectifying and getting over this shit that you had no control over, with parents that were not safe people. I am thankful to have a happy life, a wonderful family I’ve made with my husband, but I still am haunted by all the things. Yes, I see a therapist. It’s hard to work through this stuff. The mental boxes don’t always hold,

      Hugs, LW. You can throw it all out and sleep easy. You can send it to your mom. You can take a peek and decide. So many choices. You don’t even need to make a decision now.

      1. I’m with leaving the boxes closed. A few years back, my aunt told me the “real reason” why my parents divorced. It didn’t bring me any sense of peace, or understanding. I never wondered why they divorced, I was just glad they did. Knowing more just left with me with more questions.

        Some things are better left in the past. It’s taken me some time to heal and get past issues from childhood. If those boxes were mine, I’d find a safe place to burn them, light some sage, say a few words. Then spent the rest of the weekend eating my favorite foods and doing things I loved, and making sure I had a good support network to talk to.

        Hugs, LW. You don’t have an easy choice ahead, but it will be a freeing one.

      2. I’m another one who would personally send the boxes back to your mother. When my parents got divorced, my mother felt the need to share all the statements her lawyer got her to write up at a dinner party with the entire family. It turned out that I did not want to know what happened when I was a baby, even though I thought I was happy to know. I had a major depressive episode that lasted the best part of a year.

        Best wishes for whatever decision you make, xx

    5. I’m team burn the house to the ground at the first sign of haunting, so I’d say just destroy them. Especially if you’re in a good place now and have processed/moved on from your childhood. But, there’s really no right answer here.

    6. I’m of the compulsively curious school, also.

      But more to the point, I’ve found that unearthing Family History has shed light on things that didn’t make sense without the context.

      But I also didn’t face context that was, like, radioactive.

    7. Saaaaame! I couldn’t live _not_ knowing.

      But I also apparently have unusually strong boundaries separating my self from other people’s opinions/thoughts/feelings about me, so it would probably be a lot easier for me to read it all as “my mother’s feelings/thoughts during a stressful time” and not inherently a referendum on Me As A Person. Understanding why my mother did and said things would be both fascinating and useful to me. I’d still do it with a therapist though, because it sounds like there are going to be some ugly memories and revelations involved, and I am not remotely a Vulcan despite what it may seem like when other people have feelings at me.

  5. My town doesn’t have a waste transfer station, just the city dump, and one time I had to haul a bunch of crap out there that had been left by the previous owner of my house. It was magical, in its own dumptastic way, driving up, getting my car weighed, then joining a long procession of vehicles ascending switchbacks up the hill of junk, me in my tiny passenger car following the giant dump trucks. We climbed higher and higher, then finally reached the place where we could dump our garbage, right at the very top. It was marvelous, a panoramic view of the countryside stretching out before me, the glittering towers of the city in the distance. I dumped the inattentive jerk’s crap with great prejudice and rejoiced as the wind blew through my hair like freedom.

    This is the glorious future I imagine for you, OP! You can do it!

    1. This has to be the most magical Dumpster visit story ever. It could be a children’s book.

      1. Agreed. That’s beautiful. I imagined it like a kid’s show, possibly narrated by Levar Burton. Now I want to go to the city dump, which is a very unfamiliar sensation.

    2. Slightly OT but other people leaving their crap behind annoys the fuck out of me. So much so that I made it part of every single purchase contract ever over the past 30+ years. Take it or pay for it to be removed but don’t leave even one single paperclip in my house.


      1. Oh, I did get my reimbursement for the transfer fees plus $20/hr loading it up and driving it out there. I got this 😉

        1. Sure, sure but I just don’t want the responsibility.

          If I wanted to get rid of other people’s crap I’d open a business and hire people to do the grunt work.

          Same reason I pay for them to set up my TV, router, game system and remote control: I just want it done and working and to not have to learn to make all of the cogs fit together correctly even though I *could.* I already know enough stuff. 😛

    3. Near my parents’ house is the most scenic dump I have ever been to, with a view of mountains and the sea and I am picturing you at that particular dump, and it is wonderful.

  6. If it helps, I am the opposite of Our Captain in terms of what gut instinct says. My instinct says that this should NOT be your problem to read and process or suffer the burden of carrying, and they should be destroyed in either the most convenient or cathartic way possible. (This is not to say that YOU should feel this way or do these things! Just that there is no wrong or weird way to feel about this, all feels are possible and normal.)

    1. …although I am now enjoying thinking of various uses to put a box of unwanted paper products. Like make pulp out of them for paper making! Turn them into new paper and write your own stories on them. Paper mâché? Make a piñata?

      1. Heck, declare the whole thing an art project and donate it to a modern art museum. “Records of my abusive childhood, unopened.” Make everyone like the Captain (and me!) who would HAVE TO KNOW itch with discomfort.

      2. I am generally all for reusing paper scraps in creative ways, but were I in LW’s shoes, reusing these particular paper scraps would give me the screaming heebiejeebies. I’d feel like the emotions surrounding them would persist and attach to anything they were made into.

        But I also know that transforming things into better things can be cleansing. If this would work for LW, go for it.

    2. I’m with you. I would just get them shredded. I have a shredder… but if I were to do it myself aside from the sheer volume of work, I know I’d look at them as I was shredding. Better to just take the boxes in situ to a place that does shredding or have one of those mobile shredding companies come out and do it.

    3. I am wondering if it would be realistic to pay a therapist to go through the papers while the LW isn’t there, and to provide a summary at the end? Essentially CA’s second suggestion, but have a therapist do the work? I wouldn’t want to read the notes myself, but part of me would wonder forever if there was a key in the documents which would help with my own mental health.

      1. Is that a thing a therapist would do? I would’ve thought it was the domain of lawyers. (I mean just if the LW isn’t going through them with the therapist.)

        P. S- I don’t want to derail anything but this has been driving me nuts and I don’t know where else to ask- what’s up with some peoples avatars being cute cartoon little creatures?

        1. They’re the default of Oi don’t have an account I think
          (Though I’ve never been able to comments as a guest without logging into my ancient WordPress account so I dunno)

      2. 100%. I don’t think getting a friend to go through it is a good idea – I don’t think it’s fair on the friend to expect them to decide what would be useful or not useful for LW to know.
        Getting a therapist to decide what would be beneficial for LW’s mental health in the long run – this makes sense. I would speak to the therapist for a while beforehand so a) you trust them to make a good call on that and b) they have information that would help them know what to make of the contents.

    4. Also maybe it’s “a blessing” (yes, my atheist self just said that) that there’s things she doesn’t remember.

    5. I am USUALLY with the Captain re: I MUST KNOW ALL THE THINGS. Like I routinely have to remind myself that people are not novels and I do not get to be pissy if all their loose ends don’t get tied up.

      I am ironically super not like that about the biggest trauma in my life, the murder of a family member. We don’t know who did it, we will almost certainly never find out, and I honestly could not possibly give less of a fuck. Knowing who it was wouldn’t change anything for me or add any value to my life. Like if someone told me I could find out for $20 I’d probably just go spend the $20 at happy hour instead. It is so out of character it took a while for me to be okay with it.

      So I agree, all feels are possible and normal even if they are not really the usual feels for you personally.

      That said, in my capacity as nosy person I volunteer as tribute if anyone has anything they want me to look through and give them an executive summary of.

  7. I wonder, are there any other relatives – close aunts/uncles, grandparents, something like that – who could be available to talk about some of this? Someone who has adult memories and perspective on something LW experienced as a child might be in a position to shed light that reduces the psychological weight of this baggage.

    Someone who would have been around but is one step removed from the actual events could be worth enlisting.

    1. That’s a great idea. The boxes contain everything from the LW’s mother’s POV, so it’s going to be heavily emotionally charged and not a particularly reliable narrator. (Not a slight on the LW’s mother – it’s just that she was part of this, not an outside observer.) Anyone you interview about past events is going to have a limited set of data, but it may be worth seeking out people who don’t have an interest in emotionally protecting themselves.

    2. I’m filtering this through my own experiences, which may or may not be applicable, but I can see a way this could backfire badly. Learning that people in your family knew about the abuse you were enduring (assuming that’s what happened here) and weren’t able/willing to protect you can be extremely painful and can alienate you from even more of your family. If LW is really happier not knowing, I think that’s another box that might need to stay closed.

    3. Nooooooo. IME, family members are almost always the worst people to process childhood trauma with because they have an investment in not rocking the boat (whether or not they knew about it at the time).

  8. As someone with very similar tendencies, I think that there’s nothing wrong with letting the boxes sit in a closet for eternity *IF* you think that’s the end of it. If they can exist in a weird liminal space that you don’t want to touch, then please, let them do so. However, I find that in many cases, the drawing of those strict boundaries begins to accumulate additional anxiety.

    Letter writer, I once had a dresser and the top drawer was filled with mementos from a very, very, very, very, very bad time in my life. It was a nice dresser, so I kept it and decided to use the lower drawers. This became stressful, making it difficult for me to work up the motivation to put my laundry away, because I knew I’d be Near That Bad Stuff That Reminds Me Of Bad Times. Eventually I began mentally avoiding that whole side of my bedroom. I was putting ridiculous amounts of time and energy into Not Looking at this one innocuous piece of furniture because I was scared of my own reaction to what was inside it. I was(am) lucky to have a wonderful friend who saw how much I was suffering and offered to bag the offending items and throw them away. Then we burnt sage and said a prayer.

    Maybe you are nothing like me, and those boxes can remain just… boxes. But if you are afraid that they will take on more emotional meaning than that, I urge you to think about facing them, even if that just means “I am making a choice to burn them and never know what’s inside.”

    1. It was similar for me after my son died. There were simple, mundane things (throwing away a toothbrush…) that I just could not make myself do. Fortunately I had other people that did that sort of thing for me.

  9. LW Given the rules around your father, your unwillingness to go to his home, and your mother’s need to keep meticulous record of that period of your life (possibly to be presented at a custody hearing as evidence) all point to a conclusion that would deeply wound even the toughest among us. And I feel that part of why these boxes weigh so heavily on your mind is that the not knowing and the not remembering are eating at you but at the same time you don’t want your worst case scenario confirmed.

    I like the captain’s suggestion of hiring a professional and explaining to them that there is some literal baggage that needs unpacking, because the anxiety that comes from not knowing and not remembering is not going to fade if the boxes are disposed of, but going through them doesn’t feel like a DIY project. I’m so sorry you’re facing this, I hope you can find a solution that works for you.

    1. It may be worth asking yourself, as your memories from that time are so hazy, “What continuing effects are whatever my dad did having on my life today? Is there really much to be gained by opening these boxes and finding out?”

      To me, that’s different from sweeping whatever may have happened under the carpet. It’s more a case of, hey, my mom wanted me to have this stuff but clearly this has a much deeper affect on her life than mine; maybe I just don’t need it to be a part of my story?

      1. Very much co-signed. OP, if what you find in that box does hint at something traumatic, or sparks memories (either real or invented by your brain — that’s why most respectable therapists are wary of “memory recovery” techniques, because it’s so easy for the brain to come up with false ones)… That’s new baggage you’ll have to deal with. Please do consider whether you’re okay with that risk before opening those boxes. I think sometimes not knowing can be healthier.

        1. It isn’t really new, though. The abuse already happened. The damage is already there. Dealing with it consciously could be difficult, but it’s not a choice between dealing with it and not dealing with it. OP is already carrying that burden.

          1. It really, really depends on the individual.

            I had a stretch of ambiguous maybe-abusive iffiness in my childhood, and I am almost certainly never going to get the Real Story of What Happened. (both parents are unreliable narrators / frequent liars, no other adults around at the time)

            However, I have tried to deal with *what I remember and how I felt* as its own entity, even with all the ambiguity and gaps in the Story. It affected me how it affected me. That’s still true, no matter what.

            Not chasing after The Full Story doesn’t preclude dealing with it, is what I’m trying to say.

          2. like an angry apple tree: +1

            I also had a stretch of ambiguous iffiness in my childhood (definitely abusive, iffiness was in the specifics and what I witnessed vs experienced firsthand). The adults in my life then and now can’t tell me what happened, so I’m never going to know. I have some specific trauma triggers and I don’t know whether they’re because of real events or invented memories, but either way I practice similar self-care.

            There’s this cultural narrative about trauma that “if you let it out, you can heal” (and if you don’t, you never will). But for a subset of patients who enter therapy (and presumably for an even larger subset of humans at large), this just isn’t true. If your layers of coping techniques and denials are reasonably healthy, and are not preventing you from leading the kind of life you want to live, let ’em be.

          3. An additional +1 to apple tree and Solo from another person with an ambiguously iffy maybe-abusive-definitely-not-great stretch of childhood. There’s no way I’ll ever know what really happened. My parents are unreliable narrators and there’s no one else who experienced things firsthand, without being extremely committed to one side of the narrative or the other.

            One time I was going through an old box and saw some photos from that time period. I felt some feelings, and then I threw the photos away. One time I was helping my dad take some other boxes to the dump, and one spilled in the trunk of his car, and I saw a few pages of court records. I felt some feelings, and then I put the papers back in the box, and I threw the box away.

            I’ve made peace with the fact that bad things happened and that the adults in my life made bad choices, and that also, at the same time, they were doing the best that they could with their own traumas and baggage and mental health struggles and blind spots and etc. unto infinity. And so for me, there is just no POINT in trying to exhume all of the horrible details. Things happened, or didn’t happen, or ???? [hazy memories, snapshots of clarity].

            I know all of those things in my childhood affected me–how could they not? But I still managed to grow up to be a strong, resilient, and functional adult, and I’m so much more than the most tumultuous and traumatic time in my life.

      2. Yeah, I think that the psychoanalysts’ cultural influence has led to a general understanding of repression as an inherently bad thing, when it is in fact a coping mechanism that can contextually have some problematic effects but is often much better than the alternative of actually remembering (and possibly reliving) traumatic events.

        I still always want to know things becasue knowing more makes my worldview/model of reality more accurate, which is useful for informing which actions I should take to yield a desired outcome, but I also know that people can/do experience knowledge of things they find unpleasant as itself unpleasant, and here we may be dealing with actual trauma triggers, so having support if LW does want to see what’s there is a good idea, and leaving it alone is also totally reasonable.

        1. Agree. When I was a preteen, I kept a diary and wrote that ‘I couldn’t commit suicide because then my younger sibs would be left alone to deal with it’. I clearly recall reading the diary years later and destroying it so no one would find it and label me or otherwise hurt me. To this day I don’t recall what ‘it’ was, other than I know my parents fought a lot and there was an alcohol abuse problem. Today, my sibs don’t remember or blow it off as ‘just arguments’, and the older generation won’t talk. I survived. I know I have issues, but none so significant as to cause me pain on a daily basis. I sup pose whatever happened I was able to wall off and cope around it.
          Do I want to know what happened? The inquisitive reader in me is interested, but I think (for me) pulling out all the forgotten memories would open wounds I didn’t know I had.

          The Capt has given you some good alternatives as to how to move forward. I hope that all the comments here will help you sift out your feelings and decide which diction is the best, healthiest alternative for you.

  10. I just want the OP to know that ‘not knowing what to do with literal baggage’ happens with many deeply emotional situations, not only sad-scary things.

    My sis shared a bedroom with me. When my sis got married, she left stuff behind – unmade bed, stuff on shelves, counters, floor…
    I didn’t tidy up her stuff or make her bed for over a month. It was too hard to touch anything of hers. And this deeply emotional situation was a happy occasion!

    If you’ve had this “hands off” stuff for so long, you really, really can decide that you want it to stay ‘hands off’ and never touch it, ever.

    Get rid of it if you want, look at it if you want, but don’t assume there’s an actual obligation upon you.

    1. I wonder a bit if the feeling LW has of having to deal with the boxes in some way is part of a cultural pressure for “closure,” or “resolution.”

      LW, is there any reason you need to make a decision right now? If you wish, keeping the boxes around and not deciding whether to open or discard them is also an option. You could give yourself a date to revisit (not decide) the issue—in a year, two, five—whatever you want.

      There’s value and validity in all of these choices.

  11. Examine why you might be afraid/avoiding Mom’s reaction to being asked about the boxes since it’s not clear here (and may not be clear to you). What does a “productive conversation” mean to you? Having a vague idea what’s in the boxes without needing to read them? Are you afraid your mom might handwave away everything with a “that’s all in the past and I don’t feel like talking about it, why are you bringing this up now”? If so, that sounds like a good candidate for giving them back to your mom or burning them.

    You also mention not feeling emotionally ready RIGHT NOW, which implies that you think you might be or want to be in the future. Therapy can help with these.

  12. “It’s okay to literally return unwanted emotional baggage to sender.”

    I can’t say how much I love this!

    It wasn’t the same thing – not things so emotionally heavy – but when I divorced there was a box that was miscellaneous stuff (that box that gets filled with the bits that couldn’t fit into purpose-made boxes) and I knew that 1-2 cubic feet of it was very emotional things. It sat in the corner of my apartment for most of the first 6 months.

    I suspect that a there are boxes of the sort still in my ex’s attic. I would have taken them but under the agreements with my ex I had too little time to do so and now, per our divorce agreement, they are my ex’s property and not mine, ensuring that I’m relieved of that burden.

    1. When I got divorced my ex split up our property and mailed it to me. Some, like paintings, I sold or kept. But almost all of it was absolute crap: Probably 25 years’ worth of sports stuff that he, a sportswriter, had been stashing in large, heavy boxes. About 99.99999 percent of it was utterly obscure (think “media guide for a Division 666 college volleyball team”) but he was convinced that one day it would be valuable and thus hauled it through five moves.

      Those boxes and the wrapped paintings filled up most of the bedroom in my new apartment. I was back in school in my late 40s, and working several part-time jobs, and too busy/tired to deal with it. After a few years I finally realized that I had to go through it, box by box, to see if ANYTHING had potential value.

      Spoiler alert: It didn’t. And I still resent all the hours it took to go through all those items (each box held hundreds) looking to see if I could possibly earn any money selling the stuff. But oh, how cathartic it felt to make dozens and dozens of trips down to the mixed-paper recycling bin and HEAVING the things in, and ultimately to break down the boxes and recycle those.

      Incidentally, if you’re ever mailed professionally packaged paintings you may find takers for the boxes. When I sold a bunch of the paintings I put the packaging up on Freecycle and almost immediately heard from artists who wanted it.

  13. I LOLed at the boxes living out their lives on a farm with horses. Thanks CA! Also, best of luck for the OP with whatever option you choose.

  14. LW, if you haven’t, this might be a good time to go to therapy no matter what you do with the boxes. Even if you don’t want to do anything to work on your relationship with your mom (which is Your Choice and don’t let anyone tell you different!), it might be really helpful to talk through the weird feelings you’re carrying. You might learn something about yourself or just feel better for having been heard. The best part of therapy for me has been when I didn’t have a goal besides “have a larger Team Me.”

  15. I have to say, I like the idea of sending them back to your Mom (if that wouldn’t add fuel to what sounds like a smoldering fire), or having a friend take a peek and give you a brief resume so you have a better feel for whether to dive in or ditch it.

    As a bit of a segue, I’m also adopted, and I find it fascinating how differently people react. The Cap says, “I was adopted as a baby and pieces of my history were missing from me always, so I wanted to know them all.” I was adopted at 4 days old, and despite multiple offers from my parents to get me more info about my birth I was never interested. And I’m still not, at 50+. It’s not even so much that I don’t care, it’s that I most emphatically DO NOT want to know. At all. I got very angry with my older (also adopted) sister when she started to tell me stuff about my adoption that she knew. She’s one of the “Gotta know!” folk, and we are mutually baffled at the other’s reactions.

    However this gets handled, LW, I wish you peace.

    1. My husband was also adopted, and the circumstances around it were kept from him until he was a teenager. He did do some snooping on his own, but at this point he has several adult half-siblings who live one town over and may or may not know about him, and he has no interest in contacting them, which just blows my mind, since I’m a “Gotta know!” person myself. So I would be an “Open the boxes!” person while he would probably either burn them unopened or put them in the back of a closet forever. But both of those solutions are OK, and that’s what matters.

  16. I would 100% want to know what’s in the boxes, but if I didn’t, I would send it back to your mom tout de suite.

  17. There’s a great memoir by A.M. Homes called The Mistress’ Daughter. In it she describes that when her biological mother died, she spent a few hours in her apartment packing things up into boxes. Boxes which she then never opened, and sat in her apartment, and then were placed in storage, and then one day she was ready to open those boxes and look inside them. And did so, having cleared the space in herself to do the job. I would hang onto them until you’re ready to open them. That might not be for a long time. It sounds like you need to deal with what’s in them, but you aren’t ready to. That’s totally ok.

    1. That’s interesting, I also came here to mention a memoir about a similar situation: To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine, formerly of The Slits. The book title comes from a bag of papers she found among her late mother’s possessions, which was literally labelled “to throw away unopened”, but Viv felt that her mother must have wanted her to read the papers or she would have destroyed them herself.

      It’s pretty similar to the LW’s situation in that Viv’s parents had an acrimonious divorce when she was a child, and the papers included diaries and other records her mother kept during that time. She later found a similar diary kept by her father (they were both recommended to keep diaries by lawyers as part of the custody case) so she got his version of events too and the book is about her piecing it all together. It’s absolutely fascinating but also heart wrenching. I don’t know if the LW would particularly want to read it, but I suppose it shows she’s not alone in her situation.

  18. We should have a community baggage exchange. You send me yours, I’ll send you mine. We’ll provide general instructions (store, review, summarize, destroy, preserve and return only legally and financially sensitive material, etc.) and leave the details to a kind stranger from the internet.

    (If someone doesn’t already have a business offering this service, they should.)

    I destroyed nearly all artifacts of my marriage and divorce. I actually took them with me on a trip to another country, went to a remote location, and safely and responsibly burned them. I didn’t even want the ashes in the same country as me. It was a relief. I have had zero regrets.

  19. Interpretation of what was written long ago can be very problematic, if the writer is not available.

    The Captain has suggested great strategies. To me, the key question for the LW is: ” Knowing the personalities and the probabilities: How much time, energy and resources do you want to put into sifting, investigating, analyzing and working on making peace with this stuff? “

    1. So much this.

      I know my mother is an unreliable narrator around my parents divorce. She has alluded to serious allegations against my father in a very similar vein. IE my sister locked herself in the bathroom once and wouldn’t let my dad take her away after the separation had begun…Mother accused my father of things…my father denies…no one could know the truth. I could not ask my mother today and believe what she said. There’s a part of me that burns to know the worst for sure…but I cannot know for sure. No one can know for sure what happened. My sister has no terrible memory of anything happening. She has plenty of anger for totally different reasons around that divorce…I was too young to remember anything…I cannot trust my father to be honest here because if he is guilty of what he was accused of he won’t admit it…either way he will deny…I am afraid to know…but I cannot know…if I had boxes like yours I would feel the same.

      To open them would simply mean to open a box of my mothers’ perspective at a certain date and time when she was also emotional around a divorce happening that she never wanted. She has said some terrible things I know to be false.

      I feel in your shoes I would go with option A…but maybe even A + where you have the therapist first open the boxes without me and review everything and then we start the process together where she works with me and we decide together what information will help for me to hear. But all this is because…should the worst be provably true, I am still in touch with my father and that truth would lead me to cut him off.

      You do what feels best.

      1. My own mom was an unreliable narrator prior, during and some years after the divorce. She decided that my dad was The Enemy and that I must be on her side whether I liked it or not. Reading about LW’s parents made my skin prickle, though I’m guessing in a different way from others.

        1. Yes. There is a part of my mom that I know well that loves the world to be black and white and lets her worldview follow how she wants it to be and could easily decide “If you don’t want to stay married to me then that makes you the worst human possible therefore you must have done xyz!” but there’s an equally plausible narrative in which dad did the thing…or did x-adjacent thing…and I honestly don’t really trust anything I think I know or even remember from that time because it all kept shifting under my feet.

      2. > To open them would simply mean to open a box of my mothers’ perspective at a certain date and time

        This is really smart. I was debating which side I would be on, but this persuaded me: I would dump them unread.

    2. “Interpretation of what was written long ago can be very problematic, if the writer is not available.”

      ^ seconded, and sometimes even if the writer is available. I have some decade-old journals that span a couple of hard chapters in my life. The few times I’ve peeked through them, the writing frequently surprises me: it summarizes events differently than what I (think I) remember, or sentences that I would normally write with dry humor come across as stark and hollow. I can tell that these accounts are a little weird/not completely accurate because I wrote them about things that happened to me; but if I was in the LW’s position of reading records someone else had made, I’d have no idea.

      LW, good luck with whatever you decide to do. If you do read them, remember that they might not be 100% accurate, even if your mother was trying to record everything accurately.

    3. Yes, I have to wonder how much of what the boxes contain is factual information and how much is Mom’s Feelings. Factual information may or may not be useful to the LW. Mom’s Feelings, it sounds like, would not be helpful and are very much Mom’s Problem to deal with. I’m as curious as the Captain, but even I might ask a therapist or friend to give the boxes a read through and evaluate how much is relevant to me and how much is only relevant to mom. I could foresee a situation where opening the boxes makes the LW have to reevaluate their relationship with their mother, both past and present, which could be helpful or harmful in the long run, and is likely to be very painful either way.

  20. See, I’m the person who won’t see horror movies and who can’t even watch TV during October because the commercials are too scary. Well, the commercials themselves usually aren’t too bad, but the things my brain can do with the images from those commercials? Whooooo boy. I’m very good at building things up in my imagination, so having a box of mystery papers sitting in my living space indefinitely would be exhausting and terrifying. So I personally would be better off either reading everything (and in most of my life cases finding out it wasn’t nearly as bad as I made it out to be– not saying this is true for the OP but it’s true for me like 95% of the time) or getting that dead weight out of my house so it can’t haunt me anymore. I really like the idea of returning to sender, both for how logical it is and for how emotionally satisfying the metaphor is.

  21. I don’t usually comment, but this really resonates with me. I went back to therapy and have been unpacking my childhood these past couple of months. The parts I remember are bad enough. When discussing with my therapist trying to fill in the (many) holes in my childhood memories, she told me that brains are really good at protecting us. Whatever I can’t remember, I probably can’t remember it for a good reason. I am under no obligation to do the work of discovering and then unpacking even more awful shit that was done to me.

    I know there can be catharsis in playing the detective and a relief in discovering that your theories about your childhood are correct. But as someone who has spent way too much time defining myself by my childhood I just wanted to say that you are the person YOU built. Whatever is in those boxes doesn’t change that. You have a right to not be tempted to rewrite what you built because of whatever’s in there.

    Your brain remembers what it has been useful to remember. Anything else, you get to choose. I know it was really liberating to stop digging and get to make the decision that all that awful shit is OVER and I get to move on.

    As someone with lots of metaphorical boxes, I am sending OP so much love and light and strength and all the good things in the universe. May those boxes be gone very soon, no matter what you choose to do with them.

    1. Lots of love for you are the person YOU built. That’s 100% true and very important to remember.

  22. I get the feeling that a part of your knots is not really remembering what was going on at that time, having only vague (and pretty upsetting) memories, and not knowing things that happened… specifically things that may have happened to you.

    And since your mother cannot or will not talk to you about these things, and for whatever reasons (which I am inclined to believe are completely valid), you cannot or will not ask her about them.

    Recently I went through a Rubbermaid bin in which I had every journal, diary, and planner I’ve kept from the last 22 years. It was literal, and very heavy, emotional baggage. Going through it was very difficult and I wish I had taken steps to better prepare myself, ritualize, and take care of myself during this process. But when all of them were gone – said goodbye to and thrown out or shredded – I felt better. Lighter. Free, finally, from so much of the past.

    And I also felt worse. And shortly thereafter I got very serious very fast about finding a therapist and setting up our first appointment. Because I skimmed through those journals as I went – not full re-reads, but flipping through. Some pages sucked me back into the past like they were magic portals, and the parts of my past I went to were full of fear and anger that I’ve been carrying for decades. I read some things that, even though I was the one who wrote them, I’d forgotten, or glossed over, or never really put in context.

    On the one hand: not reading them in detail was a good call. Getting rid of all of them was a good call. On the other hand, skimming through them and uncovering some things I’d buried in my own memory was important. For my own sake, I need and want to unpack those discoveries in therapy so I can exorcise some of these ghosts.

    Your situation is different, in that it sounds like there’s a lot more to go through, and in that none of it is your own recollection. Every word you might read is someone else’s perspective. I would caution you against looking through and reading your mother’s recordings and transcripts when you’re on your own. The path through your own memories is a thorny wood, and laying someone else’s memories over it will make the trail muddier and stickier, I think.

    CA’s suggestions are all good ones: ask a friend for help, do this in the care of a therapist, send it back to your mom. Whatever you choose, know that it’s not silly or strange that you feel tied up in knots about this. Your mother has loaded you down with literal, heavy baggage that doesn’t even belong to you. It’s HER baggage ABOUT you (and not even really about you… all our baggage is ultimately about ourselves).

  23. Some thoughts for LW, as somebody who had (primarily emotionally and verbally) abusive parents in childhood, and has a lot of other friends who are survivors of childhood abuse, too (a lot of them with much worse experiences than me):

    LW, before you destroy anything that could put you in a position to better understand your past, please seriously consider the state of your mental health now. If it’s genuinely good, you don’t deal with debilitating depression/anxiety, you don’t have any unhealthy coping mechanisms, you don’t find yourself sleeping what you would consider to be too much or too little, the sleep you get is restful, etc., then you’re probably good to just chuck everything, if that’s what you want to do. But if you’re dealing with any health issues–whether physical or mental (which is really just another type of physical)–that you think could potentially be rooted in things you experienced as a child, whether or not you actively remember them now, please strongly consider at a minimum having a trusted friend go through the materials and summing up what they think you would need to know to work on with a therapist.

    When we experience prolonged abuse and/or traumatic events at any time in our lives, they shape us. But especially when they happen as children, during a time when we should be nothing but loved and protected and cared for and supported, and our bodies (including our brains) are still developing, they shape us even more. They literally change our bodies. (There’s a reason survivors of childhood abuse are way more likely to have autoimmune conditions as adults.) We have lived through these experiences and will continue to survive them, BUT it is easier to do so, and to achieve more personally fulfilling lives, when the people who are helping us to learn how to live with these bodies and brains–and perhaps even reshape them away from the forms they took to help us survive that are no longer needed in our safer adult lives–know exactly what happened. (It can be the difference between, say, trying to guess where and how to splint a broken bone and being able to look at an X-ray of it. The former doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t heal, but the latter is more precise.)

    Hazy memories can be a normal childhood thing, but they can also be a reaction to trauma, our bodies’ way of defending us. But that mechanism isn’t perfect, and sometimes things we didn’t think we remembered will eventually surface again. It can be retraumatizing, but it can also be something that helps us go, “Oh, so THAT’S why I’ve always had such a strong reaction as an adult to XYZ thing,” and then work to reshape that reaction into something that no longer disrupts our lives. Having these materials is an opportunity to take that potential revelation into your own hands and gain control of it, increasing the chances that, IF it happens, it happens on your own terms and in a way you’re immediately prepared to deal with, so you can continue to survive and thrive.

    Whatever you decide, I wish you all the best.

  24. I would open them, but since the LW says ‘not ready’ (implying ‘yet’) and was happy with them elsewhere; safe deposit box?

  25. We had Boxes of Things after my mom died, and the contents ranged from soul-stabby to awesome to hilarious. We found Mom and Dad’s marriage certificate, did some quick math with our oldest brother’s birthday, and OH MY MOM AND DAD WERE SO NAUGHTY!

    But you know what? There was nothing in there that we couldn’t have lived without. No childhood drawings, no favorite lost toys, no $50,000 in bearer bonds. If there’s nothing you know you’ll need in there, if there’s no risk of somebody’s social security number being found by landfill gulls and sold to a crime syndicate,* you can dump it or return it to your mom with a clear conscience. Otherwise, bring in a buddy to help screen the contents and a good paper shredder and enjoy the satisfaction of destroying your paper enemies.

    *I do not mean to imply that all landfill gulls are criminals and apologize if I have given that impression.

  26. “her perceptions and memories of you are not The Truth about you ”

    I really love this. LW, memories can be hazy and strange and your experience as a 6 year old was not your mom’s experience as a grown woman experiencing a divorce. I think opening them and letting your mom trying to write “The Truth About You” would be unfair to yourself.

  27. LW, so much of what happened during your parents’ divorce has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their relationship. It’s one of the hardest things to do as a divorcee: separate out your child’s relationship with “that asshole” from all the bad feelings that ended the marriage. You know that all of your mom’s notes will be filled with what she was going through at the time. They will be painful. They are not going to be objective.

    But you do have questions about what happened at the time. Is it possible for you to contact the therapist(s) that conducted the family therapy sessions? If they are willing/able to talk with you, you might find better answers than if you tried to talk with your mother now or went through the box.

  28. LW, I love the suggestion of a professional who opens the boxes for you, or with you if you want. After my mother’s death, I came across her diaries, and did not have to read more than a page to know that I did NOT want to read them all – they were personal to her, and they did not represent ‘the real her’; they were a place where she could dump a lot of negative stuff so she would not carry it around with her in her day-to-day life.

    Your situation is worse. Given the circumstances you’ve related, there is no way that you will find out anything good. If you need to know, someone else should filter it for you; if you decide you can live without it, destroy them safely. You already HAVE much of the necessary information – you’re not in contact with your father – so do you really need to know details? They won’t make you happy. They might explain something, but in your shoes, I’d talk that over with a therapist.

  29. Just a comment about therapy that I learning from going to a talk about treating refugees in for trauma, they now have somatic techniques that do not involve recall/knowledge of the traumatic events. So if the box includes information about traumatic events in your childhood, there are techniques to work with and resolve the issues without having to go through the boxes. Just another option, may or may not work for you,.

    1. These have been VERY effective for me with the ‘I know Bad Things happened to me as a kid; the details are fuzzy but the long-term impact to my well-being are not’

      A good book on the subject is ‘The Body Keeps The Score’, if anyone is interested.

      1. Also endorse somatic techniques, and ‘The Body Keeps the Score’. Even without explicit memories, emotions can get trapped inside us, and can be worked through in therapy.

        1. Thanks for this rec, I am going to check it out, I had some traumatic surgery as a small child that I’ve never known how to handle the weird emotions around it.

          As for LW I am FULLY team DUMP THAT SHIT. There’s nothing in those boxes that will benefit you. You had hurt and now you are living your life.

      2. Thanks for this recommendation. I’ve been struggling with this for a long time.

      3. I know Bad Things happened to me as a kid; the details are fuzzy but the long-term impact to my well-being are not

        Well that’s eerily similar to me. Okay, I guess it’s time for me to pick up a copy of The Body keeps The Score. Thanks to everyone for the book & somatic techniques recs!

  30. A lot of people are citing the Dad stuff as hinting that there could be Very Bad discoveries in there, and while that’s certainly possible, I want to point out that the opposite is also possible – it could be that what the LW is guessing is worse than what actually did happen, and if she destroys them she’ll always think it was worse than it was. Either way, LW, if you decide to open them it does seem like having a therapist looped in would be a good idea.

  31. hi, LW. every so often a letter appears on CA that gets me to come out of my cave of ‘oh god what if I say the wrong thing’ and leave a comment just in case stories from my screwed up life can help a person somewhere, and your letter is one of those. all the suggestions in the Captain’s response are, as usual, on point, & I don’t know whether you will be reading the comments or not, but just in case:

    I feel like your letter was maybe 50% ‘what do I do with these things I have in boxes’ and 50% ‘does this sound weird to you? what does this sound like to you? if I give you a couple details can you tell me if it sounds weird to you because I feel weird about it and I don’t know and nobody in my life wants to talk about this weird thing that is kind of a bit at the centre of my life? and, help’, and maybe I feel like that because that’s the letter I would have sent, but, I don’t know.

    I am a person who has also locked myself in the bathroom as a child to get away from my father, and a person who also…does not know, and will never know, the answer to ‘what happened, you know, like, with my dad, when I was a kid’, because I have taken this question to everyone who was there at the time and their answer has been either ‘your guess is as good as mine’ or ‘how could you ask such a terrible question’. in my case, there are no boxes (no divorce either) and no answers, and I don’t think there will ever be answers, which is a thing I find almost impossible to live with, but your mileage may vary and I know some people whose lack of answers brings them a kind of peace.

    but, idk, I’m not commenting to talk about the boxes (although I would go through them for you, as a total stranger, if that’d help). I’m just commenting to say, in case it’s something you need to hear: yeah, that sounds weird to me, and also bad. that sounds therapy bad; it sounds ‘lasting effects on your life you don’t understand and can’t control and don’t feel like you can justify’ bad. if part of this letter was a way of saying ‘I don’t know what to think about this weird blurry part of my childhood, haha it’s probably nothing but like, sometimes I just watch episodes of SVU and I feel some kind of way, but like, surely if it were that bad then I would remember, right, or somebody would have talked to me about it or I would have been given more help or I would KNOW already, right, haha, it’s probably nothing’ then – it doesn’t sound like nothing. it sounds like something real, frightening, potentially damaging, serious and far outside what’s okay or normal for most people, and it should be taken seriously – by you, by a therapist, by your friends if you choose to trust them with your thoughts about any of this, which you do not have to do.

    you are not tying yourself in knots for nothing. if what you remember is part of what happened, the chances are some of what’s in the boxes is going to be very hard work for you, and it’s okay to not want to do that work right now, or through the medium of what’s in the boxes (which after all are not a repository of Facts but of Feelings, and Someone Else’s Feelings at that, so in some ways that’s twice as much work while you go through your mom’s feelings about it all too, which, yikes) – but it is probable that some of it is work you will have to do with yourself one day anyway, even if you never see what’s in the boxes. because like, not to get too Obvious Analogy here but you also kind of have a closed box inside yourself with all this stuff in, you know? and eventually you probably will have to open that one and go through it (ideally with professional help) if you are going to be able to live and own your life.

    very very many good thoughts in your general direction & I hope whatever decision you make helps you breathe easier eventually; carrying something like this is hard and heavy constantly & maybe writing to CA was in part your subconscious being like ‘we just really need to put some of this down somewhere/anywhere, it’s too hard’.

    1. I also think this comment is really thoughtful! Wishing you and the LW all the best with the things you don’t-really-know-but-that-kind-of-or-more-than-kind-of affect you.

  32. LW, all of this is good advice. I just wanted to add that if you are still feeling conflicted or torn, it’s perfectly okay, and possibly beneficial, to schedule a visit or two with a therapist before you decide what to do with the boxes.

    The right therapist can be a safe space for exploring your feelings about the boxes, what opening or destroying them represents to you, and sometimes just processing your thoughts out loud in a non-judgmental environment helps you realize what you want to do.

    If you do decide to open the boxes, a good therapist can help you prepare for what you might find, or help you process it afterwards.

    I’m so sorry that you are dealing with this, LW, and I hope your decision, whatever it is, brings you peace.

    1. Yes! Therapy *before* thinking about the boxes, if therapy is a thing you can access and have any curiosity about.

      I would even propose more than one or two visits — it’s not therapy to serve the boxes, it’s therapy to serve you, and perhaps make the boxes your tool in any way you find them useful. A benefit to open them, or to burn them, or even to sideline them because they’re not what matters.

      If you’re thinking about the boxes, a therapist might help you assess, where am I now? Am I in a pretty good place and to open these boxes is mostly downside risk? Or am I in a place I feel in my heart I want to shake up, even if that’s a roll of the dice?

      And as other people said, if I wanted to open them, I’d definitely think of having a professional read them for me. I don’t think I’d put this on a friend, it could be too heavy and outside their competence and responsibility.

  33. “…your mom’s fucked-up record-keeping is not your problem or your burden.”

    This. OP your mom placed a burden on you that is not yours to bear.

    All of the Captain’s suggestions are good. I’m the opposite of he though in that while she would just have to look behind the curtain, I’m fine ignoring the potential monster and going to get a latte instead.

    That is to say if it were me in this situation I would probably call one of those professional shredding companies and have them come pick it all up and just shred it and get rid of it. That serves a couple of purposes: One, it’s/they’re just gone…done, over, and 2) shredding is symbolic in that you are figuratively ripping up the past and throwing whatever BS lives there away.

  34. LW, I think The Captain has offered you some excellent options.

    I would also propose this question: Are you feeling a conflict between what you WANT to do vs. What you think you SHOULD do?

    It was helpful to me (a million thanks, Captain!) to realize there is no magical arbiter or standard of What You Should Do. You are the boss of it, 100%, forever– ergo, You Can Do What You WANT!

    So what do you WANT to do? What would feel most satisfying to You? Do that. You could catch a ferocious case of the Fuck Its and do whatever you want — you don’t need permission for anything!

    Jedi hugs if wanted, and solidarity, and best wishes to you. 🌈

  35. I don’t think this is about your mom’s record-keeping so much as it is about how much you’re unsure about what you want to know or what the impact of knowing will be. So while I agree with all the Captain’s suggestions on what to DO, I’ll also say this:

    If you have something to work through you can probably do so with or without the boxes. You probably will do so with or without the boxes. The boxes are not the thing, they’re a symbol of the thing. Ask yourself what you truly want from them, and you can let the rest go.

  36. I have a couple ideas. If you want to know what these memories mean and what happened..you could ask your mom for the rough idea.

    I think recording therapy sessions and giving them to you now is strange. The documents I feel less strange about. It’s your choice or not, I think the good Captain had some great ideas. I’m not sure why, but the recordings really irk me. I don’t think you should listen to them.

    I’m so sorry about your childhood. I myself have some mental boxes that creep out pretty much every night and I don’t know what to do with them. I think taking days and sitting with someone who would allow me to vent and grieve and rage would help.

    1. yeah, recording therapy is weird. I think it’s that we say different things depending on who we think is listening (like, I say things to my partner in private that I wouldn’t say in front of my parents or on a crowded bus). effective therapy involves being really vulnerable and honest with yourself. if I was to record a therapy session, I’d be very aware that there was a microphone and Future People would be able to listen to my dysfunction. I would find it harder to be fully vulnerable, and I imagine lots of other people would too (depending on self awareness/personality, that struggle to be vulnerable could look like shutting down and saying nothing, or exaggerating for sympathy/dramatic effect.)

  37. LW, you seem to be stuck between two unreliable narrators. There is no Truth in those boxes, only your mother’s truth. Your father’s truth will be different. Your truth will be different than both and closer to the Truth since you have no ulterior motive.

    How do we get to your truth is the main question since you were traumatized but can’t remember. Do you want to get there through your mother’s truth? I would advise against that however something needs to happen.

    Also, I agree with a commentator above, the behavior is/was weird.My read on it: either your mom used you as a weapon against your dad by claiming he molested you OR your dad molested you. Both are really really really crappy. There is no path out that doesn’t involve a deep betray from one of your parents.

  38. I just want to put in that, while the evidence you give does incline our thinking in particular directions, I can think of several possibilities that are, if not benign, at least innocent.

    Epilepsy, tourette’s, or narcolepsy could all potentially trigger a child to have severe anxiety about going with their dad (I’ve comforted teen girls in tears after their friend had an epileptic fit). A child of ~6 years old would be freaked out, terrified but inarticulate, leading to adults naturally being suspicious, leading to the rules and patterns you note.

    This is all wild theorising, of course – I don’t want to pretend otherwise. But without clear memories, any conclusion is wild theorising – and this could be a parallel to “something’s wrong, therefore cancer” thought process we’re all susceptible to. Because Cancer and Abuse are the big scary worst thing, and sure they’re relatively rare but you read about them in the papers every day and they’re More Common Than You Know and and and…

    So I wanted to put in that maybe it’s like last week and the nurse practitioner asked me to come in so she could tell me my blood test results to my face… and the issue is that my B12 is low (again; I’d actually asked for that specifically to be checked). So I need to take B12 supplements regularly again.

    We’re surrounded by stories about the big stuff, but a hell of a lot of stuff is… chronic headaches and unfortunate coincidences and broken-down cars and B12 deficiencies.

  39. I have a couple of literal emotional baggage boxes that I inherited and boxed up myself. I still haven’t opened them, but I’d like to, somewhere in the future, and this advice all seems great, so I’ll just leave my story here.
    My mum died a few years ago when I was in my early 20s, and for the first eight months I couldn’t go into her room without having a panic attack/emotional breakdown. Neither my sister or I felt in any hurry to put away mum’s stuff. My father, on the other hand, wanted to put her old room to use, so he very passive-aggressively started emptying the contents of her room, and… putting them in the hallway for me (and my sister) to find on our way out of the house, and for us to decide what to keep and throw away. It was an extreme dick move, to say the least. But my father does have a history of inability to deal with his feelings (and either repressing or exploding into angry shouty outbursts that traumatized me when I was a little kid); and he’s always delegated all decision-making to my mum or my sister/me.
    At one point the pile of literal emotional baggage that I had to physically avoid in order to leave or enter the house and not break down crying got an expiration date. My father said we had to choose what to keep and what to donate because he had called my maternal aunt and grandma and they’d come on the weekend and “leave nothing for me or my sister”.
    So the process of me going through my mum’s stuff felt forced onto me. I was definitely not in a stable stage of my grieving process, still not even fully accepted my mum was really gone, and yet I was doing that thing where I picked up a sweater and remembered all the times my mum would pick me up from school wearing that, and smelling her perfume, and seeing her handwriting.
    Seeing her handwritten journals in which she detailed her dreams and pains and probably maybe why it took her until I was 11 to leave my abusive shouty father and how it felt to have to come back to living with him because we were facing homelessness (family reasons related to grandma and aunt so I didn’t trust them). And letters she had written to him in the early years of their marriage, where she detailed her concerns regarding his anger issues and alcohol and drug consumption…. It was too, too much. I decided to keep everything because I couldn’t sift through her things. I didn’t have the strength to decide what to give away. I didn’t want to give anything away. And I didn’t want, could not, go down the spiral of the beginnings of her abusive relationship with my father.
    I put it all in boxes. Some of her clothes are still in my closet. And I will deal with them, someday. A day when I feel I have lots of energy and time on my hands, maybe even a day when I don’t have to live with my father. I feel the need to know, but I don’t need to know it right now.

  40. I have thought of something that might be worth doing, if you’re considering opening the boxes rather than destroying them or sending them back to my mother: think about whether there’s any childhood paperwork you might actually need. In my case, that set is my original birth certificate (replaceable, but it would be a hassle) and vaccination records.

    If there are or might be such papers, have someone help you go through them, and add “look for X, Y, Z specific things, and anything else that looks like it might be legally or medically relevant, and put it in a large envelope” to what you’re asking them to do. I would define that pretty narrowly. So, what vaccines you had, or treatment for an injury might be relevant, but it doesn’t matter how many times you saw the pediatrician,. Maybe contact information for your childhood dentist, if you don’t have those records. Nor does it matter whether one of your relatives broke a leg skiing.

    If you have your birth certificate and social security card, can call your pediatrician’s office and get a copy of your records, and are still seeing the same dentist, the above is probably unnecessary

    1. Tangential, but are childhood dental records still relevant in adulthood? I found a new dentist after graduating college, and he’s never asked for my old records; the only time it comes up is when he says something like “Looks like there’re remnants of old sealants on this tooth,” and I say “Oh yes; I got them done around age twelve.”

      1. Same here. The closest to asking was “I see you’ve had your wisdom teeth removed”. (Which surprised me because I hadn’t)

        1. @jaynn Several relatives on my mom’s side of the family don’t have wisdom teeth at all. Never had them, never will.

          I was not so lucky as to get this gene, lol.

      2. My experience is that even adult dental records are pretty much irrelevant. Each dentist I’ve had seems to want to create their own new record from the x-rays and other stuff they observe directly. I guess what happens to teeth is relatively easy to see/figure out?

  41. A first step could be just opening the box and staring at whatever is inside. Don’t read anything, just take it in and then put the box away. You have built up this box in your mind for so long, just opening and seeing the papers or journals, etc might be what you need to make a decision as to what you want to do from there.

    There are all of the amazing choices CA gave to you and what others have suggested in the comments. You can also consider sifting through the documents next to a safe and legal means of destruction, reading and destroying what you want. You may get through the first sentence and think, “F this. Gonna destroy it all.” Or you find out that you want to read every last word. You could even possibly make it a ritual you do every so often if that gives you peace. Digesting small amounts at a time and giving yourself time to emotionally rest in between.

    Everyone processes their emotional boxes that are in literal boxes differently. You are the only one that knows what will be right for you. I fall into the category of open up the box and decide from there then peace out when I feel I have gotten as much out of it as I need. My mom is the type of person who will go through every small detail in the box over the course of literal years until she feels ready to detach. My dad would have seen the box, said a big ol’, “Nope, no good can come from opening this,” and thrown it away. My sister would throw a table cloth over the box, forget it was there then see the box years later and go, “Oh that box. Should probably open it now.” She would then grab a box cutter, pop that sucker open, read everything, then chuck it.

    Handle the box the way that gives you the most peace. Give it a good kick if you want. No one will judge you.

  42. Oh, LW, I feel for you.

    While I don’t know what is right for you, I know that I’d burn that shit. Recorded therapy sessions where people say all kinds of things (and maybe only one person knew it was being recorded)? No. No, thank you.

    If it’s gone, it’s done and settled. No second-guessing yourself or the decision.

    If you keep the boxes, there are probably HOURS AND HOURS of your precious time to be spent pouring over information that is more than 25 years old. And to what end? My guess is that you’d come away knowing exactly what you already know – your parents went through a horrible divorce, you were impacted by all of that mess, and you have complicated relationships with them. Knowing what is in there is unlikely to fix anything and could be very painful – and it’s also unlikely that it will untangle things to your ultimate satisfaction.

    Ug. No, no, no.

    But that’s just me. Gentle thoughts coming your way as you navigate this for yourself.

  43. Looking at this from another angle, I wonder if there were legal reasons that the LW’s mother kept such meticulous records. Perhaps her attorney suggested it or she felt compelled to make a specific record of things just in case things got ugly in the future. If you can manage to ask it, I might talk to your mom with a very specific question in mind: “Hey, Mom, is there anything in those boxes you need for legal reasons?” Hopefully your relationship is well enough that a “yes” or “no” answer is possible. In which case, if the answer is no, then I say go with Captain’s burning ritual, contents unread. I honestly can’t imagine that after all of these years, there would be a legal reason to keep them. If the answer is “yes”, I’m with the “send them back to her” plan.

  44. Agree with the Captain. LW this isn’t about figuring out the right thing to do with the boxes… it’s about figuring out the RIGHT THING FOR YOU to do with the boxes. There is literally not a wrong answer to that question. Try to let that set you free! 🙂

  45. [Trigger warning: sexual abuse] I will share what I did in a similar situation in case it can help you. There was a question mark about whether I was sexually abused as a child. I have no memories of it but knew I had had an STD at a very young age and decided to find out what I could by obtaining copies of my medical records. I read it all then burned it all along with some more recent journal writings on the subject. I am glad I read it because I know what there is to know and I am glad I burned it because that means no one else could ever read it – something which makes paper much better than electronic records. I’ve had a lot of problems in general with feeling tense and not liking sex. That didn’t solve any of them. Knowing what happened can help me to understand myself but I’m keen to find solutions in the present, primarily.

    1. Jedi hugs if you want them! I understand the need and desire to find workable solutions in the present regardless of the past that got me here.

      1. Thank you for the Jedi hugs! Knowing and understanding can help but are not the fix in and of themselves.

  46. Something along these lines happened to me when my mother was directing a lot of negativity at me and sent me a package of a shirt 3 tines too big and notes from a therapist who observed me at school without my knowledge and a hand written note saying she thought I’d appreciate this (I did not). I agree with Captain Awkward find a ritual and space to deal with the boxes. I personally think having that information although very painful helped piece together things about my family and schooling that were important and if I had a ritual for learning that instead of it being sprung on me I’d appreciate that info even though it was very awful. Learning about those notes gave me vital information for creating boundaries with my family and I’m forever grateful for that

  47. My experience is only tangentially similar, but I relate it in case it sheds light.

    After my divorce. my ex wanted to get remarried in the Catholic Church so he asked me to fill out paperwork so he could get an annulment. I got the questionnaires, decided it was too much work and didn’t bother doing them. I’m not Catholic, so I didn’t care, and he didn’t really need my input to get the annulment anyway.

    When it was granted, the arbiter gave me the opportunity to come and read over my ex’s answers to the questionnaires. I am generally a Wants To Know person, so I did, but I have regretted doing so ever since, because all it did for me was confirm just how low his opinion of me was.

  48. I think I read the “mom documented everything” somewhat differently – it sounded to me like mom was documenting everything to use in court to demonstrate that OP could not be left alone with her dad.

    If that’s true, the only consideration that changes (I think) would be whether this documentation might be evidence that could help protect minor children in OP’s dad’s sphere of influence. But if there isn’t (and it sounds like OP is certainly not a minor anymore), then do what you will, OP.

    It sounds like you are working through your healing process; if it would not be helpful for you to go through the boxes, I would just get rid of them. Burn them, maybe. Someone suggested sending them to your mom, but I wouldn’t do that – all it would do is call the whole mess to your mom’s attention and I don’t think that would be helpful for you.

    Best of luck!

  49. This is my third or so comment. It’s been weighing on me, this post.
    I think you should find a therapist and discuss this more in depth with them.
    I wish you peace, LW. My opinion, a total internet strangers opinion, is to not go there.
    Pandora’s box.

    However. I don’t know. I’ve been running from childhood abuse my entire life and even in therapy, it’s there always. If I could, I’d wish it all away.

    I wish you peace, LW.

    1. I too am feeling the weight of this post in a really specific intense way.

    2. You know, I agree with this. I am often a comment section busybody, but I feel like I wouldn’t want to be responsible for the lw either losing the chance to read these records, or dealing with the potential damage of reading them. I think getting checked out by a therapist could be a good way to make this decision.

  50. This LW has really made me think. I have a box of printed out copies of emails from my ex, documenting how nasty he was during our divorce and during the years of joint custody. I took the high road as best I could with my kids and have kept the emails to myself, thinking that one day, after I am gone, they’ll find them and I’ll get some credit for having taken the high road. I have given this thought over the years, not sure I want my legacy to be the exposure of what an ass their dad was.

    1. Perhaps you leave the box in the attic with a disclaimer note on top explaining that this is a box of old documents from the divorce and no pertinent legal documents are within but contains evidence used to make the court decision. It gives a framework of what’s inside, allowing them to decide whether to open the box or not. Also depends on your kids…some may want to know, others not so much.

    2. They might already know you’ve taken the high road. Kids can be perceptive, even when they’ve been adequately shielded.

      I know zero details of my parents divorce when I was 4. Flashes of memory of a yelling match or two and the occasional allusion by a family friend of how nasty things were, but no knowledge of what actually went down. My parents were very good to us kids through that process, despite whatever it was they were doing to each other.

      But I do get the sense that there were probably Very Bad Things, done or said by one or both of them. And I don’t want or need to know. But what I do know is that I don’t know, and I think very highly of them for “taking the high road” as far as we children were concerned. You sound like you’re a kind and thoughtful person, and I would place good money that when your children have grown a bit they will recognize that the things they know they don’t know are due to your kind and thoughtful nature.

    3. Personally? I’d get rid of them (after all kids are over 18).

      They’re going to discover who your ex is, really, one way or another. Whatever relationship they build with him, do you want them to have that as part of it?

  51. After I left an abusive relationship, I created a new email account and sent all digital correspondence from the relationship there, so that I could freely purge my email inbox without having to process anything. I think I logged into the new email once or twice before I forgot the password.
    I don’t think you necessarily need to make an irrevocable decision about those boxes. Another option is the get them out of your space and into a storage unit that is prepaid for a year so you don’t even have to see the bill. The year could be the deadline: when it’s over, the boxes get destroyed, and if you feel like you have the support and emotional strength and the desire to look through any of it before the year is up, you still have that option, but you also don’t have to make an active decision to destroy them. Not sure it’s healthy to passively let things go, but I am the sort of person to revisit them past too much and it’s hard for me to let things go, so I have to use these tricks.

    1. I love this. That way it’s not in the house but in a safe space and doesn’t have to be dealt with yet.

  52. I also had parents with a long, acrimonious, complicated divorce throughout my elementary school years. I was the only child at my dad’s and became the oldest at my mom’s when she remarried. My stepdad was an abusive creep. Many of my memories of that time period are blurry, and there are some things I’ve been told about but don’t remember at all. I remember my grandmother and my aunt telling me to make sure I always wore underwear at night, and I remember memorizing the phone number to CPS, but I remember very few of the reasons why.

    I went to court several times and testified against my mother, and my dad won custody. I gradually spent less and less time at my mom’s, and when I was fifteen, I cut contact completely. I spiraled into depression and suicidal thoughts. I kept journals throughout these years, and when I eventually stopped journaling, I went back and reread them and found all the memories I didn’t want. I chucked the journals into the recycling. Similarly, I was once cleaning out a closet and found a bunch of notes from my first boyfriend, who grew increasingly controlling and emotionally abusive while we were together. His abuse was plain as day in all his “love letters” to me. Infuriated, I shoved the notes into the nearest trash can. His handwritten guilt trips wound up spending all of eternity in an empty box of tampons. I found that much more satisfying that a ritual bonfire.

    Speaking of rituals: Years later, a different ex and I broke up, and I was devastated. As I moved on and realized he’d been a jerk to me, I gathered up things he’d given me and either threw them away or donated them to Goodwill. Some time later, I learned that he’d considered a ritual bonfire of the stuff I’d given him but decided against it due to “not wanting to encourage theatrical spite in himself.” (I laughed because theatrical spite was 100% his schtick.) I don’t think a bonfire is theatrical spite per se, though–it would have been in his case, but if it’s cathartic for you, then go for it. I think it’s important that the method of disposal mean something to you. For me, I’ve never bothered with a bonfire because I didn’t want to dignify their treatment of me with wasting the time on them; I just unceremoniously shoved everything in the trash without a second glance and moved on. Then again, my resistance to bonfires could also be because I ritually burned my PE clothes in tenth grade when I never had to take PE again and was rid of it forever . . . and the gym shorts melted down into a horrible smelly sticky puddle and wouldn’t actually burn and I’m fairly certain I punctured a hole in the ozone that day.

    Anyway, back to the topic of literal emotional baggage: I have two long file boxes in my attic of my own literal emotional baggage. They’re just labeled “DIVORCE DECREE,” but I know full well that their contents include evidence of my mom’s infidelity, evidence of my stepdad’s abuse, sessions with the school counselor, therapy sessions, my dad’s journals, custody battles, and all kinds of other things I don’t want to see and don’t need hanging around. My dad didn’t want to toss it “just in case”–in case of what? I haven’t spoken to my mother in twenty years, and I’m certainly never going to. I’ve been cleaning out the attic and reorganizing my craft room lately, and I think this weekend will be when I finally drag those boxes down and take them to the shredder. I’ve long since let my mom and my childhood go; she doesn’t get to have physical space in my house, either.

  53. Good advice, many of you.
    My aunt kept a scrapbook my mom had made of my 1st 12 years, including report cards and teacher’s notes. It wound up with Mom, which I didn’t know for a while. I want to have the school stuff destroyed–including the flattering stuff–but she wants to hang on to it. It’s mostly lies and I don’t see why she would want to hang onto it any more than my old diapers. Crap that isn’t the real me. The cute baby pictures, those I don’t mind. But I don’t know how this one will wind up. I do know if that thing is still around when Mom dies, it’s going to get edited. She’s got a wood stove that will do the job nicely.
    Being lied about is almost as bad as being lied to. Especially when other people seem to believe the lies.

    1. The chance of something like this is the only reason I would be hesitant to go the ship-the-boxes-back-to-mom route. If she kept them as long as she initially did, she would probably continue keeping them after LW returned them, even if they’d be underfoot. Down the line if mom predeceases LW, in the midst of everything she’ll be going through (practically and emotionally) at THAT point, she’ll also get smacked in the face with the boxes, and the decision of what to do with them, all over again.

      As someone else in the ‘gotta know’ camp, I personally would open them now and get it over with. The company of a friend (or even a therapist) would not be helpful in my case, because I’m self-conscious enough that my skin crawls at the notion of having someone there to witness my initial reaction. A therapist for afterwards, maybe, if I were troubled by what I learned and needed some help processing it, but not for the opening itself.

      Of course, as everyone has said, that’s how it would go in MY story; what’s best for LW will of course vary.

  54. My personal reaction, grounded in my own family history, is that mom foisted these boxes onto LW as an act of gaslighting to create doubt that LW’s own perceptions of childhood are correct & valid. I also suspect that they contain a vast array of mom’s self-serving narratives. I, too, always want to “find out the truth”, but I would ditch these boxes as an act of self care, either by sending back to mom or destroying them. This is a highly speculative take, and could be totally wrong.

    1. I don’t get why there is a collective refusal on this threat to acknowledge that the father was under a court order to never be alone in a bathroom or bedroom with his daughter – or at the very least that is how the LW remembers things. There are giant giant giant signs here that point to abuse – or yeah sure maybe the mom made it all up and ruined the LW’s relationship with her dad. Either way that’s not something you want to spend the rest of your life wondering about.

      1. That’s not something *you* want to spend the rest of your life wondering about, but please try to accept that people and situations are different.

      2. I think it’s not being discussed much because it’s a given. It’s basically the point of the letter. The letter writer is torn between knowing and not knowing. Is it better to know? Or better to not know, if the knowing may just cause new trauma that wasn’t there before. Is the information reliable? Etc.

        That’s what we are all discussing…

      3. I am not sure where you’re getting that people are refusing to acknowledge that.

  55. Hi LW,

    I don’t want to tell you how you should or should not feel, but one thing I noticed about this letter —

    I’ve been in a lot of therapy, and my therapist pointed out to me that I tend to do these things where I will bring up something — not inconsequential (or at least, not always inconsequential), but something manageable, and I’ll stress and fret about it, and then I’ll mention something very large and difficult to even look at as an aside about this manageable, tangible, solvable problem. That third paragraph of your letter sounds like something I would say: “here’s this thing, I don’t want to look at it, and I’m only bringing it up to provide context for the immediate, solvable, dealable problem”.

    For me, at least, one thing that sucks SO much about a problem like this is that it oozes out into whatever form it can take — for me, dealing with the bag of frozen shrimp that had become The Symbol Of The Problem staved it off for a while, but it reared its ugly head again in everything from a handful of cat toys to a cell phone to plane tickets to my entire life up until that point.

    Obviously my point of view is biased by my own life and experiences, and who knows, maybe that paragraph is something you’ve dealt with just fine, thanks, why are you being weird about it, Galatea, but on the off chance that the box is a metaphor in addition to being a physical tangible thing taking up space in your house — it may be worth looking at.

    Either way, good luck to you; I hope things go well.

    1. I am with galatea on this one – but we have only read one letter on your situation and we do not know everything that relates to it. To me The Captain’s first advice sounded especially good; I have also been in and out of therapy for over two decades and it has helped me tremendously. If it is possible for you to go through the contents of the boxes with a mental health professional, do it.

      I have also some experience in going through family archives (of very different kind, though; mostly my beloved grandfather’s memorials of the Second World War) and the first question which popped to my mind was: in which format are these notes? On a C-cassette? On paper? On some other form of tape recorder? Are there even players available for the material in the boxes? Also the contents might affect the best form of disposal; paper may be shredded but what about the tapes (if there are any?).

      To me this sounds like a job for both a therapist and Team You. Also sending the boxes back to your mother sounds like a very good possible solution.

      Best of luck to you, dear LW! Whatever these boxes contain it is in the past – and like The Captain said, it is more about your mother than you. I find it terrible that she put this weight on you.

  56. I have a literal emotional baggage story that I will leave here in the hope that it is useful. Mine came from my first husband; our marriage ended when he was arrested and convicted for activities that were news to me. In the process, I lost our house, all my savings, my sense that I had any idea who my life partner had ever really been, and my ability to look at bureaucratic paperwork or anything to do with his childhood without curling into a ball right there on the floor.

    The part of that process that may be relevant to you is that I got a red plastic bin and labeled it “Radioactive: Check for half life.” In it went all the things I knew I eventually needed/wanted to handle, but wasn’t ready for. Sometimes I put things in the bin, other times my trusted friends who were helping me move would do it, following my instructions. Then, every couple of years, or months, when I was on a cleaning jag anyway, I’d open it and scan for anything that felt face-able. The rest went back into the bin with no guilt, and sometimes everything would go back, or I would just open the lid and not go through anything—it is not safe to handle radioactive material, and it is only the responsible thing to avoid overexposure to it.

    Eight years later I am down to a thin red folder. I am not sure where the folder is anymore, or whether it is still radioactive. For you, maybe a friend or therapist can give you an idea of the categories of things that are in your boxes. Maybe you decide together, even before you look through in detail, which categories to keep checking for half-life and which will never be safe and should be incinerated immediately.

    Maybe your boxes want their own metaphor—the idea of a pile of glowing slag that used to be Life 1.0 was just what worked for mine, heh. Make this symbol of trauma your own.

    I wish you strength, and peace, and healing.

    1. I love the “radioactive” thing. As you say, it is not safe to handle radioactive material, and it is only the responsible thing to avoid overexposure to it. Deal with the stuff that has reached its half life and pare it down, pare it down, pare it down.

    2. I also love the radioactive metaphor. I think I’ll borrow that for my own life.

    3. That is a marvellous metaphor; thank you for it. I particularly love the permission to do as much as you can stand and then put it away again.

  57. I think the captain has offered excellent advice as usual. I also would be the person opening those boxes and devouring the contents. But also also, I’m a person who has come to terms with who my parents are and who they are not, how they failed and how they were good, and most importantly that I never had to worry about being alone in a bathroom with either one (which isn’t to say there wasn’t abuse in my household, just not of that particular variety. My home’s abuse was all out in the open for every sibling to see and know and understand what to do so that it didn’t happen to them).

    I think the best piece of advice is the get a therapist part, if you don’t already have one. If nothing else you can discuss with your therapist what *you* want to do with the boxes.

  58. LW, I have not read the comments yet, so forgive.

    My mom has been involved in court cases basically since I was a baby. She’s combative, frustrating, and as of right now I”m not speaking with her. However, back when I was, she asked my sister and me to continue her court struggles if she died.

    There are boxes and boxes and boxes of all of her court documents. Some with my father during their divorce and resulting court battles. SOme I doubt I even know what.

    When she passes, I will throw all of them in a giant dumpster, and if I was able, I would light fire to them. They have taken up literal years of her life, but I won’t let them consume mine.

    Your mom did what she had to do for herself back then, but you are free to not hold on to her past any longer. Captain gave really great advice. Don’t let those boxes be an albatross.

    1. ok but your mother’s litigiousness didn’t involve a court order preventing your father from being alone with you

      it’s not the same. her litigiousness had nothing to do with you; this is very possibly evidence of abuse.

      1. That gives the LW 1000% _more_ right to decide what to do with those boxes. Whether to open, destroy, or keep.

        It’s about their own life, and now that they are an adult they are the ONLY person who has a right to decide what happens to those papers.

  59. Another obedient child of a messy early divorce here with little memories of the time. I love all the suggestions, but I can see how hard they might be. Don’t forget to give yourself permission not to be the good child this time.

    Give yourself permission not to keep these boxes just because you got them from your mother and you don’t know her wishes. Give yourself permission to get upset over them and do something dramatic. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of being the good child and just accepting that you must deal with them rationally. You’ve got this!

    1. Yes, I support the idea of not having to deal with them rationally! It is okay to not spend time and energy finding The Ideal Solution here. For that matter, the best solution may well be the one that requires the least amount of work from you.

  60. LW, there’s an awful lot of wisdom on this page. Soak it up, keep what resonates and let go of what doesn’t.

    You said, “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.”

    What I hear in that is that you are not, right now, seeking a permanent solution so much as an energetic clearing (perhaps accompanied by a physical clearing) in your home space and your brain space. Ideally, you’d be able to summon a genie to take the boxes away and keep them safe somewhere, and then if/when you feel ready to deal with them, you could summon the genie again to bring them back.

    Trust your instincts… about not unpacking the boxes right now, about not blindly tossing them out, about the current temporary solution beginning to wear on you. Perhaps one or more of the suggestions on this page will feel like an appealing option and your instincts will shift. If not, how can you best honor all your instincts, without a magic genie? I’m imagining one scenario where you ritually cover the boxes with a beautiful cloth (out of sight / transformation) and light some sage — instead of weighty boxes, you have a new side table! Or another scenario where you rent a small storage unit — pay to keep the bogeyman away until you’re ready to pay someone to help you face the bogeyman. Or a third where you bury them in the woods outside your hometown — findable later if you want them, but no need to ever go back.

    Hope this is helpful.

    1. I never thought of the buried in the woods thing, but it sounds oddly satisfying to me. You bury dead things. On the other hand, you also dig up things when you want to see them. Though I don’t know how practical it is, if you really did want to make them recoverable in the future – you’d have to research ‘time capsule’ or something to make sure everything didn’t just rot.

  61. LW, I sympathize so hard!

    Story time: I had a years-long struggle with my mom over memorial objects from her and her mother and my own childhood objects (which I’d left behind years ago). Some of her and my objects were the material context to an acrimonious divorce. She started by offering to send stuff to me, and I was all, “Nah, I’m good, thanks though.” She offered these for years, and I finally said, “I treat these objects like they were in a fire. They are gone to me. I don’t remember them, and I don’t want to remember them. Do with them what you want, but I don’t want them, and will not take them.” She’d still raise the subject, and I’d just repeat myself and change the subject, phone call after phone call. For YEARS. Then when I visited she started going through a closet and saying, “Take this!” And I said no thanks. And then she brought out another object; I repeated myself. After the third, I moved to a different room and said, “Here’s my boundary: I don’t want more things. Thank you for offering them, but please respect my boundary and don’t keep doing this.” She did it again, and when I said no again, insulted me and yelled. When we talked about it later, she said she felt like she kept running into a wall, and I was making a mistake. I said the mistake was mine to make, and she had to let me make that choice. She stopped offering me stuff. Fast-forward a year: She came to visit. At the end of her visit, literally on her way out of town, she came by my house with TWO GARBAGE BAGS FULL of the stuff she wanted me to have. I set them down on the walkway, waved her out of sight, and then dumped them in the trash can on my way into my home. I dusted my hands off and walked away. That emotional baggage was misdelivered.

    tl;dr After a similar issue over literal emotional baggage with my mom, I dumped the baggage unopened. I don’t regret it. It was the right decision for me, then and now. LW, the Captain gave such excellent options, and I hope you find the one that makes you most free, and find satisfaction in it.

    1. this is not the same as destroying court transcripts that very possibly contain information about abuse.

        1. And I think the fact that they aren’t plays into why that possibility has come up so much.

          But I think it’s better just to say that this is a really crappy way to make information available to your child.

      1. You keep saying this. This is at least the second time you’ve said this in these threads.

        What’s your point.

        Is the abuse yours? Is LW’s life yours? IDo you have actual options and real life assistance? I know I don’t. A bank to fund the therapist to open the boxes with her? Pay for missed days of work if reading the documents lays her out? A safety deposit box to keep them in so that she doesn’t destroy them before she can read them?

        What business is it of yours or mine? None. What actual IRL solutions can you provide for this person? None. Only internet advice flickering on a screen like all of us.

        And commenting about how the boxes contain information about abuse with the implication that they must be opened are coming across kind of shrill and vulture-like.

        The one and only person on this planet with authority and rights over those boxes, over their contents, over the implications and outcomes of those contents is LW. Not even her own mother.

        She alone gets to decide what they mean. She alone gets to decide what they contain. This isn’t a situation of some Objective Facts that are being hidden from the Deserving Public. We are not deserving of anything here. You are not deserving, I am not deserving.

        This Isn’t About Us.

        Besides which, if the alleged or potential abuse were so clear and drastic the courts who were part of the situation at the time would have had some thoughts about that which would have been more cut and dried than an ambiguous custody agreement.

        I am not excusing abuse, or saying anything happened or did not happen. My only point is that the courts have already been involved in this. There is, figuratively and literally, no need to re-litigate her childhood.

        LW does not owe anyone the contents of those boxes.

        1. I second this, Roxy. The pressure for “you MUST open the boxes to know the truth” is the same as “you must make peace with your estranged relative b/c what if they die and you regret it?”

          Like…what if you do regret it? Oh well! Life is full of regrets.
          It’s okay to forget stuff. Sometimes forgetting is a mercy.
          It’s okay to not process everything down to the bone, including old traumas.
          It’s okay to make mistakes about stuff like this in pursuit of what you think works best with you at the time.

    2. Wow. Sounds like she was really trying to make you deal with her emotional hangups over the divorce. Good on you for standing your ground.

      Also, I love that the stuff already in literal trash bags; so easy to put trash in its appropriate container.

  62. If you do decide to go through the boxes, may I suggest finding a (trauma, like Internal Family Systems, EMDR, or other excellent) therapist (assuming that you can afford and have access to one) far in advance, and working hard with them to establish safety? By this I mean multiple coping, self-soothing, help seeking, safety plan techniques.

    If there does exist a wound that is so deep, that you do want to try to uncover, I think setting yourself up for as much safety as possible is critical as you prepare for this. I would be clear with the therapist that your goal for therapy is safety as an end in itself until (or whether) you are ready.

    I read and translated my mom’s diaries per her request; and they didn’t contain that much trauma about me, but were startlingly disorienting and painful. The reaction lasted quite a while. I was not expecting that. I wish she hadn’t asked me, and I stopped partway through. If there were boxes about me…wow. I can’t imagine how painfully confusing that would be.

    Once I burned all my diaries that I’d kept for 15 years. They had so much pain and shame. It felt good not to go through it all, but to just transform it and do a ritual about transformation.

    Another time I went through a long period of therapy where I looked at each part of me that was reacting, asked what that part needed, and provided it. It was powerful too.

  63. In my early twenties I had a mental health spiral that resulted in me losing my job and moving cross-country. As I was packing for the move a bunch of miscellaneous papers got shoved in a box. Some of it was genuinely unimportant but unsorted, but a lot of it was unopened mail and unpaid bills and the like, stuff I really should have been dealing with but had not been.

    Well, that box moved cross-country with me and then sat in the corner of my room unopened making me feel guilty every time I looked at it. I moved twice while living in my new city and I carried that Box ‘O Guilt around with me for four years. I sorted out my debts and got current on my student loan payments, but I still couldn’t bring myself to open that box.

    My next move was to another country where I live now. Everything that didn’t fit in my car had to be purged or go into storage to follow at a later date. I kept putting off dealing with my Guilt Box, but finally I gave myself permission not to deal with it. I opened the box, did a quick scan to see if there was anything not scary in it, concluded that there was not and disposed of the entire mess of it with no regrets. And it felt like I’d lifted a load off my soul I wasn’t aware I was carrying. I had stopped even noticing my guilt so much that I hadn’t realized it hadn’t actually gone away until suddenly it was just gone.

    LW: my non-metaphorical baggage and yours are very different, but my advice for you is the same I’d give past me: find some way to put that baggage down. Take whichever of the Captain’s suggestions seems most comfortable to you and stop feeling obligated to physically share space with your past.

  64. I would suggest considering a compromise between dumping and having a friend go through it:

    Have a trusted friend who understands that the past should remain buried (not the “gotta confront everything” type) go quickly through it looking for documents, keepsakes, money, stock certificates, etc. They should NOT read any notes of history past, just look for other possibly important stuff. Then shred/burn/etc the rest in the manner most appropriate to the person.

    I’ve been helping a friend clean out the stuff in storage from three family members – Each box is opened and if it is a “don’t want to see more,” it goes directly into my truck. Other boxes are sorted or kept. Anything that is being disposed of is never seen by the friend again [I sort it and thrift store, trash, destroy/shred, sell as appropriate.]

  65. LW: your mom was being not cool on a global scale when she gave you all that. What, now you’re grown up you can share the pain more? Without even her talking to you about it? She dropped a grenade in your brain, pulled the pin and walked away. I’m so angry for you right now. This is not good parental behavior. Do what feels authentic and right to you. For the record I e had friends read hard things first sometimes and it helps. If you don’t want the boxes you could send them back. Or if you want to tell your mom you burned them even if you didn’t, that’s cool and might be revealing bc if she wanted you to read them very badly then she’ll be pretty upset. Right now I’m mad at your mom. I’m sorry she had a bad husband but she’s being a bad mom right now. This is a world of bad. Jedi hugs if you want.

  66. Thank God I’m not the only one whose internal dialogue was like “open it open it open it IT’S YOUR LIFE DO WHAT YOU WANT TURN IT INTO ASH IF YOU LIKE but also open itttttttttt”.

    I’m in the process of opening my own box of emotional baggage, the diaries I kept as a teenager. It’s given me a lot of feelings and having a really good therapist to work through that with has helped me enormously, so if you do decide to open the boxes, I highly recommend that.

    Another thing that was really helpful to me was watching Nanette, because it reflected back at me some of the feelings I was having, which I found very validating, and also helped me figure out a framework to understand and tell my own story in. I don’t know if this would be helpful to you but if you’re someone who understands your world through stories (which I am) finding stories that echo your own experiences might help.

    Finally, if you do decide to open it, I think having a dedicated time or space in which to go through it, that you can physically step away from, might help a lot. This is another argument for working with a therapist but even setting up a space in your home where you can close the door and walk away from it could work. I found the feelings this stuff brought up followed me everywhere, and I think doing something like that might have limited it.

  67. Long time lurker, but this letter struck a deep chord for me. My reaction, shaped by my own experience of childhood violence, is the box is a red herring. The fear and pain that come through in your letter, combined with the lack of easily accessible memories*, points to something that needs to be addressed. But whatever that may be, it’s in you and not in the box. Talking with a therapist knowledgeable about childhood trauma would likely be a valuable experience. And if you find your memories return through talking, you can deal with them then, with a trained expert, and if they don’t you can still address the impact of your childhood pain on your life now without knowing the details. The details really don’t matter, what matters is how you are experiencing the effects of your childhood, and those effects exist now and can be observed and treated without ever knowing the “facts of the case.” The box, and whatever answers it does or does not hold, is irrelevant apart from how you feel about it and it’s presence in your life.

    So either way, therapy is going to be helpful, but what matters is your pain, not the box or it’s contents. And if paying for therapy isn’t possible for you, it’s likely the dots as the exist independent of anything that may or may not be in the box will be enough to qualify for free therapy with groups focused on childhood and/or sexual violence. Even if therapy results in you concluded nothing of that sort happened, the suggestion is a source of trauma that needs to be addressed.

    Good luck. I hope you are able to find peace and a way forward now, no matter what answers about the past you do or do not find.

    *They may or may not actually exist in hiding. Most of mine are inaccessible to first thought, but come back quickly with certain triggers. Your experience may vary.

    1. “But whatever that may be, it’s in you and not in the box.”

      Whoa. I love this. What an amazing take on this situation.

      In screen fiction there’s the concept of, what’s it called, the McGuffin. The glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction is the McGuffin. The thing that motivates all the action but which is inexplicable, ill supported, and somehow mysterious and pointless both at the same time. Usually the McGuffin is an event that took place before movie-time or some king of offscreen holy grail intangible. Pulp Fiction played with the conventions of film by making the McGuffin an actual onscreen object.

      This box of yours is the McGuffin, LW. It’s value and it’s meaning is as Zebra says, “irrelevant apart from how you feel about it and it’s presence in your life.”

      Only you get to determine what story it tells, regardless of whatever might be inside. No one gets to tell your story but you.

  68. Both my parents are gone, now, and at 36 I often find myself tempted by the drama/sad of “welp I guess I’ll never know what that flurry of doctor appointments was about” or “why was that cheerful child therapist asking all those leading questions.. what if it ‘twas… THE WORST”. Followed by “if only I had asked!!!!!”

    Luckily, when I slow down and use my adult brain, it’s not hard to admit to myself that by FAR the most unreliable narrators in my life have been my parents.

    Who cares what you mom thought back then? If the contents of the box raises questions, would you want to discuss it with her? Confront her? I’m all for full knowledge; I desperately wish for a full length screenplay of my entire life that explains every scar, every aversion. But I humbly submit that I would not have wanted that screenplay to be authored by my late mother, and that’s what your Baggage Box would be.

    Whatever you do, seriously, best of luck. This is a weird choice to have to make.

    1. I was also sent to a child therapist for reasons, and despite the reasons being fairly readily apparent, the therapist checked to make sure sexual abuse (or, presumably, other kinds of abuse) wasn’t part of the issue. I suspect it’s a pretty normal thing for them to do. At this point in my life I’m glad to know that someone checked!

  69. For me personally, I would want to know if only so that I knew and there wouldn’t be any more nasty surprises lurking in the past for me to suddenly remember without warning.

    But in that case, I would absoLUTEly want to have hired a therapist and have already had a few sessions with them before opening the boxes, just to have someone to help me process things.

    That all said…there really is nothing wrong with just getting rid of it either. Think of when your computer restarts and you had, like, fifty tabs open in chrome before. You could “restore session” and remember all the stuff you’d put on the backburner. Or you could just take a breathe and embrace the memory-void as a gift.

    Either way, I wish you luck and peace.

  70. I think people telling you to get rid of it are giving you terrible advice.

    Store it for as long as you want, but that stuff is your story, it’s got at least some truth about what happened to you when you were too little to remember. That is incredibly valuable and if you destroy it you are losing something you can’t replace.

    There is a lot of murky shit about my childhood and I’m never going to know what really went down. The people who know the truth are starting to die off and they aren’t reliable anyway. I wish I had boxes with court transcripts in them, I wish it so much.

    1. The LW never said that these boxes had court transcripts, she said they contain notes written by her mother. Therefore they are not going to be an objective recording of what happened back then. So actually the LW is in the same situation as you are, her childhood is murky and the people who know the truth are unreliable. And she has two boxes worth of unreliable notes and possibly transcripts/recording from family therapy sessions she doesn’t remember sitting in her home and causing her stress.

      1. This is also, to me, a sign of someone who has never read a court transcript. I am a lawyer so I have, and they are not as clear as you think, and also sometimes not reliable.

        (I wish that someone being under oath made it impossible to lie, but they still do, and it’s even harder to call them out on it sometimes.)

        Regardless, nobody said anything about court transcripts until this commentor who is clearly too tied up in their own trauma to see this situation as “not theirs” and court transcripts are not some holy grail/rosetta stone to the truth.

    2. Whether or not the contents involve abuse, this is about what *OP* wants to do with those contents.

      What is good for OP may not necessarily be what would have been good for you. Many have simply noticed that the OP doesn’t seem particularly interested in poring through the entire collection, at the very least by themself, which is an equally valid way to feel about it than wanting to read every single document.

      Society often pushes people to find out everything they can about a secret past, but in reality, not everybody is like that, and providing stories can help people who are of the “toss it” type do what will be best for them.

      It is up to OP to decide what they want to do, and disposing of the documents is a valid option if it resonates with them.

    3. as I wrote upthread, I too have missing memories and quite awful questions about my childhood that I will never know the awful (or not awful, I guess) answers to for sure, and like you, I wish I had boxes like the LW’s because I would go through them in a heartbeat, because I’m a person who 1) HAS to know everything and 2) is NEVER GOING to know this and it drives me crazy on a semi-daily basis. but, a very dear friend of mine is in the same position of ‘who knows what happened, probably something dreadful given everything I do know and all the PTSD I have’ and they absolutely maintain that they would never choose to find out if given the opportunity, because what gives them peace is knowing that everything they have is…all they have, and they get to make their own decisions about how to deal with that without having to have EVEN MORE stuff to deal with. someone else I know made up stories to fit around what they could remember, decided to live as though that were the absolute truth (since it doesn’t really affect anyone else) and that they never wanted to know any different, because there’s a huge amount of power for them in what stories they decide to tell about themselves.

      like, there are lots of ways of feeling about this, is what I’m saying. most of the people in this thread aren’t saying ‘YOU SHOULD get rid of it’; most of them are just saying, ‘if it were me, I would get rid of it’. that’s not bad advice – just a series of perspectives, which can be really helpful when you’re tying yourself in knots in the echo chamber of your own head and can’t imagine what anyone else might think or do in your situation.

      as a person who’d open the boxes I totally get how much you want to know. I want to know too. but trauma is a funny thing; I’ve learned in the years of telling people the trauma stories I DO know all of that absolutely no reaction from anyone is the reaction my brain is looking for – regardless of whether people are horrified, sympathetic, unfazed, etc – because what my brain wants is a reaction that somehow makes it all okay. somehow. is looking for the reaction I wanted in the first place from the people who didn’t help me and should have, or didn’t care and should have.

      but, that magical reaction doesn’t exist, unfortunately, and I think in some ways…the truth we’re looking for a bit doesn’t exist either, in the way our brains are craving it. idk I don’t want to speak for you, but I do know that for me, even if I finally knew The Answer, it still wouldn’t…make wrangling the aftermath of it all any easier, really. like, I’d know What Happened, but all the people who failed me when It Happened would still have failed me; all the PTSD I was left with would still have been there, a series of land mines going off all throughout my life and fucking it up. and then I’d still have to deal with all that further PTSD I have, and I could at least know I guess that there was a Real Reason for it in the first place, but – there already is a Real Reason for it, even if it’s one I don’t remember and can’t know.

      be kind to yourself with this thread, but/and also to all the other people who have their own ways of processing what is as you know really difficult stuff. nobody’s way is necessarily wrong for them, even if it’d be completely wrong for you.

      1. Great comment. You said so clearly and succinctly what I’ve been trying to articulate for decades. Thank you. And I’m sorry you’re in this same shitty club that no one ever wanted to be in.

      2. This is pretty much what I’d planned to post. I don’t have a box. I have Missing Memories and a vague sense of Bad Things and years of therapy that consists of me desperately trying to figure out if there’s a reason why I feel so shaped by a trauma that I can’t completely identify and if I had a box, I would be tearing through that box right now.

        I think.

        Maybe not, though.

        LW, this is so hard, and I’m sending you all the strength and internet-stranger-love I’ve got.

  71. I have a friend whose childhood also involved a difficult divorce because terrible behaviour on behalf of one parent. He and his siblings maintain a relationship with that parent which is at times quite difficult – but he does think it’s easier for him to do so than his siblings because he doesn’t remember as much as they do about what this parent did. Personally, I don’t get his decision to still have a relationship with Terrible Parent, but that is his choice.

    Obviously, there are a few crucial differences here: there was never any question that sexual abuse was part of this parent’s terrible behaviour; my friend has had a lot of support from his family and therapy; and he has a great relationship with his other parent.

    Still, if he were offered a box with all the details in it, I think he would ritually burn it unopened.

    All that is to say: this has the potential to be very, very difficult. If you can’t stand having this box in your space anymore, store it elsewhere. You don’t have to decide now, and whatever you decide, being very clear about the potential risks and benefits of any decision is a process worth going through – ideally with a mental health professional* – before you do anything irrevocable. So that later, if you do have second thoughts, you can go back to that process and know you did the best you could for yourself at that time.

    *I say this because some people – and they might be the best friend in the world otherwise – are not equipped to help you if there is anything more than your mother’s hurt feelings in that box. They can’t un-know something about you once they know it, and that may change your relationship in a way you and they don’t expect.

  72. A sort of practical point — you could probably pay to have the contents of the box digitized. My mom did this with old family photos, and you can probably find a service (or someone local from a service like Task Rabbit) to do it for not-that-much-money.

    Then, the contents fit on a USB drive, and you can either store the drive (much smaller and easier to hide) or store the contents of the drive in a folder on Google Drive/Dropbox/whatever somewhere. Maybe choose a service that you don’t normally use, so you don’t have to even see them.

    The goal is to get this mostly out of your life and stored and not really taking up physical space (or that much continual upkeep) without destroying the contents if you ever do need them (therapy, legal issues, who knows) until you are ready to do that too.

    1. I have an Amazon S3 storage account that I use for things like wedding photos. It’s meant as commercial storage for businesses, so it’s not a super slick interface with one-click sharing to social media or anything, but it costs me all of 26 cents per month for a couple gigs of storage and the certainty that Amazon’s not shutting down the service any time soon. Just don’t lose the login.

  73. As someone faced with a similar situation, I would really recommend the therapist and open it with them option.
    Having a situation like that in your childhood and not remembering anything but hazy details, filtered through what adults feel a 6yo is able to understand, is horrible.
    It’s been haunting me for years that I couldn’t even put together a proper timeline for my mother’s mental illness. Granted, a box full of her old diaries wouldn’t have helped if I’d been faced with it on its own. It’s like a sheer cliff with no way up. But a therapist could help you find a trail, and then help you decide if you want to walk it.

    Also, related to all those claiming malice on the mother’s part for handing over written information instead of talking: The idea of talking face to face about emotionally charged material can be the most terrifying thing in the world. Written communication slows down the exchange and allows for a more controlled environment.

    1. I don’t think the box thing is malicious, necessarily. I suspect in a situation like this, where there is a abuse disclosure, then perhaps a mother might be fearful of that conversation and – like many people who feel disbelieved and blamed when they raise initial concerns- maybe LW’s mother feels therapy transcripts are evidence that LW will want.

      I try to remember that when my mother was faced with this dilemma, the laws in my country (the UK) meant that she was unable to obtain a mortgage or bank account without her husband/male relative to cosign. Rape within marriage wasn’t a crime. Custody of children was a costly and risky legal move. The 1980s child sex abuse media hysteria was in full swing, the idea that children and mothers were suggestive to false memory suggestion and the stigma of disclosing was huge. Sexual violence in families was unspeakable. It makes sense why a mother might be reluctant to disclose, and that’s assuming she isn’t under threat from her husband. Any disclosure my mother made would blow our family apart and women are socialised not to do that at any cost.

      None of that is any excuse for being a passive bystander but it can explain why some women’s truths about generational sexual abuse in families gets twisted up into these indirect, destructive types of revelations. LW deserves a fair chance at the truth vs being blindsided by the things her mother may be concealing.

  74. I’m usually the “I need to know!” person too, but in this case I think the most self-affirming thing I could do is get rid of those boxes, unopened. I have a toxic relationship with my mother, and it’s taken me years to separate myself from her perceptions of me.

    So while reading this letter I was thinking “What if her mom says something in there that devastates her?” Bad parents (or even good parents in a thoughtless moment) can wound so deeply with their words.

    So I guess it comes down to: How much power does your mother have to hurt you? For most of us: A lot. For me, she still has more than I want her to, and because she cannot be trusted with that power AT ALL, I have no contact with her.

    Getting rid of those boxes would be a way to firmly, actively reject the power of your mother’s perceptions of you. Given her behavior over this (seriously, who gives their kid family therapy sessions notes???) I don’t think she should be trusted with that power. And I think that you deserve the power that comes with consciously rejecting any hold those boxes have over you.

  75. There is this common cultural myth that the only way to deal with trauma in the past is to recount it in an ordered chronological account. While that is a legit way to approach trauma, the fact is that memories of traumatic events are not created and stored in the same way that non traumatic memories are. It’s not always necessary to go through every memory or investigate every incident. Even if you did, memories might be fragmented, confusing, even your mother’s memories may be this way. So trying to jam that into a journey where you create an account and get to a neat conclusion is possibly not going to be healing in the way you think it will. If your mother wants these boxes to fuel you on that quest, then she is misguided.

    I had abuse memories come up after being sent a nasty birthday card from my abuser. It wasn’t the first of my memories (lots of other red flags and things from other people supported what I now remember fully.) Five years of therapy later and I am beginning to put my story into a wider context where I heal. If I hadn’t had the support network and downtime to get therapy, I’d be in crisis. My parents have been very unhelpful and I did have to cut off certain abusive relatives. Being left with the knowledge that my family knew and didn’t stop it is more painful than the abuse itself.

    Whatever you choose, you are allowed to do what is right for you at this moment. Just because you were made the receptacle of family drama in the past, doesn’t obligate you to wade into this swamp now. It is ok to be done with the past and to choose to deal with your memories when it feels safe for you. Your mother isn’t entitled to direct all that psychological work with her boxes bullshit. If she had age appropriate help to give you then, she should have done. If she wants to do a mother daughter heart to heart, she needs to show up in person and engage you in an adult to adult honest conversation.

  76. TW: sexual abuse

    My older brother has Schizophrenia and one of the side effects for him is very hazy childhood memories and some very clear memories of things that never actually happened. Years ago he told me and our dad that our maternal uncle sexually abused him, but he’s never gone into any detail about what happened or when it happened. He was mentally very well when he made that disclosure, so my dad and I believe him. However previously he had made accusations about other male family members abusing him, these accusations were always made when he was very unwell and he always denied saying that once he was well again. So the rest of our family is sceptical, and as far as I know the uncle is unaware of the accusation. This is all further confused by the fact that my brother did spend considerable time in the company of a (since revealed) paedophile when he was a young child/tween. This man was convicted of abusing several of my brother’s friends, but my brother has always insisted that he wasn’t one of his victims.

    We are never going to know what happened, my brother’s memories can’t be entirely trusted and the uncle would certainly never confirm it as the truth. My solution is to have as little to do with my uncle as possible, and to support my brother in his decision to leave it in the past (although we did warn family members who had young children). It’s hard not knowing for certain, but I suspect knowing for certain would be worse.

    LW, chances are nothing in those boxes is going to let you know anything for certain. It sounds like it’s all your mother’s notes, and those will not be objective. The recordings of the family therapy sessions may give you more information, but even then I don’t think they will prove anything one way or the other. If there was conclusive proof of abuse in those boxes, there would have been more consequences for your father than him not being allowed to be alone with you in bathrooms/bedrooms. Or at least I hope there would have been.

    Earlier in the thread someone suggested that you think about how you are doing mentally/emotionally/physically before you make a decision about the fate of the boxes, I think they were right. If you are doing ok and it’s just the boxes being in your home that is stressing you out, I would just get rid of them. But if you aren’t ok, then seeing a therapist is a good idea. They will help you work out what’s the right choice for you when it comes to seeking the truth about your childhood. And help you deal with the fallout of whatever way you decide.

  77. I’m Team Burn This Pandora’s Box. I wouldn’t want anyone to accidentally read it. I had a gig helping a psychiatrist reconcile her billing and filing. I saw some of her session notes while trying to match records to folders was horrifying. Soon, I was trying to turn off my ability to sight-read.
    -Save your curiosity for adventures in realizing your life goals, LW.

  78. If you do decided to have someone look through it, I would definitely have a therapist and not a friend. I have many lovely friends that I trust with deeply private information but it would be hard for me to ask someone to take on the unknown burden of what information is contained in the boxes (they might not want to know – that’s unfair! I would feel awful). I also like to control what things I share about myself with other people and in this instance you have no control over what this friend finds out about your past. A trained therapist would not feel burdened and I would not feel guilty about unloading whatever is in there on them. They would also be able to convey any relevant details in safe manner while helping you process anything that needs it.

  79. I have two kids of my own. Even in much less-fraught circumstances than what you grew up with, I would *never* want them to grow up and read my unfiltered thoughts on their behavior, how their dad is treating them, etc. Raising kids–it’s intense! I have a lot of thoughts about it that they should never hear in an unfiltered, unframed way. I bet most parents are that way.

  80. I am definitely the person who doesn’t want to know the bad things unless I need that information for some reason, and if I don’t know whether I need it or not, I will avoid looking at it while getting more and more anxious about what it could be, so in your shoes, LW, I would definitely ask someone who knows me well to look at the stuff for me and tell me if there’s anything in there I need to see and/or keep.

    Whatever you decide, I hope you can emerge from the boxes situation feeling good and secure about that decision and also feeling the relief of having it over with.

  81. Speaking as someone who opened their own “box” (in my case a single letter) and found the emotional equivalent of a severed head in there, and also as someone who made a conscious decision to explore some (unrelated) stuff in therapy which went on to trigger a form of delayed onset PTSD and has made my life a misery since then, I would say to think long and hard about whether knowing the contents of the boxes would be in ANY way helpful to you and your life now. There’s a very high chance the answer is no. I am strongly on the “burn without reading” team. If it bothers you to be the one doing it, like you’re some how tampering with history or destroying evidence, or feel as if that you might regret it later, get someone else to do it and allow you move on guilt-free. It might be helpful to remind yourself that those boxes could easily have been damaged or destroyed accidentally at some point over the years, and if necessary just pretend to yourself that this is what has happened to them.

    I’ve been in and out of therapy for over 20 years, and I can honestly say that sometimes stones are better left unturned.

  82. A couple of years ago, my sister and I cleared out our mother’s place to sell it. Mom was a narcissist and a serial home wrecker; she left our dad for a married man, and her third husband was also married when they met…and related to my husband. She opened up a drawer, started looking through it and said to me, “You don’t want to read anything that’s in here. Trust me.” And I did, and cleared another part of the house while she read it, and got the executive summary afterward, and it was enough–even a little bit more than enough.

    If you want to know and can get a trusted person to go through the boxes and give you that summary, I’d advise it. You do need an incredibly high level of trust for something like that. But I think burning it all and sending it to hell where that kind of drama belongs is the better option. YMMV.

    1. As someone whose mother is dating a person who is not-so-distantly related to my father, I really appreciate that tiny tidbit of your comment. It helps me feel less alone in my how-does-one-even-draw-that-family-tree navigations.

  83. As someone with a similar background who would also normally want to know, I still think these boxes should be disposed of. With similar background I mean a highly creepy father directing his creepiness towards me and others, weird memories of being warned about him, clear memories of inappropriate behavior coming from him, a messy divorce, me locking doors without knowing why, and the vague feeling that there might be stuff I don’t remember. I am the type that has had a journal for the last 15 years. I regularly read old entries. I revisit conflicts I’ve had with people (reading old emails or messages), etc. I surprise myself with my own old thoughts and experiences. It’s part of my personality to keep a dialogue with old me, and to reshape my own story regularly by revisiting difficult experiences (aka a fair share of abuse) I’ve had.

    What makes me think that you shouldn’t open the box is, like with many others here, your mom. Things might be easier if this were a story of the potential abuser dad with a good and reliable mother as a source of knowledge to solve the case. But like in your case, my mother has issues of her own. The best way I know to describe my mother’s problems is “boundary issues”. This box thing sounds to me like it has a neon sign on it saying “boundary issues” or possibly also “forced teaming” (as in: “let us bond by going over how evil your father was” which maybe he was, but it is highly toxic to make a possibly traumatized person fall deeper into their trauma only because the mother needs to have her reality validated).

    The difficulty here lies in the facade this situation has. The boxes have things in there written about you. But it’s possible to say that this is ultimately NOT about you. This is about your mother, who sees you as a character in her story and is now doing things to make the real you go along with the narrative (independently of how true the things in those boxes are. They might be 100% true and still, this might be 100% not about you because the situation has no sensibility for you as a human being with feelings). Having to confirm your mom’s reality for her is not your responsibility and it’s a burden no parent should place on their child. The Captain knows what she’s saying when she offers the option of sending back to sender. I think your instinct has been right all along in telling you that these boxes are a foreign body in the system of your life. Follow those instincts. This is not about you. You are allowed to reject this burden. Like others are saying, all you need is inside of you. If you ever need to dig deeper into the topic of the possible sexual abuse, you already have all you need.

    In my case I decided to never tell my mother about the specific memories I have of my father doing creepy stuff. She has been asking me about it regularly for many many years (even as I was a small child and was completely overwhelmed with the question). I never wanted to tell her and I felt for a long time that I didn’t tell her because I wasn’t strong enough or because I was unconsciously trying to protect him. But at some point I realized my mother was not asking me for my sake but for hers. This was the real reason, I just didn’t know it in my head. I knew it in my gut. I eventually did for myself what I had to do (cut my father off my life, went to therapy, read my share of books about sexual abuse survivors, etc). It’s not my mother’s business at all, independently of what she thinks her obligations as a mother are or were. We don’t have that type of relationship ever since I became an adult, none of us can go back and change the past, she is not responsible for how I cope right now, and I am not responsible for giving her information about my life, or for making her believe she fulfilled all her duties as a mom, or for confirming her reality for her. I love her and I feel for her and for what’s difficult for her but I am very careful with boundaries and I do not let her burden me with the stuff she should be taking care of for herself. That is all I can do. Everybody knows my father is a creep and people stay away from him. There’s nothing else for me to do other than take care of myself as best as I can. It sounds like it’s similar in your case, LW. Do that!

    I wish you strength to choose what is right for you in your heart and your gut, LW!

    To everyone else here: I didn’t know so many people have this vague feeling of having forgotten memories of abuse, but who also live normal and happy lives without having to know. This is so reassuring and weird in a bitter-sweet way. This post ❤

  84. Your mother made you a poisonous “gift”, it’s up to you to CHOOSE to accept it or not.
    If I were you, I would blissfully burn those damned boxes to the ground. What good can come from opening them now after all those years?

  85. I have fairly large gaps on my memory from childhood. Therapy as a late teen was enlightening – I learned that my sister and I possessed completely different memories – she remembered some things, I remembered others. Our parents were troubled at best, and while not directly abusive towards us, were both volatile and unpredictable and often scary.

    I was concerned about the memory gaps. Thought that I MUST regain those memories. Spoke to my therapist about memory retrieval – mind you this was 30 years ago. And while she offered to help if that was what I wanted, she also pointed out that some of my memories I did have were bad and upsetting and the reasons I was in therapy in the first place. If my lost memories were worse then my mind blocked them to save me from the trauma and she asked if I really felt the need to recover them as I already knew how incredibly screwed up my child hood was…did I need more proof?

    I decided that I really did not need to know. Between my memories and my sister’s, I really knew all I needed to know.

    Those boxes from your Mom? Those are like my lost memories. Do you really need those “memories”? Especially since they are not even your memories. Those are your Mom’s memories that she has cast onto you – don’t take them upon yourself.

    I vote for shredding those boxes. You don’t need someone else’s baggage cluttering up your space.


  86. I know I’m late commenting, so I don’t know if the LW will see this or not. However, I’ve been through something similar, but on a smaller scale. My teenaged parents had a shotgun wedding, and my mother was hidden away with relatives in another state so that no one in their church would know that I was born shortly after they got married. My father really really didn’t want to get married but was strong armed by my parents. Not surprisingly, their marriage went up in flames and the last time I saw him was when I was three.

    The relative my mom was staying with when I was born recently gave me a bunch of paperwork – from the hospital, my first pictures, etc. However, there was also a stack of letters in there from both sets of grandparents, and she warned me that they might upset me.

    I took one of the options that the brilliant Captain has suggested above and had my husband read them and give me the Cliff Notes. He said they were full of criticism of both of my parents, how irresponsible they were, how they turned against their faith, and basically implying that my mom was a slut who entrapped my father. My mother was everything to me growing up. My husband recommended that I not read them. He put them away so I can read them later if I want.

    LW, you don’t have to make the same decision I did. I just wanted you to know that I understand how you feel, and you aren’t obligated to read them.

  87. **TW sexual abuse**

    LW, your letter resonates with me in several ways. My parents are also divorced and I have very vague maybe-memories of possible abuse, but no faces, don’t know who, just a backlit male figure in the doorway that frightened me, weird sexual behavior as a child, sexually abusive partners and trouble with sex and PTSD as I grew up. I have only asked my mother about it, but she says she doesn’t know. I wish I could find out, but haven’t dared asking anyone else about it and don’t know if I would even get any answers or if anyone other than the potential perpetrator , whoever it might be, would even know.

    In one instance I have had a written record of a sexual abuse situation that I could not deal with remembering at the time, but that helped me so much to find again after a couple of years in therapy. It was a partner I had been with for four years who raped me one night when I had fallen asleep. I think he was jealous and afraid I would leave him. This was a partner who had been only patient and kind with my (not yet diagnosed) PTSD and helping me overcome sexual problems and feel safe again. A feminist ally, a great guy. I really trusted him. My family loved him. It did not make sense to me, so I just blocked it from my memory. I ended the relationship, but didn’t know why I had suddenly lost all attraction to him. I felt like the bad guy, who left the kind but not so conventionally attractive guy. Some time later I read old entries in my diaries and found out what actually had happened, and wrote about that in a new entry, but I still wasn’t ready to remember it, so again it just disappeared from my memory. It wasn’t until many years later, after I had been in therapy for more than one year, talking about other abuses that I did remember, that I could actually remember this. I had felt the pull again to read old diary entries, because I knew there was something there and by that time I had processed enough with my therapist to be able to handle that memory. In many ways the things I did remember were worse, but the betrayal of someone so deeply trusted to be nothing but kind is hard to wrap your head around. I guess that’s part of why childhood abuse is so hard to remember. It’s just so hard to believe that someone who loves and protects you also could hurt you. Reading those old diary entries while having been in therapy for some time and being able to talk about it with my therapist was very helpful for me. I could make sense of triggers I had. I could let go of the feelings of guilt for leaving that relationship. I could redefine who he was and who I was and am and my mind is more at ease.

    That said, you are not me, my own diary is not the same as your mother’s notes and the content is not the same either. But, as some people have suggested, an idea is to keep the boxes for some time, while you find a good therapist and go through your memories and feelings about this. After a while you may feel like going through the boxes, or you feel like you want to just leave them. Your therapist can help you sort through the feelings and there is no right or wrong. You don’t have to store the boxes at your place either. If you can afford a storage space that could be a good way to not have to feel the feelings about them until you are ready.

    Jedi hugs if you want them.

  88. Additional thought and support for idea of friend helping out.

    You don’t know what’s in the boxes. There might be things you value inside in addition to the other stuff. I once did a “let’s burn all this crap from a bad relationship” session. As I got the pieces out of a box I found a $50 bill. Had I pitched it all in, id have literally burned money. (How’d it get in there? Who cares! It paid for my groceries that week)

    It may be worth it to have a trusted friend do a pass through to scan for stray valuables. From there, assess whether you want to deal with the weighty contents. Also something a trusted friend may be able to help with.

  89. I, personally, would have already opened those boxes, read some things, and thrown most of the contents out, but I am Team I Wanna Know. I’ve worked as a medical librarian and seen some horrible medical things, and as a paralegal/legal assistant and read some horrible legal things, and I read books about disturbing things (e.g., how serial killers got caught, horrible historical events) and, possibly because they don’t involve me directly, they never haunt me at night. (My occasional insomnia is almost entirely due to bad sleep habits and current problems with my family, not stuff I saw or read at work or family issues from the past.)

    BUT! As many above are saying, the ultimate decision is up to you. I think acquiring support of some kind first, if you decide to tackle the issue one way or the other (dive in or toss out), might be really helpful. A professional, like a therapist, may have the appropriate amount of distance from the contents of the boxes that a friend might not have.

    Whatever you decide, I have confidence that your choice will be the right choice for you and I support whatever you choose to do.

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