By Alex Cohen
I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. My mother was a teacher at the local elementary school and my father managed a small print shop in town. My brother was two years older than me, and we had a pretty normal upbringing. We lived in a three-bedroom home on a cul-de-sac that was separated from the other homes by a white picket fence.
We lived right by the bus stop, and every morning Mom would pack our lunches in brown paper bags that she decorated with little hearts. Our dad would walk us out to the bus and give us each a big hug and kiss and wave to us until the bus was out of site. That was until we were old enough to walk to school together; then he would just wave from the kitchen table as not to embarrass us.
We would spend the day going from class to class talking and giggling with our friends until lunchtime when we sat and enjoyed eating with our friends. After school, we practiced our sports—in my case, dance. I loved to dance, and I was very good at it. My brother was a jock; he played soccer and was captain of his team. Our parents came to every one of my performances and his games, always there to cheer us on—win or lose.
My brother and I got along even though we were two years apart; he always doted on me and took such good care of me. We were a tight family and loved spending time together. We ate dinner together almost every night, and we went to the movies and then strolled through town eating ice cream cones.
Our vacations were filled with adventure. We would climb mountains, bike through national parks, safari in Africa, parasail on the coast of Spain, hike through Italy—too many to mention, but always as a family.
When it was time for my brother to graduate from high school and leave for college, it broke my heart. He was my buddy, my pal. I remember the day he was packing to leave to school. Though it was only a three-hour drive away, to me it felt like another country. I hugged him so tight and for so long, I had to be pried away by my parents. Tears ran down my cheeks. He reached down and grabbed my face and told me that I would always be his number one gal and he would never be too far away from me—ever.
As an adult, I look back and those memories still warm my heart. The only thing is none of this is true; I made it all up.
It’s not that I did not like my family or my upbringing but it was not like this fairytale I made up in my head. I had a good upbringing; my mother worked, but at home, and cared for her family. My dad worked nights at the post office and we barely saw him as we were asleep while he worked and in school while he slept. There were no sports or dance, just hanging out with my friends on the block. The only vacation we could afford was to Puerto Rico to spend time with our grandparents. I did not have a brother, only two older sisters who were busy with their own lives and so much older than me that I was just a young girl when they both left the house. I went to school locally—even college—and pretty much did not leave my home until I was married.
This blog came to me as I remember being young and seeing a therapist who was helping me get through my anorexic years (Don’t laugh. Seriously I was, and it’s obvious not anymore).
One day the therapist had me lie on the floor to do some visualization with me. I had no idea what that was, but I went with it. I closed my eyes and he led me through some breathing exercises and some imagery. He asked me to think back when I was a very young child and was sad or disappointed. I clearly remembered being small and playing in my room alone with my Barbie dolls. My father had just come home from work and I asked him to play with me, and he said he could not because he was tired and needed to sleep. At that moment, I remember feeling so alone, unloved and even unwanted. While lying there with my eyes closed, I could feel the warm tears flowing from my eyes onto my cold cheek and I could not stop them from coming; I was there again at that moment in time.
The therapist then said to me, “Now change your story. Go back to the beginning and make the story what you want,” so I did. I was playing alone in my room and I saw my dad go by. He ran into the room, scooped me up, gave me a big hug and kiss, and asked me how my day was. I told him all about it and asked if he would play with me. He said he would for a few minutes because he had not slept and was tired from work. We played for 20 minutes but it felt like hours, and I was beaming with joy. My tears soon stopped and were replaced with signs and smiles.
By changing my story, I was able to relive that moment and make it better, let go of the sadness and the feeling of being unloved. Instead, it was replaced with love and security. I knew my parents loved me. I also knew they worked their asses off to give my sisters and me all we needed in life. But that child was still hurt and still needed love. So, I gave it to her, and I was able to move on from that sad memory and turn it into something that brought me joy.
You may think this is a futile exercise. How can changing your story change how you feel about yourself or your life? Many people, including me, have suffered bad things in their lives; some bury them so deep in their subconscious that they forget these things happened to them. Then one day, a smell, a place, or a memory brings it all back and they don’t know how to handle it. Sometimes they even question their validity. We have all had difficult things happen to us at some point in our lives. It’s how we deal with them that differentiate us. In this case, I chose to retell the story in my favor and it not only changed my perception of the event, but it also helped me heal my relationship with my parents.
I am not saying that it will work for everyone, but isn’t it worth a try to tell the same story over with a different ending? Why should we or our future be defined by our past? Why can’t we edit the past, like we would any story we write, and change the words, change the feeling, change the narrative?
Our lives are a series of stories, like fables and tales handed down from our elders. They are not exact. Every time we repeat them, they change slightly, and those who hear the stories believe them to be accurate and true. The reality is that it’s like playing telephone. Once you tell someone, then they tell someone, and so on and the story inevitably changes. It can get worse or it can get better, but it changes until that becomes the new truth. It’s the same with the stories we tell ourselves. Let’s change them for the better and make them the new truth.
When you are faced with pain, change the story and find love, find safety, and find joy in those memories.
What’s your story?