Pain as a Sense Memory Trigger

I’ve written before about some issues I had related to painkillers, sense memory, and survivor’s guilt. Here’s a little more:

How does a widow process whatever emotion’s being pinged by some lower back pain brought on due to her spending a chunk of Saturday working on wiring while sitting on the ground? Like this I guess, because I didn’t really put that whole thought together until I started typing it. There’s always a reason certain things trigger such intense sense memories about my late husband. This time, it’s feeling what he felt. The image of him sitting on a chair, hunched over a circuit board, doing everything from soldering to writing notes to prodding it with some tool, trying to get it do what it was supposed to do, is still clear in my mind. There are any number of songs I could listen to that can invoke that memory. Some also make me recall the cats–the six “purrkids” we had. Or how much I miss having such a great clothesline that also produced some great icicles in the winter. And then I cry, because that part feels safe to miss. The rest, doesn’t.

But physical pain, it does things to us that we’d rather avoid. It forces us to feel things we’ve done our best not to feel. I know that there is a life I used to have that I’ll never get back. I’m fine with that, because I really love the life I have now. I honestly wouldn’t trade anything to get that old life back. I’m more myself that I have been for a couple decades, easily.

But the mind has to deal with that stuff, lest we suffer too much. So it uses sense memory, in part, to remind us that we need to make peace with past pain. It’s okay to put it to rest and move on, but you have to deal with it head-on first before you can have more control over how you deal with those sense memory triggers in the future. Sometimes it feels unfair, but it’s a fact that can’t be changed.

A Patently Open Letter to my Dead Husband

Kevin,
It’s been 4 years and 4 days since you died. I’ve come quite a long way in that time.  I’ve grown as a person and I’m happy with my life.  Much of what you said was true–I’ve received tons of support and help, and I do not miss caretaking. I kept my promise and earned my second degree black belt. That was a very tough test, and my perseverance is what earned me the belt.  The word “pilsung” is on my belt, which means personal victory.  Very fitting.  I do hope you’d be proud of me.

I’m reminded of you every single day.  Most of the time these days, it’s minor and passes pretty quickly.  The first year and a half was snaking through the chaos of sense memory, avoiding a lot of things that were emotionally painful, and missing you and the cats something fierce.  About two and a half years into widowhood, I started to get angry at you.  I finally started to see our relationship for what it really was–a codependent version of Amour Fou that only death could dissolve.  Sure, there are scores of good memories and I won’t forget them.  Sense memory sucks, but way less than it used to.  I can listen to ELP now without bawling.  I can even enjoy cooking chicken in the pressure cooker again!  I still watch Mad Men and The Sopranos on occasion.  Sometimes I cry because I miss our house and the cats and things like playing Scrabble (which I haven’t brought myself to do again yet) while watching whatever you downloaded.  It was a good life, but it wasn’t necessarily the life I wanted.  I think that’s why it was so hard for me to sustain any sort of routine you found acceptable.  My subconscious was rebelling.  I am sorry that I didn’t realize that earlier, but I don’t think you’d have let me really do anything about it.

I haven’t done things you wanted me to do, and I’ve done things you wanted me to avoid.  As time has marched on, who I am and what I want from life has changed. I grew up quite a bit after you died. You’d be angry that I couldn’t grow while you were alive. My counter to that (not a defense–I’m done defending my choices to you) is that how in the hell could I grow if I had to concern myself with keeping you alive while trying to live up to your ideal of what I should be?   It would have been much better had you given me room to grow as an individual, rather than only grow as your soulmate. 

My parents and my sister are a part of my life again, and I know that would upset you. I don’t care, because your issues caused you to adopt a Scorched Earth ideology at the end. You wanted me to be an orphan because you were. I’m not, and I’ll never forgive you for making me feel like I had no family (hey, at least you died knowing I forgave you in advance for killing yourself!).  At least mending fences with my parents and sister has resulted in a more honest relationship with them. You know, I never believed they didn’t love me.  What they did for us, they did out of love for me.  I think you knew that, and even though you benefited greatly from it, you resented it.

I’m finding my own path, and I’ve been fairly fortunate that I have the various kinds of support I do.  I’ve been given the opportunity to heal from the loss of you as well as start to grow into my own person.  I couldn’t leave synths entirely. I spent the first year and a half after you died selling off all the synth stuff I could to make money. Then I took My Sweetie to NAMM 2 years ago, and the welcome I received from the synth folks was quite touching.  I also made sure Moog Music had as many of your notes about Minimoogs as I could find so they’d get their reissue right.  (Are you pissed I gave them the info for free? I’m not because I got an internship out if it!) I love assembly and replacing components on circuit boards, but I can’t make it my career. When it comes to the synth community, I’ll always be your widow.  I’m proud of all the work you did and how well regarded you were, but I can’t tie myself to your legacy forever.  I know you wouldn’t want me to, which is why you told me to forget synths and focus on Taekwondo (something you suggested I do in the first place, though you were right–I do love it!).  Kind of a limited future, really.

I’ve been able to figure out a new career path–photovoltaics.  The only thing I remembered from your experiments was that I needed to have a charge controller.  I can now tell you that you made the “big” (10 watt) panels way less efficient by encasing them in plexiglass.  Panels need to breathe!  I’m hoping to get the Fellowships I applied for so I can have a career again.  I loved the class I took, and some of the things you taught me about waveforms came in handy when I learned about Inverters.  (BTW, I still can’t believe you didn’t realize you probably bought a stolen inverter off a tweaker!)

I don’t think you’d like the world today. So many people that you admired have died since you did (starting with Robin Williams four weeks after you), and the political divide has gotten worse.  Ok, so you’d dig recreational marijuana being legal in California. You’d laugh at dab rigs–”How odd to use a crack torch to smoke weed!”  I know your sense of having outlived everything you knew and love would have only increased over the past few years.  I often wonder what you’d have thought about Bill Cosby’s fall from grace.  We quoted him so often, but I can’t do that now that I know what a scumbag he is.

I found the love you tried to convince me we had. It sure is wonderful to have the real thing though!  To truly be loved for who I truly am has been one of the best things to happen to me since you died.  My Sweetie has made me a better person through his support, patience, and encouragement. He’s inspired me to be more self aware, which makes life so much easier! He’s had to deal with the issues caused by my life with you (emotional, mental, and physical), and has done so gracefully and beyond my wildest dreams. In return, I love him the way I wanted you to love me.  I took the good things you did in loving me, abandoned the bad, and added unconditional support and patience. I look forward to the plans I’m making with him, as we’re building a life together while still following our individual dreams.

Thanks for loving me as best as you could, all things considered. I did the best I could to love you, and I know I fell short of your expectations. Some of it I’ll accept blame for, and the rest was the inability to truly be myself.  We had a good 18 years together, even though a lot of the time it feels like a dream.  I do hope you’ve found peace if there’s an afterlife, as you do deserve that after enduring years of pain and the erosion of your identity.

Fondly,
Daphne