Good Memories and Mental Health: Filling in the Gaps

Trauma is not only the product of bad memories but the absence of good ones as well. Extended abuse or trauma summons up visions of verbal and physical violence, but as damaging are the years barren of good memories. I faced this upon the dissolution of my first marriage, knowing that I needed to rehabilitate Christmas and birthdays. But equally as daunting, I confronted the reality of knowing I needed to create enough sense of safety that the everyday norm could begin to generate good feelings, interactions, and memories.

When I married my current and wonderful husband, I did not realize I would need to rehabilitate such everyday interactions as common as family dinners for more than just my girls.

Nearly five years out of my marriage to a narcissistic abuser, I worked on making birthdays and other occasions special, a task made difficult by over a decade of fighting, emotional blackmail, and verbal abuse.

My daughters adapted quickly to family dinners with just the five of us, but Christmas day, Easter, and Thanksgiving remained fraught with dread.

Now married with two additional children at the table, a clash of family cultures began. Spencer and his son and daughter came to the marriage with great memories of holidays, but family dinners were rare at his house. I did not realize why until my first big dinner with all eight of us around the table. Spencer looked miserable and left the table early. I grew up with wonderful family dinners on a near nightly basis. In fact, those years of good memories helped keep me intact during the twelve years I lived with my first husband.

What took me some time to learn was that his experience of family dinners ranged from the merely disastrous to the violent. His memories of growing up were not only filled with a host of tragic endings, but the lack of good memories from his own childhood proved daunting.

In short, we were not so much a family as we were a ragged company of survivors washed up on the shore of life. 

His children still reeled from the divorce of their father and mother, and mine kept up a good appearance while avoiding their new father figure. It took him years to win their trust.

Literally, any kind of normal family event proved triggering to someone. Every meal, every holiday, every event contained landmines designed to explode into panic attacks, angry diatribes, or a dissociative coma. I began to realize that I needed to teach every one of the kids and my husband how to be happy, a heroic attempt made possible by the sheaf of happy memories I had from ages seven to seventeen. So I launched myself into the effort and learned some important lessons along the way.

  1. Sometimes you have to be extravagant. Learning how to enjoy pleasure is key to recovering from depression or trauma. When you wait for an emotional explosion or try to avoid being noticed, you good memoriesleave your body behind. By making fabulous dinners or comfort food, by designing a menu to hit everyone’s favorites within the week, every single one of our family members began to look forward to dinners. We established safe boundaries and managed the conversations by relating stories. This took several years to develop, but now every one of the kids and my husband looks so fondly on these extended family dinners. The combination of really good food and the development of the intimacy of the dinner table made us a family and gave us all a file of really happy memories now that the kids are grown.
  2. Beauty is important. In order to make holidays enjoyable, I hit all the neural pathways I could. At Christmas, I designed special Christmas trees. One Christmas, butterflies fluttered over the tree; another Christmas, small woodland creatures nestled between the boughs or hung from ribbons. I used scented candles. Easter meant a beautifully decorated table. Thanksgiving included a large poster we decorated together with markers, holiday stickers, and things we were grateful for. We played good memoriesmusic appropriate to the holiday. And yes, I bought too many gifts. But now that everyone lives far apart, they reminisce about our Christmases and look forward eagerly to their own. That is a major win. My future grandchildren will have good holidays now.
  3. Order matters. I kept a clean house. While I worked, cleaners helped me. The house wasn’t perfect, but it felt good. I helped each of the kids design their own space. It wasn’t expensive, but everyone had a place to retreat to and the family areas were comfortable and gracious. I didn’t have designer furniture for most of that time; I just took care to make sure that the environment could be lived in. My kids, for the first time in their lives, brought their friends over. They did not have the freedom before and went a long way to teaching their minds and bodies how to feel at home.
  4. Family outings are good. Our first forays into vacationing were a bit difficult, but over time we got better at them. We rented cabins or homes. We integrated physical, intellectual, and spiritual activities. Fights happened, but with less and less frequency. We all had to relearn how to have fun. Hiking, silly games, and again, good food good memoriesseemed to be our magic formula. We also went to some fantastic church conferences that impacted everyone. Who knew having fun was a skill? But in the absence of good, fun memories, there is no roadmap to the land of good clean fun.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother told me that she spent her life trying to give him good memories. His childhood never really happened as he took responsibility for himself from a very young age. I realized then what I just related above. The absence of good memories is so debilitating because feeling safe, enjoying relationship, and just celebrating life must be taught.

I do not write this intending to guilt the overwhelmed mother into trying to do all or be all. Not at all. I merely want to encourage parents to realize that creating good memories is a sacred duty. What constitutes those good memories is probably different for every family. For my traumatized brood, I used what tools I was gifted in. I have an eye for beauty, and I like to cook. My kids are all very gifted, so long intellectual conversations greased the relational wheels.

Later, I realized that God built in fun for his children, too. Feast days and days of rest were mandated. Rules for keeping things clean and orderly were in place. Even eating together is sacred in the Bible. Jesus turned the water into wine, regularly fed the crowds, and cooked for his disciples. Solomon’s temple had special closets to house the memories and trophies of Israel.

Good memories cement relationship, necessary to combat depression and anxiety, even physical illness. Good memories provide a platform of support, a baseline of normalcy that protects us. My background provided the necessary context for understanding how abusive my first marriage was as well as the necessary tools to remediate, to some extent, the damage from it. Want to give your kids an incredible gift?  While you are teaching them to be responsible adults, teach them to have fun, unadulterated, joyous glee. Joy, happiness, whatever you want to call it, heals, protects, and binds wounds of all sorts. 

To create happy memories is to bless your children and your children’s children. So here’s to good times.

good memories

 

 

 

For more of my thoughts on childhood memories and their importance, see

What Our Childhood Memories Reveal About Us

20 Replies to “Good Memories and Mental Health: Filling in the Gaps”

  1. I really needed this today, dear sister. I had never once put two and two together in thinking about the fact that feasts and rests were mandated and important to God. I have been feeling pulled in this direction for quite some time and now I see why. God bless you for your obedience in sharing! I have shared this already 🙂 Have a blessed day!

  2. I love the care and detail you put into crafting this post and the concrete examples of how we can make family time fun and involving. I thank you for the openness with which you share about your growing up years, previous marriage and present family, and not just in this post alone. A lot of it is relatable and very encouraging.

  3. Alice, this is one of my favorites among your blog posts mainly because I can relate to being scarred and all but still desiring to give best moments for the sake of our children. I’ve tears in my eyes when you said this, “The absence of good memories is so debilitating because feeling safe, enjoying relationship, and just celebrating life must be taught.” I felt the same when I was just starting my own family. It’s like walking in an eggshell, you wanted to take control of your own happiness but still struggles with the thought of what if everything you have hoped for goes wrong AGAIN. Thank you for this…

    1. I totally get it. But you have the privilege of standing in that generational gap. Your fight for good memories is warring for the generations to come.

  4. In recent years, we have been paying more attention to the instructions He has given us on feast days and learning to rest; realizing they were meant for our well being. Also, love the verse of the day you have posted on the side bar.

  5. TheFrugalCouponer says: Reply

    I’m still trying to make my own good memories for myself…

  6. This: “Who knew having fun was a skill? ” Yes, yes, yes! I’m years past my own marriage to a narcissistic addict, (now remarried) and I’m realizing just how much my son and I DON’T know how to have fun. Great post! Thanks!

  7. Great article! I’m inspired to be more intentional about my own family gatherings.

  8. Once again, so incredibly helpful. And I like your encouragement to the overwhelmed mom at the end. Sometimes it is the little moments that can be made special to create good memories. For instance, your cleaning the house example. I try to make house cleaning fun, and turn on dance music. We end up laughing and having a great time!

  9. Heather Hart says: Reply

    Sometimes I think there is beauty in simplicity. One year we rented a local house that has multiple rooms for sleeping and everyone came in from out of town. We had so much joy gathering together that Thanksgiving because it was so simple. No one tried to hard or did too much. We just gathered.

  10. This was great. What our family is sort of dealing with right now is, how to process and deal with all the great memories that have now been tainted and distorted from what they were perceived to be due to the realization that Daddy was living a double life. What was real? What wasn’t? How do I fit this memory into what I now know to have been reality? It’s a mine field! For all of us. But we’re working our way through it together while also creating new, untainted memories.

  11. This is an amazing post. Many suffer from narcissistic abuse and your statement of absense of good memories can be debilitating hit a truth for me I had not realized. Thank you! ❤️

  12. I absolutely love this post and am thankful for your blog. My husband had a traumatic childhood and early adulthood. There are years he does not remember. We have had the conversations of him not having such and such event or a good memory of something to pull from. He has many good memories but many others are either blocked or just unremembered. I appreciate the examples you shared.

  13. Powerful statement – Trauma is not only the product of bad memories but the absence of good ones as well. I’m doing my best to great a beautiful home for my family. It’s still a juggle as a full-time working mom.

  14. This is a beautiful and meaningful article !! The first paragraph was gripping for me. I am amazed at what you came out of, and how you healed and grew, and helped others to heal…….and form a new family, with good memories !

  15. susanhomeschooling says: Reply

    “Learning how to enjoy pleasure is key to recovering from depression or trauma.” This is so true! When you experience trauma, you think you can never enjoy anything again. It’s important to allow ourselves to feel the small pleasures as stepping stones to allowing ourselves to open up again to living.

  16. I want to find a memory in every day, time is to fast

  17. My childhood memories of the holidays are some of my best. They were full of traditions and rituals and delicious treats. It’s no wonder I strive to recreate that environment for my own home and basically celebrate from Nov. 1-Feb.1 🤗

  18. Wow! Thank you for sharing all of this. What an amazing look at a very complex situation and all the feelings, memories, etc. that were brought into your blended family. And your message is so spot on. Blessings, amy

  19. I like what you said, “creating memories is a sacred duty.”

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