At our house, my mother painted the walls and ceilings in every room every year. I never understood why she felt the need to do this when they weren’t scuffed or dirty. What was she trying to cover up? The plastered walls all had this swirl pattern in them that was so layered with paint that in many spots it was nearly smooth. I remember lying in bed unable to fall asleep and tracing the swirls with my small fingers and losing my place because the little valleys created by the swirl were nearly filled in.
One year she needed to strip the paint from the woodwork before adding more because there were so many layers the windows would not close properly if new paint were added over the old again. She borrowed a heat gun from someone. It was a bit like an industrial blow dryer – hand held but so much hotter than anyone could ever safely use anywhere near their hair. It was dangerous, slow work and she didn’t want anyone to help. I watched it once when she let me stand nearby. The heat, visible only in the way it distorted what I could see through it, roared from the open end and melted and peeled back the layers of paint, layers of color – one after another. They softened gradually and she would use the scraper to remove it as much of the paint as possible and leave a smooth surface. Melt and scrape. Melt and scrape. She repeated this for days throughout the house.
Years later my therapist used a similar system with me to remove some vivid memories. She didn’t have a heat gun but she had a space heater that always made the room too warm for me. We would address some of the more vivid memories one by one, peeling back the layers of emotions attached to them and addressing every emotion that came up until the memory held no more power. It was as though for decades I had carried around these memories in my mind, like vivid Technicolor snapshots in a wallet. Heavy snapshots. After we stripped away their power, they faded to a subdued black and white and were much lighter to “carry” around – if I even felt the need to carry them anymore. In most cases I did not.
They took up less space after that, those memories. Freeing up space for a new coat of memories, new layers of thought and events and even dreams. But it is a tough process to sit there in her office, which is like a small living room. I am always too hot. If she has the space heater on the hum of it effectively renders me deaf. I close my eyes and go over a memory. What do you feel? Ashamed, scared, embarrassed, lost, invisible…..Where do you feel it? My head, my stomach, my chest. What does the water look like? This is an important part of the visualization – you picture each emotion as water in a river – stormy, muddy, frozen, dark, choppy, dirty…. And then you let the water go. You let the water go downstream, down over a waterfall, down a drain, down down down. You let it go. Each emotion gets a place in your body and water. And you let each go over and over and over again until the memory doesn’t have any emotions left that you can feel.
It’s incredibly effective and a lot of work. I keep feeling like I am not pleasing my therapist. She wants rage. She knows I get angry, like a switch, out of the blue, raging angry like the worst windy thunderstorm – lashing out, but it never happens when we work on these memories. Do you feel rage? I purse my lips, furrow my brow and look around in my mind for it, but it isn’t there. I shake my head. No rage? She asks again.
She really wants me to be angry with my parents. She’s a little passive aggressive on the topic of my parents. On the one hand, she says, they gave me food, shelter, clothing, education. So what do I have to complain about right? On the other hand, they were inept as loving, nurturing or caring for someone like me, she says. Someone so “sensitive”. Sensitive, but not in a bad way, she always emphasizes. So they did their best, but they sucked? And I am supposed to feel some rage? I don’t.
What layer of paint, I wonder, is that rage hidden under?