Every time I hear people talk about nostalgia, it’s always in a positive light. Remembering a good feeling, a close friend, a happy time. They get that slight smile on their face, that far away look in their eye, and you can see that they’ve gone somewhere else entirely in their mind. Reliving something only they can recall that intimately. It’s beautiful.
That is not how I experience nostalgia.
I’m not lacking in happy memories, I have many; but I think perhaps my mind has somehow been trained to only experience nostalgia about negative times in my life. I say this because what other people experience as nostalgia is not what I experience. I get the longing in my chest, the momentary dissociation from reality, the feeling of “being there” all over again; but it’s almost always about times that I’d rather not relive, times where I existed right on the edge of my own destruction. The strange part is that despite the common negative association I have with these memories, I still experience this sense of longing for those times because of the nostalgia. My mind attaches a certain fondness to them even though logically I know that those times in my life were fucking terrible. The heart knows no reason and it does strange things. I don’t think it’s the bad times that I miss so much as the feeling of being out of control, accountable to no one, free from all expectation and sense of responsibility, reckless with no intention of living to see 25. There’s a twisted sense of romanticism that people like me view self-destruction with. The appeal of destroying oneself before anyone else can, on your own terms, in your own way. I spent the first 22 years of my life trying to end myself in every way that a person can. Absolute emotional, mental, physical, psychological, and spiritual destruction. And I’m just damaged enough that sometimes my mind tries to trick me into thinking that those 22 years were when I was the most “free”. Delusion.
This is why nostalgia is a dangerous thing. Lately there’s been a pictures that’s been dancing through my mind, toying with my thoughts, digging up mixed emotions. It’s a still frame of the view out of my bedroom window in the first apartment that was ever officially mine. I lived there from 18 to 23 years of age. Of those 5 years, I spent 3 1/2 in active addiction, trapped in constant suffering, buried alive in the depths of my own self-destruction. And there was my bedroom window. I watched so many seasons come and go through that window. Always developing and changing at the same speed with which my life was passing me by. The brilliant, too bright, blue summer sky, mixed with leaves of green and the sounds of children playing in the alleyways. The unmistakable August heat and pleasant birdsong that slowly morphed into the auburn, orange, and yellow leaves of fall. The smell of burning wood and dying plants married with the developing crispness in the air. I always enjoyed that crispness at first; but I could never avoid knowing that it would be followed by the painfully shortened, grey days of winter. When the air bites at you like a rabid dog and doesn’t back down, no matter how many drugs you pump through your veins. I would watch the snow fall in the light of the street lamps at night, looking so beautiful and peaceful, in stark contrast with the utter disaster that my spirit and life had become. I always felt that the winter would be the death of me and just when I couldn’t take it for another second, I would wake up one morning to the sweet smell of spring in the air. A refreshing sense of newness that made even a broken, strung out woman think that maybe, just maybe, life could be good again some day. Those spring days gave me the slightest glimmer of hope, no matter how hard I had tried to drown it out under the weight of irrepressible anger and opiates. I would sit on my bed, staring out of that window, knowing that just beyond the invisible prison I had turned my “existence” into, there was another life, a better life, a better way. There was a chance, just there beyond my fingertips, that if I dared, I could reach out and grasp. It was whilst staring out of this one window that I waged wars on myself. Constant bloody battles inside my mind between resigning to dying as I was, and daring to fight for more; for anything other than the endless suffering that I had sentenced myself to in an attempt to control my own fate. It was agonizing, even at the time with plethora of chemicals I was using to dull myself out with.
And therein lies the trouble with remembering things by the seasons. I have not returned to that apartment, that window, that city, for many years; and yet, whenever the seasons change, I am transported to a place where I am 22 again and I’m sitting on a bed, drowning in suffering, watching the seasons change through my bedroom window. My mind becomes momentarily trapped in the nostalgia, trying to convince me that there’s something to miss, that there is any fondness to be felt for these times in my life. The cold winters remind me of waking up too early, too sick, from my body craving the medicine that was supposed to fix it. The beautiful spring reminds me of being trapped in the worst kind of prison man can condemn himself to, watching everything I couldn’t quite grasp pass right before my eyes. The summer creeps into my bones, tears them back to a time and a place where I tried to be happy, to escape my circumstances, thinking that a little sunshine could cleanse the filth that I had buried my soul in. And the autumn… the beautiful, burnt orange fall days; they remind me of the way that my spirit always maintained a constant ember buried deep inside itself. An ember that dared to glow in the midst of a bleak existence, begging to be stoked, brought to life by anything, including all of the wrong things I tried to make myself feel alive with. These memories are intricately laced deep within my subconscious. They’re tied to so many other things that I could never even begin to express them all in these words.
Memory is a twisted lover in that way. It’s impossible to reinvent and display with the same intensity with which it is felt. You simply can not perfectly capture or explain it. The way it can feel like the stroke of warm and welcome fingertips on exposed flesh; or the violence of a battering ram as it decimates the door it was never meant to break through. How it can sing a sweet lullaby that lulls you to sleep, convincing you that you’re safe and secure; or be the unforgettable sting that lives just on the edge of a razor blade. It is the beautiful bird’s song on a perfect spring day; and the sharp pain of winter sleet on an exposed and unsuspecting face. My memories are always stained with nostalgia, entangled in a violent embrace that could startle even the most steely nerves. I’ve never had the luxury of being able to recall something without also experiencing every bit of it all over again, to the core of my being. Memory does not demand nostalgia; but nostalgia can not exist without the memory to fuel it. For me, the two dance together infinitely. Sometimes it’s beautiful and wonderful, the kind of number that brings tears to the eyes of those blessed enough to witness it. And sometimes it’s tragic and sudden, catching me off guard, too painful to ever choose to watch, but impossible to ignore once it’s begun. Either way, when the nostalgia comes, there’s no silencing it. It’s there, clawing its way out of and back into the depths of my soul, the marrow of my bones, the dark recesses of my mind. It demands to be heard, felt, experienced, all over again. Sometimes this is a blessing: a beautiful reminder of the good times. But mostly, it’s just a curse: a part of me that is inoperable and terminal. It’s an affliction that I spent many years trying to escape. As David Jones once said, “It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply.”
by Ashley King
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