By Lisa Juliano, Psy.D.
Many of us regard our high school experience as painful and embarrassing—the thought of meeting up with all those long-forgotten nightmare classmates is less than enticing. Yet if one is willing to take the plunge, a high school reunion can be reparative. It’s an opportunity to carefully examine a piece of personal history.
Reactions to the idea of attending a reunion naturally depend on the high school experience itself. For me, high school was a requirement to be endured and never considered again as I began to develop my adult identity. I attended a Catholic all-girl school and the stereotypical groups formed: the jocks, the popular girls, the nerds. All the attendant social hierarchies formed as well. Since I was a nerd, I was tormented and excluded, at least in my own mind. Why would I want to engage in person with those who tormented me? After all, look how far I’d come.
High school happened. It was done. It had been unconditionally awful and, as I saw it, played no role in my adult life. So when I received a phone call from a former classmate, a girl who never spoke to me during all four years, inviting me to our high school reunion I was caught by surprise. At first, I claimed I was unavailable, which I was, emotionally, and then I said I would try. I finally agreed to attend.
What changed my mind? It occurred to me that I was doing what many of my patients are apt to do with painful memories: sequester them as though they have no impact in the present. I was banishing my high school experience, in its entirety, unexamined and unexplored, from my thoughts and my identity. On reflection, I saw the class reunion as a chance to revisit a painful part of my past and repair some of the hurt I had felt.
I remember Katie, the girl who phoned to invite me to the reunion, as the most popular girl in school. Katie seemed to have it made; everyone wanted to be noticed by her. If she paid attention to you, you felt special; if she ignored you, you felt rejected. I was very surprised to learn from Katie that high school had not been so terrific for her either. She had struggled with identity issues, family discord and multiple humiliating run-ins with our principal.
I also discovered that she and I went on to seek similar professional goals, and that we share many of the same values and interests. This discovery was only possible because had I chosen to face some difficult memories.
But such an exploration is not without risk. The examination of a painful experience sometimes triggers sad and angry feelings; it might feel re-traumatizing. If the exploration becomes too overwhelming, it may help to consult with a psychotherapist
Some people insist that dredging up the past is not a useful activity. “I put my past in a box, locked it up and I don’t ever want to open it again.” “You can’t change the past; why keep bringing it up?” It is true that one cannot change the facts of a traumatic event or painful memory. But the “facts,” as they are remembered, constitute only one dimension of that event or memory.
When events occur that summon the contents of the “locked box,” we can be flooded with feelings; our responses are often automatic and unavailable for self-reflection. By slowly and carefully sharing recollections in therapy, the overwhelming emotions begin to feel more manageable and make more sense. We can see how feelings from the past are impacting our experience in the present.
Talking about the past often affords the opportunity to “change” the past. We can understand what happened in a different way. This frequently occurs with my psychotherapy patients.
For example, a woman involved in a long-term relationship with an unavailable man was confused, hurt and felt powerless to change the situation. She was reluctant to explore her prior relationship, claiming she was “over it.” Over time, we were able to slowly understand her role was that of “giver,” and that she was fearful of asking for what she might want emotionally for fear of being abandoned. By allowing herself to open the locked box of memories, my patient discovered she was repeating this pattern in her current relationship.
Back to the reunion. Instead of the “haves” and “have-nots” of my memory, I encountered beautiful, unique, real women—who all had suffered through high school. The past and present came together seamlessly as I experienced these women in the current moment, while also acknowledging the impact of my past relationships with them. I left the reunion reclaiming a past I could hold in mind as an essential part of my identity in the present.
Lisa M. Juliano, PsyD, is a graduate of the William Alanson White Institute and works in a private practice which is primarily dedicated to working with the psychological issues confronting creative artists.