Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m surrounded by ghosts. Not of the Casper variety, or even the Victorian maiden wandering the halls at night. I don’t mean souls or spirits or former people of any kind – but I feel their presence just the same.
Not long ago, we moved back to my home town. The city itself is not much to speak of – in fact, I kind of can’t wait to move back out of it – but it is full of memories everywhere I turn. A simple trip to the store can feel like time travel.
There is the corner my little kindergarten body hopped off the giant school bus to find out my friend Matthew had a new baby sister. Off the highway ramp is the park where I first got the courage to slide down the fire pole, and where I flew off the swing and lived to tell about it.
There’s the convenience store where my mom used to get us a treat, and where I would choose the Mackintosh’s Toffee so that it would take forever to eat. The same store in which my sister got her tongue stuck to a popsicle and scarred us all for life.
We pass by the seniors centre where I rehearsed for my first ever musical, and met my first love. The Toys R Us I got my first bike. The school I loved. The school I hated. The swings my daycare provider’s daughter gave me underdogs on, the bump in the road that allowed us kindergartners on the bus to fly. The creek I was convinced was the way to Terabithia, and the creek I thought was for sure going to kill me. Places I cried. Places I laughed. Places I lost and places I loved.
These ghosts, these shadows from my past, were at first welcomed. They were warm nostalgia, like looking through your grandmother’s photo drawer. But they began to feel like poltergeists.
And it wasn’t just places from my childhood. Soon, songs I used to listen to with delightful throwbacks to my youth, instead sounded haunting. All those, “80s and 90s Kids Will Remember This” lists that circulate social media, showing us all of our old toys and TV shows started causing my stomach to lurch, or make me have to catch my breath for a moment.
Once a great lover of nostalgia, I found myself feeling sadness each time I was presented with evidence of my past. More than sadness – overwhelming anxiety and despair.
Before I knew it, it wasn’t just artifacts from my childhood. Thoughts of university hastened my breath. Driving through the city we moved from a mere two years ago made me well with tears. Everything I looked at, everything I touched, had an aura – a memory residue – and it was causing me distress.
I searched my soul for the cause of the switch. What had made these happy memories, these places and images I used to adore revisiting become so repellant? They were good memories – why did I want to avoid them so?
The more introspective I got, the more honest I became with myself. It wasn’t the past that was haunting me – it was the present. Whether a blessing or a curse, I am an empath. I don’t just see memories, or hear them, I feel them as though I were still there. With each of those callbacks to my past, I was transported back there. I could feel what I felt then, and I felt more than just what was happening in that moment.
I didn’t just feel the wind on the swings, or smell the Care Bear markers with the removable heads – I remembered all of the hopes and dreams I had when I was five. When I pass by my teenage rehearsal hall, I feel what it felt like to look ahead to a future full of open possibilities. When I think of my university dorm room, I recall the very specific plans I made for my life.
And then I realize that I am failing my past selves. I’m not happy with where I am. I’m not happy with who I am. The haunting feeling is my past reminding me of promises made and broken. And that is why I can’t breathe. I’m transported back not just to a happy time, but a time when I felt happy with who I was – something that is much harder to capture now.
Realistically, I know that we tend to look at memories through rose-coloured glasses. Yes, I remember the toys from grade four, but I tend to look back less frequently on the isolation I felt as a bullied and ignored nine-year-old. The same can be said for any period of my life. I’ve always been hard on myself. I’ve never been satisfied. But somehow, back then, I felt like I still had time to change it, and that there was still hope.
At thirty-eight, I’m hardly a senior citizen – but somehow, everything seems more set in stone now. More permanent. I don’t have the benefit of being in my fluid youth to hold onto. It’s no longer who will I become – this is who I became. This is who I am. And I’m disappointed.
But I can’t accept that. These ghosts can’t have appeared simply to mock and shame me. They have to be here to remind me of all the things I wanted to be. Of all the things I was sure I would be. And maybe some of these things are set in stone, but the concrete is not yet dry. It’s time to find some new swings. It’s time to feel the exhilaration of flying on the school bus. It’s time to exorcise the ghosts.