When we were dating — and then, later, during the early years of our marriage — my wife kept a box full of mementos, an accumulation of various items meant to mark this occasion or that. Movie tickets, concert passes, mix tapes (yes, kids, we used to make mix tapes), letters, notes, and Hallmark greeting cards… they all found their way into this physical cataloging of a new romance. Proof of our love, I guess. The truth is, I didn’t really understand it at first — you kept that, why? — because I was a “read the card, say thank you, then throw it away” sort of guy, but I appreciated the overt sentimentality of it all. And so, dutiful boyfriend (and later, husband) that I was, I started keeping a box of artifacts, too.
We still have those memory boxes, his and hers, now upgraded from random shoe boxes of yesteryear to something more permanent and aesthetically pleasing. Now, the leather-bound boxes find themselves tucked neatly away behind glass doors in a bookcase, marking a specific time — a collection of important moments — in our lives, like the framed wedding pictures sharing the same shelf.
When my wife’s addiction began to take a greater hold of her life, she started to lose moments instead of collect them. I’m not talking about the stereotypical alcohol-induced blackouts that we’ve all seen dramatized in a movie of the week. My wife was never really that sort of addict, never the town drunk waking up in a situation or place unplanned or unknown. Instead, she just started to have small holes in her recollections, book-ended by vague memories with confused and distorted details. The worse her immediate situation, it often seemed, the less she was inclined to remember later on. From my perspective, these memory holes often seemed like a convenient “out” for someone wanting to avoid responsibility. It’s difficult to apologize for something you claim not to remember, after all. Surely, this was a willful part of the plan.
And so, I started to, yet again, catalog moments. I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision, or something borne out of the pain and conflict of the time, but I began to store away memories of some of our darkest times, making sure to memorize her every hurtful word or deed. “Words have meaning,” I’d often tell her after the fact, then I’d play the words back while she claimed some sort of wide-eyed amnesia. How could you say this? What did this really mean? It was my way of holding her accountable, part of an effort to shame and embarrass her into sobriety, and more than a little bit of passive-aggressively declaring my own hurt, too, without having to risk the vulnerability of actually saying the words “I’m hurt.”
Those darkest memories, though, began to take on a life of their own, often haunting me long after any retaliatory mileage I’d been able to get out of them. Soon, I was battling the hurt of the obsessive recall of this word or that inflection, more than I was battling any new situation at hand. Just how many times could she really apologize for a tape that I continued to replay, over and over again, first for sport and later out of self-flagellating habit?
Years into her sobriety, we still encounter times when her memory fails her and I am the one to keep, and then recall, it for her. In many ways, it’s one of the worst parts of being the non-addict spouse, this unwanted position as keeper of memories.
The other day she was telling a seemingly innocuous story to a family member. She had the major details right, more or less, but I sat there knowing that she was forgetting what preceded the specific moment she was recalling. It was one of those holes, filled with a crushing personal pain that I (and only I, apparently) so closely associate with it. I said nothing and let the moment pass, wishing that I, too, could pick and choose a few holes in my memory.
I’m trying to learn to put my catalog of hurt away, behind glass on a neglected bookshelf, just like the memory boxes from our young lives together. The memories mark an important time of our lives, certainly, but I’m ready to retire the constant reminders. I’m ready to allow the memories to fade and collect dust, even just a bit.