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19 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:09pm

I’m learning how to actively confront my past – instead of being bombarded by Facebook Memories

Suddenly seeing an outdated version of ourselves makes remembrance uncanny, and often painful

By Megan Nolan

Three years ago, while travelling to Oslo for work, I had an unexpected layover in Ålesund, a port town on the west coast of Norway. Having missed our connecting flight, three other stranded passengers and I passed 12 hours together in a place I would never otherwise have visited. It was a surreal, almost mystical experience. 

One of my companions was a pretty, softly spoken photographer, whom I had been idly admiring since I first spotted him in the airport. Something about airports does this to me – in them I can fall in love with several people an hour, watching each drift off to different countries, imagining I was going with them. And now, improbably, I was splitting a bottle of wine overlooking a fjord with one of these fantasies. It was summer, so it didn’t get dark. We walked along the harbour wall and out to a lighthouse, and he took a photograph of me and the other two men we were with. I looked at it again when I returned to Ålesund last week, intentionally this time. 

I find that I remember very little of difficult times once I have left them behind. I am frightened of pain and do everything possible to distract myself from it, so that sometimes I hardly seem to experience it, though I know it is happening. When I was too young to know how to trick myself out of feeling, I had a propensity for histrionic suffering. It was so vast and without border that now I refuse to feel pain; I move right past it. I never stop. I am determined and ruthless, shark-like, in my avoidance. 

Of course this approach is only partially successful. It really is possible, in my experience, to reject the feeling of sadness, but it seems to continue happening to your body regardless. One day you might find yourself carrying out mundane tasks and being startled by tears, or your dreams becoming filled with monstrous things or your stomach cramped and acidic. One’s physical being is good at telling the mental one that there is no way around pain, only through it – a lesson I should by now have learned. 

Returning to Ålesund and looking back on the photograph reminded me with a thrilling, nauseating viscerality of the pain I was experiencing back then, but refusing to feel. My short hair, for instance, made me remember how I had cut my long, beloved hair because a boyfriend preferred it short, and that when he left me I kept cutting it shorter and shorter, making it uglier and more shocking, as though I might finally reach a length that would make him want to look at me again. I also recalled my excited enjoyment of having a free meal and hotel room provided by the airline. I had ordered a steak and red wine and could have cried with the satisfaction of being extravagant and nourished, because I was so constantly, demoralisingly hard-up back then. 

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Wandering around Ålesund last week, I felt a profound sense of relief and calm at returning to walk the same harbour wall and look out at the fjords that had made me gasp three years ago. I turned a corner and faced a bar, in the cellar of which my fellow stranded traveller had bought me a whisky and Coke, a drink I do not often have, and I remembered how we had laughed at the mind-boggling expense of it. I remembered thinking that this was how I wanted life to be: in strange countries with strange people whom there was no reason for me to know, full of interactions that had no meaning beyond their own existence. 

Ålesund is an objectively wonderful place and there is something about its surrounding mountains that makes me feel contained and grounded and sane. But on my recent visit, it wasn’t just the location that had this effect on me; it was the feeling of intentionally submerging myself in memory, instead of avoiding it or being caught off guard by it. 

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I am usually confronted with the past through the jarring medium of Facebook Memories: a feature widely bemoaned for forcing users to look at photos of their exes, reminding them of happier times. But it’s being reminded of myself that I really can’t stand. Facebook being what it is, we are reminded not only of the past but of whichever version of ourselves we were then performing on social media. God, I think, was that really how I wanted people to see me? The status updates from my late teens are a grand performance of chaotic hedonism, which, with the benefit of hindsight, seem a painfully transparent attempt at masking unhappiness. 

Even more uncomfortable than that relatively common “wild girl” persona are my subtler performances. I can’t stand to see which books, films and artworks I posted in thinly veiled attempts to communicate to certain men that I was like them, worthy of them. It reminds me of how difficult it has sometimes been for me to understand what  it is that I actually like and enjoy, so invested was I in whomever I was seeing at the time. 

Facebook shows us the past suddenly and without our permission – a grotesque way to reckon with it. Seeing outdated versions of ourselves so bluntly makes remembrance uncanny. The past seems at odds with the present rather than continuous with it and is, for me, so threateningly spiked with potential pain that I daren’t think of it at all. As with suffering, I worry that my capacity for nostalgic wallowing is so endless that I don’t like to indulge it at all. 

I found, though, that memory did not feel so volatile and uncomfortably potent when I turned to it with intention and respect. I did not have the same feeling that the past was full of dangerous, explosive pain that must be avoided at all costs. Instead I felt the most wonderful sense of awe. Things are changing in my life now, as they were when I was last in Ålesund, and to touch a wall I had touched once before seemed nothing short of miraculous, a communion with my former self. 

This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics