‘Re-write your life story’, said the headlines as I Googled late one night/early one morning in September last year. I was looking for practical advice, exercises that I could do right now to help me feel better. I’d been in a low-level depressive phase for a couple of years, in the previous 18 months becoming severe.
In 2016, lots of terrible things happened that we need not really discuss in detail; we all remember them. Wars, the refugee crisis, racism, Austerity, Trump, Putin, Brexit, etc., etc. Also Bowie and Prince, ffs. It was a hard year for all of us.
I remember that summer only hazily. I had a lot of physical pain, a lot of headaches. I was shaken, I cried a lot. It felt like my brain was a game of Snakes and Ladders: set one foot on one of those snakes, and you’d slide – whoosh! – all the way down into a murky level of reality where sound and movement were muffled. Like an endless underground wetland, dripping and foggy; all of your life, all your memories arrayed before you in a baleful, eerie light. And, wow, your life really looks pretty awful looked at under that light. All you can see is the pain, the disappointment, the times you let people down, the times they let you down. And all for no reason! Because, you know, I am an atheist and a materialist and like a very basic kind of Zen view of life. No meaning, no purpose… So why not just let go, and slide, slip away down the snakes and it would be so easy to never come back…
It can be hard to get back up the ladders from down on that level.
I began to think of those ‘snakes’ as neural pathways. Neuroplasticity, the truly wonderful concept that the brain can re-organise its complicated ‘circuitry’, enabling you to adapt and learn new skills throughout your life, also enables you to tinker around inside your own brain. If a skill, or a memory, is imagined as a path, we can trace the development of this path in the brain in definition and strength as the skill or memory is revisited time and again. We can imagine it in just the same way as that of a path through a field, the first time simply flattening the grasses along the pathway, then every day, every journey, the path becoming more ingrained, more defined and more deeply cut. The meanderings along in that general direction through the field are reduced, confined, to a single pathway that you follow every time, automatically, without conscious choice.
When you are learning to drive a car, this sort of sub-conscious routine is exactly what you are attempting to acquire. It’s an essential element of our skills base, the things we can do without having to engage consciousness. It’s fascinating how many of our choices are made in this way. But it’s a pain in the bleedin’ arse when you’re trying to change habits you don’t want. All I could do was try to notice the snakes as I walked along, and if I did step on one, disrupt it by using NLP techniques: play Warner Brothers’ cartoon music in my mind, sing, jump up and down, just distract myself in any way I could.
Anyway, 2017 was, on the whole, a very different kind of year, when I took every kind of step I could think of to get out of the damn game for once and for all. It was terrible and wonderful but by September I was again feeling pretty dreadful. So I was Googling for help with this. The articles said ‘Re-write Your Life’, and suggested journalling (I decided to take up 20 mins free writing a day, ended with listing three things I’m grateful for), writing letters to your younger self, or re-writing scenes from your life you wish had played out differently, changing the endings to a better resolution. Right then I felt that all my life could do with re-writing. So – why not? But instead of re-writing all the awful things and making them turn out differently, why not write a new life history in which only good things happened to me and I was always happy? I would write down the true story of my life, only the best bits. Ignore anything sad, painful, difficult, unless it was so essential to my later happiness or personal development that it had to be mentioned. But only a mention – no tragical details! I knew, as a rational being, who has led an amazing and privileged life, that I had good memories in there. But through lack of use, the paths leading into those happy meadows of memory were harder to access. I had to trace them back like an explorer. Deep in that first depths of night/morning, I started out with the very earliest good memories. They are things I think I remember because there are photos, or because people have talked to me about when I was a baby. But I seem to recall glimpses of sunshine, green leaves, happiness. I slowly and deliberately followed the path of all the happy memories back from there. I wandered along every loop and spur of that path, trying to access people I’d forgotten, tastes and smells, sensations of childhood, good things like chasing each other with armfuls of fallen leaves every autumn in Epping Forest and celebrating the strong, independent, individual person that growing up made me. I don’t mention the ways in which growing up made me more like that. But I am proud of those aspects of my character, and they grew stronger in those years. I wrote up until about the age of 11, and then I fell asleep.
In the morning, I woke up into natural sunlight. Not the underworld light that I was used to. It felt as if some great beast had overslept, not woken up when I did, and I crept around all that day, enjoying the sunlight, space and fresh air, but not mentioning it or thinking about it too much in case my attention woke up the snake and I was whooshed away underground again. The next day – sunny again. A miracle of some kind had occurred and I was out from under the ground, the shadow, the enchantment! Can it be that re-writing my life is so powerful a tool? Perhaps it’s the combination of that with the journalling, and my powerful desire to change. I haven’t finished the life story yet. I write it in chunks when I feel inspired to – 5 years or so at a time, or a discrete-feeling period of time in my life -when I feel low. It always makes me feel better again. It’s a ladder. The rungs are all the things that I remember as good, uplifting or pleasurable, even small-seeming things like a tree I used to walk past on my way home. I don’t worry about how boring it is to read: ‘… and then I went to live in so-and-so, and I met a really nice woman called —— who I got on with and we made each other laugh, and then I went to such-and-such a place and enjoyed myself’. It’s not about producing a great literary work. It’s just meandering through all the good times, like looking through an old photo album of memories you haven’t seen in years.
I don’t promise that this will work for anyone else. I think it’s a really interesting thing to try, though, and it will bring you pleasure if you stick to the rules and do not even look at the snakes sleeping alongside the path. I hope that these new paths will become the neural superhighways of my future brain – the routes I always take, automatically, through my own thoughts.