From Toxicity To Triumph

Estrangement Grief Healing and Recovery

Toxic Nostalgia: What To Do When Narcissistic System Abuse and Scapegoating Poison Your Cherished Memories and Objects

Ongoing trauma processing can sneak up on you when least expected.

Just when you think the nightmares are over, boom you’re hit with some unknown trigger that sets your nervous system all out of regulation. You wonder what’s worse, the nightmares of your family members at their cruellest and you wake up trembling, or the dreams where everything is loving and kind and you wake up to reality and remembrance?

Even when things are going well in life, your brain is still working through pain under the surface. That’s why pain sometimes resurfaces.

You’re not going backwards in your journey, you’re just ready for the next stage of healing. Congrats, you completed level one of the trauma processing videogame. And now that you’ve cleared level one’s obstacles, it’s time for level two; The stuff that maybe was a bit more below the surface.

Be gentle with yourself.

It can be the small things thet set your brain in motion; a TV show of a loving family or witnessing a cute mother/daughter duo at the park. It may even be your own parenting that reminds you of what love for a child actually feels like, and how easy it actually is to care for your kiddos… which makes you think “how the heck was it so challenging to love me??”

But sometimes the triggers are more direct; blatant open wounds that you have to face that inevitably tear down your mood and derail your day.

This weekend, I got to experience just that (and the nightmares that ensued) after I unpacked my Christmas decor. Old cards from family spilled out. Ornaments from family friends that we miss dearly just didn’t sit right on tree. And what to do with the gifts that were meant for nephews and nieces that we are estranged from? How do I surround myself with painful memories on what should be a joyous season? I didn’t know what to do surrounded by boxes filled with childhood artefacts and rejected love, so I called my friend Brook-Lynne.

Brook-Lynne and I met on a forum for estrangled children of toxic families. We’ve grown close and have way more in common than just our stories. She also — like most scapegoats — has a heart overflowing with empathy and wisdom. I figured if I didn’t know the answer, I could trust Brook-Lynne to tell me what to do with the Ghosts of Christmas Past strewn about on the floor beside me.

Happy Triggers and Merry Mourning, To You

Now, this post isn’t actually about Christmas. Many of you don’t celebrate this holiday and I’m conscious of not implying that we all do. This post is about triggers and figuring out what exactly to do with our complicated memories.

The holidays are a great platform to rediscover all the triggers we thought we had successfully swept up and discarded along with old bits of wrapping paper or melted down birthday candles. For readers in the US, facing an upcoming lonely Thanksgiving weekend is likely something to get the heart beating to the rhythm of sorrow for more than a few days.

The pain is one thing; Holiday meals spent solo, radio silence on birthdays, being excluded from gatherings, or receiving hateful messages. Holidays are also often times where familial tempers flare and many scapegoats become more targeted, more tormented and more likely to be discarded.

Happy holidays to you, indeed.

But what about the memories that were born of genuine love, and became tainted? Ornaments from childhood that conjure memories of warmth and excitement, cards from parents that you saved that say heartfelt things, gifts that were handmade, photos of past celebrations and events full of smiles, or traditions that feel like your own because they enveloped your life, but can’t be enjoyed on your own anymore…or just become reminders of what you lost or were excluded from?

I picked up a handmade ornament and was stumped: It was a handprint of my kiddo when they were 1 years old. They finger painted it. In fact there was a box of ornaments they had made me. These are the most beautiful and special decorations I have ever seen. Except that my kiddo made them for me with their grandparent, and they were given to me shortly before we were excised from the entire family. I want to see only the joy and creativity of my child, but the poison of parental pain leeches its way out of them. Perhaps you, too, have items that can’t be enjoyed because everything exists with a narcissistic parent’s stamp on it.

I want to cherish gifts and photos from my child’s first year of life. But there is nothing from my child’s first year of life that isn’t completely entwined with the Narcissistic Machine that chewed us up and spit us out. My former-family’s “fingerprints” are all over my memories…how do I scrub them off? Or do I have to discard my memories as collatoral damage? Is losing access to mementos and memories another price you pay in order to escape the Narcissistic Machine? Is having your entire past tainted one of the tradeoffs you have to make in order to have a future that is free?

My House Looks Bare

Brook-Lynne related her own dilemma. She shared:

“My mother made BEAUTIFUL decor. Handmade stockings, knit items, gorgeous tree skirts, custom advent calendars. It took her hours to make each one. I planned to hold on to them, cherish them, pass them down to my kids. But I was also her scapegoat, which meant alongside these “loving gifts” were relentless guilt trips and reminders of how unappreciative I was. Hanging them up brings all the reminders of her “ownership” of me.”

[For context, two Christmasses ago Brook-Lynne’s mother orchestrated an elaborte “get out of the family” operation. Her mother involved her siblings, her aunts, and even family friends.] In Brook-Lynne’s words: “She literally dumped us, left us homeless, and went on a quest to ensure no one would come to our aid. It was planned, it involved people that I trusted loved me and would protect me but they didn’t. She completely hijacked the narrative and created a new story about why we were no longer part of the family; a story where she was hero and victim, and I was the villan. Of course the story has no actual truth to it, but that doesn’t matter to her “followers”. She won. She got away with it. To this day, she remains protected and surrounded by people who support her, cater to her, and abide by her directives…”

I sat in silence with Brook-Lynne as she felt through these feelings of anger, injustice and pain. I mourned with her that the holidays should be times of reconnection with self; of creating a new pathway forward. But instead we feel ourselves pulled back into the past. Held hostage by the Narcissitic Machine that apparently still has a hold of us.

She shudders a sigh, then continues:

“Her handmade items were a pride and joy. Honestly, they are STUNNING. I hate saying it. There’s no way I could re-create them. But when I look at them I feel her snickering down at me, as if to say ‘Ha! You can’t even have Christmas without me. You still need ME. You are beholden to me.’ And honestly, last year I did put them up. Because my house is bare without them. But everytime I looked around my house, inside my festive feelings lurked a monster of grief, pain, anger, injustice, betrayal and loss.

This year I don’t want to give Christmas over to her like that. I want to look around and only see joy. I don’t want her to have ownership over MY objects. I feel like I should be stronger than that — like I should be able to just “cleanse” the objects of bad eneergy. Not be so reminded. I should be able to “reclaim” or whatever. But she made them. She’s all over them. And I can’t just erase my past. I don’t have any other family or heirlooms to display instead — items from grandparents were lost when we were shoved out of the house and forced to never return.

So now I’m stuck. I lose nostalgia when I decide to put those items away and not showcase them. And nostalgia is what makes Christmas magical. Sure, I can buy pretty things, but buying things has no meaning to me. I like sentimental. I was firece in my committment to family and tradition. You know, it’s not just the items, it’s the memories that I was displaying. And now I can’t have those either.”

I felt her pain deeply. We both sat there with the same question on our minds: Do we decorate our houses with horribly painful cherished objects?”

Tainted Love

What do we do with horribly painful yet cherished items? Scrapbooks, baby book, home videos, gifts, memorabilia, letters, cards, decor, quilts, furniture…What do we do with memories laced with psychological poison?

ache to look at my kiddo’s video of coming home from the hospital for the first time. But “home” was with my parents and siblings.

It’s not just a question of do we display these items or photos, it’s also a question of where can they go if we decide that using them would just be infecting our mood and our surroundings? Do they sit in a box forever…lingering and lurking in our cupboards, closets and the corner shelves of our minds? Is family toxicity like polonium or radium; Does it take hundreds or thousands of years to clear away after nuclear “love” bombs are dropped? Does your childhood, your history, become a contaminated site that you cannot ever revisit?

Some people donate. Giving items to people in need is a way to re-set the memory (and maybe the energy?) If the items are nice, quality, and not personalised, then finding the right person to bestow them on can be healing. Many people struggle with “letting go” of items because the items are filled with meaning, and discarding doesn’t feel right. Gifting to a special, deeply in need, or appreciative cause or person is a way to honour the meaning, while releasing you from the toxic bind. It also frees you up to take charge of your sacred space and start anew.

Some people choose to return the items. This can be an option for people who don’t feel they ought to “give away” something and would like to hand back the responsibility of the object to the family. But proceed with caution: Does returning them open you up to further attack? Would your actions be twisted and used against you? If you are no-contact, can you risk ever having contact with them, even to facilitate a drop off? How dangerous and harmful would it be for you (including emotionally and psychologically)? Sometimes we have to decide between what we feel the “right” thing is accourding to our values and integrity, and what the safe thing is for us. That’s a painful decision to make.

Some people store the items away for when they may be more mentally ready to answer these questions. That can be days, weeks, years or decades. Some items shift in meaning over time, and it’s not necessary to make decisions now when you don’t feel you have clarity or all the information, or emotional resources, you need. Or, perhaps passing them on to the next generation, now that you have broken the cycle, can give the items new life (but be careful not to just pass down trauma and unwanted responsibility!)

If you are isolated, doing this alone can be too much. Maybe you want to wait until your chosen family is more built up and they can help you release objects and fill your cup and heart with more love as you do it. Saying goodbye to one object, tradition or memory, only for it to be immediately replaced with a new, more meaningful and joyful, object, tradition, or memory. Trauma processing shouldn’t be about stripping away. It should be about building up.

But what to do about objects that are personalised, and don’t necessarily have any other purpose other than nostalgia?

What do you do, for example, with photos?

What do you do with childhood mementos or cards and letters accrued over the years?

Here are some examples from readers:

“What do I do with the journal I wrote back and forth with my mom for over 20 years?”

“What do I do with the quilt my mom made my baby? It’s embroidered with his name and signed “Love Grammie”. How do I even explain who Grammie is now??”

“My dad gave back every gift I had given him. Even the handmade ones. I’m not an artist, so it’s not like I can sell these items. But they hung in our house for years — I associate with the items. They were part of my history. Dumping them on my front porch is one [Eff] you. But the second [Eff] you is the fact that he knowingly saddled me with the task of figuing out what to do with all this stuff. He knows I hate throwing things away.”

“All my dishes and crockery were my grandma’s. She raised me. I love eating off the same plates I did as a child. I have many happy memories of us sitting at the table. But you know how scapegoating is…happy memories get eaten away over time until all that’s left on those plates are crumbs of love, care, and belonging. It’s not in the budget to buy all new items…”

“My sister dropped off my baby albums, childhood photos, a bag of stuff from our life and friendship, and all the home videos. I remember how much fun I had with her. I also remember her hate mail. You can’t donate your home videos. And no one has any need for my old dance trophies from when she and I used to compete together. It’s like she showed up with a tumour that was constructed out of my love and devotion to her and said, ‘Here, you deal with this! I don’t want it anymore’.”

Oof. Those hurt 🙁

I wish I had the answers.

Cermonial fire?

Locked box to haunt an attic?

Trauma and clutter passed to the next generation so that it’s their responsibility now? (No, Thank you)

Items used in a Witchy conjuring circle to hex those that destroyed you? (Jokes!)

Honestly, what DO you do?

What have YOU done?

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1 Comment

  1. Dr. Watson, Thank you for helping us to explore the emotional, physical, and memory-related muck we bring with us, not knowing how to begin to process it. I am sandwiched between two generations of toxic family. Having narcissist parents, I was attracted to another narcissist whom I married and had two children with. They are now adult children in estrangement.
    Will the generational legacy of trauma and scapegoating ever end? I think not, but we must release the pain the best way we know how.

    Thank you for writing about this difficult topic.

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