HRNNNGH. I have reflux: memory reflux. Sorry if that’s too gross a way of putting it, but like stomach acid that pops up after a huge meal (Cool body metaphor!!! By which I mean, sorryyy), memories of embarrassing or horrible things I’ve done come back up to say hello way more often than I would like.
In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud proposed that traumas re-emerge when you haven’t dealt with them—and actively trying to forget about something is NOT dealing with it. I feel this acutely regarding the tiny ways I traumatize myself: If I have done something I’m embarrassed about, my initial response is usually to bury it deep in my brain so I don’t have to address it—either to myself or to anyone else. Of course, this doesn’t put the incident in question to bed, it just pushes it below the surface like a swimmer pushing down on a buoy. And like a buoy, the unresolved memory will inevitably rise up again of its own volition, to remind me of its existence. It’s a cruel cycle that only stops if I face the problem—but sometimes that is more difficult to do than I’d wish.
When one of my friends was in hospital recovering from a life-saving organ transplant, I texted him. Instead of saying something sincere, simple, and kind, I sent a “cool joke” saying that now he was in hospital I’d probably be able to beat him in a race! You know, while he was recovering from surgery. WTF? Not only was my text totally insensitive and cruel, but it was a stupid joke about a totally made-up and irrelevant situation—like, we’d ever had to race each other anyway?! HA HA HA, WHAT A COOL ME. *Head in hands.*
My stupid act ate away at me. But did I apologize at the time? No—because I was too worried that he would be mad at me and that apologizing would just remind him of what I’d done. Instead, I thought about it constantly: Why had I done it? Was I incapable of being directly and genuinely kind to people I cared about? Couldn’t I just have sent a card containing a warm message or gone to visit him instead (things I never ended up doing because I was so mortified)? Sometimes I chose to mull over this thing I did, while other times it just floated into my thoughts for seemingly no reason, and then I’d internally cuss myself out: I was the worst person. I was the worst friend. I treated everyone badly. You can see how severely I punished myself for this, without thinking about it logically. In retrospect I can think about it differently: Of course I didn’t treat everyone badly! Of course I was capable of acting lovingly toward people in difficult situations! There were plenty of examples of me not being a jerk. But I couldn’t see any of this—only my thoughtlessness in that moment.
It was a couple of years until I could finally address this with him: I confessed that I had felt guilty about it since and that I was incredibly sorry. He was so kind to me in return. I didn’t feel like I deserved it, but I was still glad I’d apologized. And it seemed to really settle the issue for me: I rarely think about it anymore. The fear I’d had—that my text had ruined or would ruin our friendship—was dispelled, and I could move on. While it wasn’t a pleasant way to learn that I could be insensitive, it was good to have this new self-knowledge, plus if I hadn’t acted in such a mind-bendingly foolish way, I would never have had the opportunity to consider my behavior and try to never act that way again.
I asked a few Rookie contributors to share the embarrassing moments that continue to haunt them.
Chanel: When I was a freshman in high school, a good friend’s mother died after having cancer. This was when the “your mom” joke was huge and one day in class we were joking around and she said, “You look like a nerd with those glasses.” Thoughtlessly, I immediately said, “YOUR MOM looks like a nerd,” to which she politely replied, “No, she doesn’t.”
The guilt came rushing in. My friend hadn’t even finished her sentence when I started apologizing, all the while thinking OMG I AM SUCH AN IMMATURE LITTLE BRAT WHOSE MOM IS STILL HERE HOW CAN I LIVE WITH MYSELF?! She understood that it was a bad joke, that I hadn’t been thinking, that I felt bad, and she was really nice about it.
Even though I apologized, this moment still haunts me; it’s as a low moment in my high school history. I know I’m punishing myself but I think I’ll just always feel ashamed of it. Moral: Don’t ever use the your mom joke. Ban it. Burn it.
Simone: In fifth grade, during our shared turn on the class computer, my friend performed a lewd Google image search involving my celebrity obsession of the time, Hayden Christensen, of Star Wars-prequel fame. My teacher, on whom I had a massive a crush, suspected we were up to no good when he heard giggling, and checked the history after we’d left, to find the phrase “Hayden Christensen naked” had been googled. Knowing of my Anakin Skywalker obsession, he assumed I’d made the search, and emailed my parents. When they confronted me, I tried to illustrate the scene for them, but of course, they thought I was lying to avoid punishment, and I eventually gave up trying to explain what had really happened—the situation was just too awkward to talk about.
I was furious with my friend. I wanted to rat him out, but he would have denied any part in it and I don’t think anyone would’ve believed the truth. (In addition to the heteronormative assumptions in this situation, I had a history of lying as a child.) Although he was a coward, my friend felt very guilty; he apologized profusely and did me tons of favors, trying to mend the damage.
My mom and dad didn’t trust me on the internet for years afterward, and my relationship with that teacher (again, on whom I, had a MASSIVE crush) grew even more uncomfortable after I delivered him a bitter and forced apology. My guilty friend was never suspected of anything, and thus, never came forward with the truth. While I spent the rest of fifth grade ignoring every computer in the classroom to clean up my reputation, he toiled away on Cool Math Games and YouTube.
The perpetrator and I are still friends, and we often laugh about it, but I still refuse to say Hayden Christensen’s name anywhere near my parents, and we haven’t discussed the incident since. The teacher involved lives in my town, and whenever I see him on the street, I still can’t bring myself to say hi.