I came to my counselor, Sharon’s office and shared what was on my mind. Sharon was getting to know me. I was getting to know her and the methods she used to counsel. I’m the type to do a lot of research when I leave an appointment. I look up all kinds of articles about the mental health topics we discussed. No matter how many articles I read, I still had the emotional overlay of memories that never seemed to go away.
Sharon suggested that we try a timeline as a way to chronologically look at my life and the various experiences that were part of it. We began meeting three times a week.
I sat in front of a giant pad of sticky notes on an easel in her office. I took a black sharpie and drew a horizontal line across the paper. I wrote my birthday on the line, and lead Sharon through my life story in ten-year segments. I hoped previously unknown details might surface. That process took almost three months.
A timeline looks at characteristics of your family, homes, and neighborhoods where you’ve lived, schools you’ve attended, friendships that developed, and things that happened.
I thought I knew everything about myself and my experience, but the timeline showed me I had much more I needed to remember and process.
The timeline brought up chaotic experiences not reflective of a loving home. Remembering took me back to many painful places. Significant events rose to the surface. Many times, I left my appointment crying hysterically over the pain of what had happened to me growing up. Remembering turned me inside out.
Years that should’ve been formative were deformative. Those experiences left an imprint on me causing me to develop a fear of people, making me quiet and shy and hardly able to connect with other children in my classroom at school. With so many unpleasant things piled in my mind, I had no clarity of thought when I sat at my desk. Survival was my only concern from one day to the next.
Even though I was sitting in my counselor’s office, remembering made my body feel as if it were back in time. Once, I recalled a memory so intense I fell off the couch onto the floor.
At the end of my appointment, the act of receiving my receipt from the receptionist and holding it in one hand with my tear-filled Kleenex in the other, became a way for me to feel a temporary sense of closure until the next session. These were my souvenirs from a trip to my past. I needed something tangible to help remind me that whatever disruptive memories were coming up from my earlier years, I was here now. I was safe and loved and cared for.
Get a few pieces of paper, draw a horizontal line and begin recording events in your life in ten-year segments. Consider structuring your timeline in a way that feels most natural to you. You may want to use a road map and describe the places that were important in different parts of your life.
You may want to draw a tangled tree with branches and twigs twisted and turned in various angles. You may want to make a collage timeline with words and pictures found in magazines to illustrate the events and themes of your life.
Here are a few questions to get started.
- What people played important roles in your upbringing?
- What was your family structure?
- What feelings do you remember from various times in your life?
- Ask yourself questions using who, what, when, where, and why to get started.
- Process by naming what happened, but use caution if strong emotions are stirred.
- Use tangible objects around you to remind yourself that you are here now, that you are safe and loved.
- Take a break if necessary and return to the timeline when you are ready.
- Seek the help of a professional counselor for dealing with concerns that may surface.