Bad Juju: Working Through Bad Memories

In our household, it is affectionately referred to as “bad juju.” I suppose that acknowledging temporary insanity with a dose of humor is half the battle. But when our lives are humming along at a fairly even keel, it is not at all humorous when one of us suddenly stumbles into it. The bad juju.

For us, bad juju is what we call an old wound that we thought was healed but isn’t – somewhat akin to post traumatic stress. An otherwise innocent situation can unexpectedly propel us back to a disturbing memory, registering an immediate, fear-based reaction – an emotional nosedive.

One such unfortunate ambush occurred when I was dating my husband, Doug. We were living about 300 miles apart at the time, and we had spent many wonderful hours on the phone getting acquainted over the previous several weeks. So he was aware of my dark history – my 20-year marriage to an abusive man. I felt quite confident that the combination of many months of counseling – together with the support of family and friends – had led me far along my path to recovery. I was naïve, having not the slightest suspicion that the bad juju was close at hand but hidden from view – an emotional land mine.

On that particular day, Doug had made the 7 hour trek to spend a weekend with me and my kids. This afternoon he and I were completely at ease as I showed him around my world, and we made a stop at a local import-grocery store to browse. We strolled leisurely through the aisles of the busy little store, inspecting the fresh produce, the gourmet appetizers and tempting desserts.

Unfortunately, we ended up in an aisle where a generous array of domestic and international wines was displayed. And without warning my heart began to beat faster. My former husband was cruel enough when he was sober and considerably worse when he drank. In the past I had come to feel physically ill when I would discover a bottle of whatever stashed in the most unlikely places after he promised to give it up and get help. Before our divorce, alcohol had become both his first love and an accomplice in a terrible string of abuses that occurred in our home.

In the years leading up to the divorce and since, I viewed alcohol as an enemy and consciously avoided it, deliberately bypassing the aisles where it was stocked whenever I went shopping. Now, standing in the presence of a familiar and terrifying foe, I sought to will myself to composure, but the reaction was automatic. My mind struggled to quell a growing tidal wave of fear and confusion, and I quite literally wanted to run away or cry – or both. What if Doug was a heavy drinker? What would he be like when he drank? Was I entertaining the possibility of a relationship with another man who could fill my life with more of the same pain I had fought so hard to escape?

In my effort to remain calm, I quickened my pace, walking to the far end of the aisle and waiting alone, hoping that Doug would follow my lead. In vain I attempted to constrain my emotions with my highest goal being to escape what felt like a suffocating cloud of despair. I pretended to show interest in other items, but still Doug dawdled, choosing a bottle of wine to inspect it, returning it to its place and then pulling another from a nearby shelf for closer inspection. I sauntered up to his side and said quietly, “So, are you a wine snob?”

Although I tried to give the words a light-hearted tone, they fell like a rock, and I felt like a jerk. The truth was I had no resources to counter the turmoil that threatened to consume me.

A shocked Doug stood in silence, and my shame only increased as the long seconds passed. Doug placed the bottle in his hands back on the shelf, then turned to give me his full attention. There was nowhere to run. “No,” he replied (to my insulting question). Then he placed his big hands gently on my shoulders. “What’s going on with you?” I looked into his eyes, ashamed of my fear and my terrible inability to control it.

Even in the presence of this caring man, the weight of my lingering pain refused to let go. And in the middle of the liquor aisle at a local import-grocery store, the man I loved wrapped me up in his arms and let me cry, reminding me that I had nothing to fear. It was a terrible, unavoidable walk through some of my bad, bad juju. It was the first painful episode between us, but a lot of juju has come to the surface since that day.

I am not the only one who suffers from it. There have been several times since we married when Doug has nonchalantly scheduled an all-family yard work day, to make quick work of overdue weed-pulling, tree-pruning and patio-sweeping. But as soon as the words left his lips, my four kids and I went into panic mode. The bad juju had taken root long before. Any time we were asked to work in the yard with their dad, it was a prime opportunity for the kind of hyper-criticism or cruelty that imperfection invites. Just raking leaves in the yard was scary business, as my former husband would command the kids to collect every last leaf scattered over the lawn, and if the job wasn’t done to his satisfaction, he would dump the leaves out of the garbage bags onto the lawn and make them start over. It was never a pleasant experience; in fact it was one they dreaded. Who could blame them? As a result, after the separation, I rarely asked the kids to help me with yard work, because I didn’t want to risk seeing that terrible look of fear on their faces. But, that wasn’t the best approach either. I allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way. The juju held too much power over us.

Because it hadn’t been addressed, just asking me and my post-traumatic kids to help with yard work was a frightening proposition, and I think even Doug could feel the temperature in the room drop as he watched the blood drain from our faces. But Doug has gently, systematically helped us all to break the bonds of the juju and restore a sense of normalcy to our shell-shocked family. We have set reasonable expectations so that all of us can begin to see and feel – that what was doesn’t have to be any more.

Seven months after the embarrassing “alcohol incident,” perhaps due as much to Doug’s good grace as my good fortune, Doug and I were married. I can’t imagine life being much sweeter. But as well as our marriage works, Doug has some of his own juju, and I have mine.

We have discovered that it helps to acknowledge situations, events or conversations where juju has trapped us before. And, when we unintentionally prick each other’s old wounds, we admit that the bad juju continues to hold more sway than it should. We take time to talk about what it triggers in us and expose it to the light so that, over time, our wounds can heal more fully.

So, beware. You may think that your bad juju is all in the past. But the day may come when it returns without notice. You will find yourself stunned to discover that what seems like such a little thing can churn up so much residual pain. And you’ll know what you’re dealing with. Confess it for what it is, identify the source, and see its power begin to diminish in your life.

It is a little unnerving to know that those emotional land mines are out there. But the battles against the bad juju must be fought – and won.

And I am happy to share that every now and then I can enjoy a late night curled up on the sofa with my husband – and a nice glass of wine.

Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved

6 thoughts on “Bad Juju: Working Through Bad Memories”

  1. Juju. Great name. I have just called it ‘Being Triggered’, but I’ll share that nice term with James, my new husband.
    When we were first courting, James was helping me bring in washing from the line (we dry our clothes on outdoor lines here in sunny Australia). He asked me what I liked to do with the pegs – did I leave them on the line, or did I put them in a basket? Time stopped and I could scarcely breathe for a moment, then I said urgently “Please say that again!” He repeated the question, and asked “why?” I broke down and told him what had happened:

    I’d just been triggered real bad. My ex used to demand that the pegs be re-pegged on the line in a particular way (clasping them onto the line at the first hole in the peg, not the upper holes where the peg is held tighter). Although he did not actually inspect the line all the time, or make me fix the pegs when I’d got them ‘wrong’, his simple demand that I do it that way had made me so scared of his critical rage exploding sooner or later on the pegs issue, that I had developed a hyper-sensitivity about pegs. Every time I put a peg on the line it was traumatic for me, because I remembered his controlling demand, his insistence that it be done his way. He’d made even that little routine chore of therapeutic housekeeping into a traumatic memory. So when my new man didn’t mind HOW the pegs went on the line, it was the most amazing freedom. And I shook and wept in his loving arms until the storm subsided.

  2. I am working on an essay on wound healing and all the studies have shown, though the body can heal and does amazing things, the new skin is never as strong and is more likely to breakdown if pressure is applied at the same point. Was needing to reread this essay because I was just firmly encouraged by my pastor to “get over it” “it’s been two years” .

    1. Hello, Scared. “Get over it?” Really? That just sends me. That is a statement uttered by someone who has no depth of understanding with regard to the long-lasting impact of legitimate trauma. It is a lame and lazy attempt to diminish real pain.

      Unfortunately, I think there are some things we never quite get over. Some abuse ministries call them “triggers.” There are some phrases that my former husband used to use, like, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” Another way of saying, “Take that.” That is off-limits in this household out of respect for every one of us. It has been 11 years since he left, and we all still have to work through the junk.

      Sad, but true. You don’t have to get over it. It is what it is. Yes, we want to do what we can to truly relinquish the hold that our abuser had on our lives. But, God heals those wounds in His time. You have my permission (and God’s) to feel whatever it is you are feeling. No one has the right to tell you that what you are feeling is wrong.

  3. My wife and I both carry many scars from the past. Those “triggers” are doubly bad when her baggage and mine collide — when we are both triggered at the same time. We have found a way to quickly remind each other with one word that we are having baggage issues. In the old days on the railroad, a porter would carry your baggage when you needed help. We just use the word “porter”, and immediately there is a realization that we need help with baggage. We have been married for nearly 7 years now, and it is much easier than it used to be. But I can identify with the terror that you describe happening when some circumstance reminds you of a hell from the past. Thank God it is different, but that doesn’t mean that there is never a fight with that fear.

    1. Hello, Jay.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your insights on this dynamic. I appreciate the connection with “baggage” and the need for a “porter.” What a great way of immediately identifying a potentially triggering situation and petitioning for a measure of sensitivity and support. That’s a keeper.

      Again, thank you for the instructive comment. I pray your marriage continues to heal and that you and your wife are both richly blessed as you build a future that defies your past.


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