Our daily environment is full of places and objects that can evoke ghosts. Not real ghosts of course, but more a kind of vivid reminders of the past.
Many of us have at one time or another visited some historical landmark with the intention of meeting such ghosts. Such as a carefully restored old Illinois log cabin that wouldn’t tell you much, unless you know that once this was Abraham Lincoln’s home. That knowledge does the trick. People don’t go there to see a log cabin: they go there to meet Lincoln. To get in touch with a ghost. Having been in Illinois only once – just passing through – I must say I’m a little sorry that I never visited this landmark myself. Lincoln is one of the people on my “List Of Really Fascinating Long Dead People I Would Have Loved To Meet”.
Landmarks from our personal history can play a role in depression. But before I get to that, I want to show you one of my favorite historical ones.
A few years ago I moved to a place in the eastern Netherlands, near the German border. Not far from my home is a small unimposing hill that has been formally designated a historical landmark. It has become a hot spot for tourists and hikers, complete with a pancake restaurant in an old farmhouse below at its foot.
Since ancient times, it is known as the “Duivelsberg” – meaning “Devil’s Mountain”, even though it’s nothing but a knoll. From September 1944 to March 1945, this hill was a strategic point in the frozen front line between Allied and German forces. Marked as Hill 75.9 on Allied army maps, the Duivelsberg changed hands several times before the Allies finally managed to break through. Eight miles to the south is an army cemetery where over 2,500 Canadian soldiers now lie forever. *
Due to its position overlooking the nearby plains, this same Duivelsberg was already important in the Middle Ages. Around 1100, right here was the location where a knight known as Count Balderich built a motte, a small fortified castle. Nothing is left of the building itself, but faint traces of the surrounding earthworks have been preserved along the slopes of the hill.
Go back another 1000 years, and here was the Roman defense line along the road from Xanten to Noviomagus (the city of Nijmegen today). Nearby was the main camp of the Roman Tenth Legion. Many Roman artifacts, from milestones and remnants of buildings to coins and clasps, have been found in this region.
If you know all this, you can hardly see the Duivelsberg as a dull, uninteresting little hill anymore. Here and in the woods that surround it, the “ghosts” of grim Nazi and Allied soldiers, of proud medieval knights and their footmen, and of marching Roman legionnaires all force themselves upon you. Overall, the landscape has not fundamentally changed: you walk right where they went long ago. From the hilltop, you get the very same panoramic view once guarded by them.
Our personal life is also full of such “historical landmarks”. And just like with official landmarks such as Lincoln’s log cabin or my Duivelsberg, it is our knowledge (in this case, our own memory) that gives these personal landmarks their special, ghosts-evoking power.
Example: any old, nondescript, chipped coffee mug can work as one of your personal history landmarks if it happens to have been the favorite mug of your mother, or of a long-lost lover. For you, when you chance upon that mug in a corner of your cupboard, it can have the power to suddenly conjure up a face, a smell, a voice, a conversation, a row.
The older you get (the more landmarks you’ve left behind you) the more frequent and loud such “ghostly” experiences can become. This is natural. Nothing to worry about.
But with depression, sometimes it feels like almost everything has become some kind of historical landmark. A pair of scissors on the table, a song you hear on the radio, a parked old car looking just like your first one, a book you pull from the shelf, the half-forgotten taste of homemade pea soup, your dusty old Atari computer in the attic, a wandering dog that for a second looks eerily known, a couch cushion, a redundant ashtray in a drawer, a photo – even an actual person, some distant old friend you happen to meet in the street, can involuntarily evoke the Landmark Effect.
When this happens too often to you, it can become difficult to reasonably contain all those “ghosts”: they can begin to disturb you, haunt you, overwhelm you.
This becomes even more problematic if your depression has some of it roots in traumatic experiences from the past. Then, just seeing some common object may keep reviving for you, in that ghostly landmark way, memories of those traumatic experiences. Along with all the associated negative feelings of panic, fear and what not.
It has been suggested that this is exactly why ECT (electroshock therapy) may work for some seriously depressed people: that by simply wiping out memories of traumatic events, ECT in some cases blocks the mechanism that otherwise would keep reviving those traumas. From my own brushes with ECT I do indeed know for sure that electroshocks can partly wipe one’s memories. But I’m not at all sure if we really should call this a beneficial effect. To me, this looks more like trying to clean your dishes by shattering them with a hammer.
Still, if the Landmark Effect – traumatic or not – keeps disturbing you, if it keeps happening to you several times a day, if all these unexpected encounters with ghosts-from-the-past only worsen your depression, then something is wrong. You are probably living too much in the past. Literally, too: there may be just too much personal Landmarks present in your current environment.
Now if I don’t want to encounter the saddening ghosts of killed Canadian soldiers, the solution is obvious: I simply should not go for a walk at the Duivelsberg!
So the temporary solution I want to propose here is equally simple. Avoidance. I know that many psychologists will say that in the long run avoidance is not a real solution, and basically they’re right of course. But as an improvised short-term strategy, it may work well.
Identify as much of those personal landmarks as you can, things like that coffee mug, that photo album, that old favorite music CD, whatever. If possible, if this is about small objects, then stuff them into a box (I mean this literally) and temporarily stow it away. Try to remove them from sight for a while. Archive the most poignant reminders of your own past. Reduce the possibility of stumbling upon such Landmarks again and again.
To put this in a more general way: try to change your daily environment in such a way that it will less easily confront you with the Landmark Effect. What you need is a little bit more of a clean-slate feeling. Something like a new beginning that reduces the danger of continuously being encumbered by the past. An environment that makes it a little more easy to forget those ghosts you don’t want to be reminded of all the time.
From my own experience I do know that something trivial like rearranging the furniture in your living room and redecorating the walls can sometimes really help to fight depression. Repaint that Landmark in a fresh new color, and it may become much less haunting to you.
Actions like this can perhaps give you just the little push you need to free yourself from living too much in your past: to start living a little more in a new present again. It can help to temporarily forget things a little, to refocus.
And in doing so, it can also help to gradually create the mental space and distance you need for a more permanent solution: to actually begin tackling your “ghosts” in a more detached, clinical, analytical, rational way – either all by yourself, or with the help of a therapist.
Once you have managed to do that, you can probably safely reopen that box. If all has gone well, you’ll find that there are now less ghosts that disturb you: just a bunch of old memories. Memories that, whether they are happy or sad or even traumatic, you can now encounter and handle a little more easily.
• tip: Sometimes, trying to skip haunting memories can be a useful temporary strategy to keep your depression within bounds.
If so, then it can help to stay away from actual “landmarks” for a while: to avoid objects and places that keep evoking ghostly emotions in your mind.
Trying to effect a few concrete changes in your daily environment can often immediately make a very positive difference. This in turn may help you to begin assessing your “ghosts” in a less emotionally disturbing, more productive way.
* footnote: Actually not all of the 2,590 graves at this Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery are related to the region around the Duivelsberg.
There are also many soldiers here who in the last months of the war fell in the German Rhineland. They were buried at this Dutch location because at the time, the army did not want to bury them in German soil.