Anatomy of a Repressed Memory OR What is THAT smell?

OK, my friends, in the past I have wanted to explain how repressed memories come to the surface, but I was unable to do so because of the nature of my memories.  However, it turns out that I repressed good memories too.  I just rediscovered one of them, at least a piece of it.  Yay!  So I can tell you about that. Are you ready?

One day I was at home with my family and we were all relaxing.  Out of the blue, I started to smell something amazing.  Generally speaking my sense of smell is terrible.  I can smell a few really strong scents, for example if I can smell your perfume, you put it on way too much.  The smell of rain?  No way, are you kidding, rain has a smell?  I can’t imagine it.  Of the smells that I am accostumed to most of them are noxious so I was surprised by this good smell.  It was not just good; it was delightful.  Instant joy!

“What is that wonderful smell?” I asked.

My family just looked at me blankly. “What smell?”

This has happened before.  I smell things, usually bad smells like burned rubber* that no one else smells.  I was so disappointed when I realized that my family could not smell this wonderful aroma because that meant it was psychosomatic…created by my mind (this is an overly simple definition).  Realizing it was mine alone, the smell went away, and I was so disappointed.

The smell left me, but I could not stop thinking about it and the great feeling that it caused.   Even a couple days later.  So I decided I would draw something to help me remember the moment.  Keep in mind, I am not an artist, but I have found drawing and doodling very theraputic.

But how to draw that smell?  What was it? Christmas?  No, cotton candy. Yes, that’s it cotton candy.  Wait, what does that have to do with Christmas?  Nevermind.

Caroline Steinhauer

I drew cotton candy, it was more like a Kindergartener version of clouds.  Then the idea came to me to blacken the area surrounding the cotton candy and and write the words, “cotton candy chasing away the darkness.”

The next day was therapy.  I was still thinking about the cotton candy moment.  Obsessive?  Perhaps so, but that is how it is with my memories, they don’t let go of me.  I showed my little sketch to my therapist who seemed very interested in it and asked me a lot of questions.  I was both pleased and confused by his interest.

As he asked me questions, a picture began to come together in my mind.  For example, I had told him that I thought it was related to a memory (since this has happened before, only with bad memories).  He asked if I knew what the memory was about.  I said, “No, well, I keep thinking of my Grandmother.  I think it has something to do with her.”

He asked me a few more questions and then suddenly it hit me!  The smell was not cotton candy, but divinity.  Divinity is a Christmas candy.  Like cotton candy it has a way of “melting” in your mouth.  My Grandmother used to use food coloring to make it pink…just like cotton candy!

It was very clear to me in that moment that what I had smelled was a memory of making divinity with my Grandmother, and the very delightful feeling associated with the smell, was the way I felt as a child when I had that experience.

As I looked at the cotton candy sketch again, it was bittersweet.  I had thought of the smell and feeling as chasing away the present darkness.  Now I could feel and remember that “pushing away the darkness” was also related to the past.  That moment of joy with my Grandmother, temporarily pushed away the darkness of my life.

Why did I bury such a sweet memory?  I had to, because I am not the one that holds it.  The little boy of my mind does.  He also holds very difficult memories (don’t ask me what they are, I really don’t know).  His memories are so awful that I get a migraine type headache when I try to approach him in therapy…the headache recedes when I step away from him.  Yet, he is pleading with me to help him.  What can I do?

This sweet (no pun intended) memory is a great example of how my bad memories work.  Sometimes it is a picture that comes into my mind, while I am awake, or asleep, it doesn’t matter.  Or maybe a dream, but whatever form it takes, it grabs hold of me and demands my attention.  Everyone has had the experience of getting a song “stuck” in your mind.  The images cling to me even more deeply than a song, and cannot be ignored.

Right now, the divinity memory is just a smell and a feeling that brings a smile to my face even as I write this, and a “knowing” that it is about making divinity with my grandma.  If this memory works like the others, in time more and more pieces of it will come to me.  I might remember Grandma’s apron (if she had one) or the music that was playing, perhaps something she said.  That is how it happens with the other memories.  Only this time, I will be happy to see the other pieces.

Photo attribution: Caroline Steinhauer


  1. What an interesting experience! I never would have thought of surpressing good memories but if they are associated with negative ones it makes a lot of sense!

  2. I'm so glad that you were finally able to have a good association with your sense of smell. I believe that you will find that more will come to you. Our sense of smell is so powerful, it can take us places no other sense can do as well. Keep at it! Enjoy making divinity with your children this Christmas.

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