I had a professor in graduate school who used to use this analogy for when mental illness was taking charge of a person’s life. It’s a good analogy. The healthy self may still be on the bus and see what’s going on, but not able to get to the wheel, much less take control.
I want to expand on the metaphor in this blog entry. I believe that each person is a sum of all of their experiences. The 5-year-old you that got your first spanking with a belt? She lives inside you. The 12-year-old who got teased in school because he was dyslexic and had trouble reading aloud in class? Right there. So is the valedictorian, and the man who will never forget how beautiful his wife looked walking down the aisle. They’re all in there. Every you that has ever been is on the bus. Don’t worry, you get to use the carpool lane. Here’s the thing about the bus: Only one gets to drive at a time.
Most of the time, it’s our present day self. He, she, or your pronoun of choice drives around through your life. Sometimes other passengers may give input like, “It’s you from last year. That restaurant gave us food poisoning. Keep driving!” Or a much younger passenger may get really excited about getting to have the kind of ice cream that was our favorite when we were 7 years old. For the most part though, we stay in the driver’s seat.
But then something different happens. We find ourselves in a neighborhood that looks and feels familiar, but not for a good reason. We realize we’ve been here before. This neighborhood smells the same as the aftershave our attacker was wearing. The light is the same as it was the day of the car accident. For whatever reason, I don’t like it here, and I certainly don’t like driving through this part of town. What may happen then is that whichever passenger was driving here before will start trying to take the wheel. The 4-year-old runs away and hides. The 19-year-old reacts by getting into a physical fight. The 30-year-old turns to alcohol. It’s not an issue of character or strength. We’re doing what we know how to do. The thing is, we can boot those past selves out of the driver’s seat just as quickly as they grabbed the wheel from us. There’s more to it than that though. This can quickly escalate into a tug-of-war. When the rope is replaced with a steering wheel, it’s pretty easy for this big, cumbersome vehicle to get into trouble fast. We need to figure something else out. I have to keep driving, but 4-year-old me can still watch what’s going on. What’s really cool is that 4-year-old me can be helped by watching. He or she can see that just because it feels the same doesn’t mean we’re going to be harmed.
It doesn’t mean the other passengers never get to drive. The 21-year-old who felt SO grown up and sophisticated having her first glass of champagne can also feel just as enthralled signing papers for her first mortgage. Sometimes when we get together with friends and laugh until we cry, it feeds the 10-year-old who loves nothing more that a good case of the giggles at a slumber part after lights out. The important part though is that our present day self can step right back in whenever he or she needs to. Keeping our past selves safe is how we heal them. Uncle may have hurt your 7 year old self, and it hurts and it’s scary to be around him now, even decades later. But 7 year old self, I will never let him hurt you again. I will protect you the way no one did when you needed it. Now you can get on with the business of being 7.
It’s past Present Day Me’s bedtime, so I’m going to park the bus for the night. Drive safe, everyone.