Sometimes, as I fade off to sleep, I revisit settings from my childhood. I’m able to conjure up places where I’ve lived with such clarity that it almost feels like I’ve traveled back in time. I walk from room to room with meticulous recall: the wood paneling in the kitchen, the gold shag rug in the living room, the Delta logo on the faucet knobs on the bathroom sink, the Gremlins poster on the inside of my closet door, and my Star Wars playsets neatly displayed on the brown modular K-Mart shelving. I see the dust particles riding blades of sunlight that cut in through the windows on summer afternoons while the cicadas buzz outside. I smell Sunday dinner—a pot roast that’s been in the oven since just after breakfast—as a laugh track responds to a sitcom joke on the television. I’m alone as I wander through these memories; a visitor on movie set abandoned by the players who were present an instant before.
In those moments, the nostalgia is so strong that I wonder if the current residents of my old childhood home are being haunted by my spirit. It’s highly doubtful, and a little new-agey for my liking, but I should probably let them know that I mean them no harm, just in case.
Over the past few years, as I’ve entered my late 30s, I find myself looking back with more frequency. In addition to my cognitive time travel spells, I spend a considerable amount of time revisiting movies, television shows, and even commercials from my past. Similarly, I’ve started hunting down, toys, comics and other artifacts from my childhood. The only noticeable side effect of this time travel addiction—other than this website—is a room in my house filled with toys, comics, video games, trading cards, stickers, books, and magazines. Considering the wide variety of life-ruining addictions one has to choose from, mine seems relatively innocuous. Still, I have to wonder if my frequent need to look back has some nasty sequelae that I just haven’t noticed yet. Half joking, I refer to myself as a chronic nostalgist. I find these moments of cognitive time travel so comforting, yet I sometimes wonder if my looking back is a maladaptive behavior that does more damage than good, by keeping me beholden to the past.
The term nostalgia was coined by Johannes Hofer in 1688 to describe a sickness suffered by Swiss soldiers who were fighting in France and Italy. Pining for their homeland, the displaced soldiers were stricken by a severe melancholy that compromised their efficacy as mercenaries. Combining the Greek words nóstos, meaning to return home, and álgos, meaning pain, Hofer gave a name to their disease; acute homesickness. The concept of nostalgia as a disease lingered until the late 1800s.
The contemporary definition of nostalgia is a pleasure and sadness caused by wistful reflection or an excessive yearning to return to the past. Descriptors like excessive or sadness brings to mind the type of person who constantly laments the good old days, or how things were so much better in their day. This type of person is often regarded as stuck in the past and unable to experience the present or anticipate the future. Clearly, this level of stagnancy could be detrimental to personal progress. Nostalgia is also associated with pleasure and feelings of euphoria which suggests an emotional duality.
While I certainly have in my day moments, I am fully aware that the good old days weren’t always so good. By comparison to some, my childhood wasn’t so bad, but it had its rough spots. My parents’ divorce, familial fondness of alcohol and drugs, a pair of major hip surgeries, a series of moves and school changes, and my OCD kept things interesting. I spent most of my childhood in a pre-flinch mode, like a kid anticipatorily watching the burning wick of a firecracker spark and sputter to its end. Thankfully, I made it out alive, but not without scrapes and bruises that I am still tending. I struggle with why I feel compelled to and have such a fondness for revisiting such a turbulent childhood. My only answer is that I was more resilient as a child. When things got tough, I was able to escape into the sanctum of my imagination. Instead of mourning a moment in time, it could be that I’m mourning the version of myself that I was in that moment. It’s a lamentation for the innocence that cushioned me from the damage being done.
This explains my standing fondness for the entertainment and toys from my youth. I’ve always been reluctant to the idea of completely letting go of my childhood. In my teens and early twenties, as I purged most of my kid-stuff, I was careful to hold onto some of my favorite toys, comics, and magazines telling myself that they would surely be worth something someday. For years I banished these artifacts to dusty boxes in the corner of a closet. With the exception of a few items, most of my collection isn’t worth very much, but to me it’s nostalgically invaluable. The same can be said of the television shows and movies that I’m so eager to revisit. I understand that some of my favorites may not stand up to the test of time, and will never be regarded as important achievements in television, cinema, or literature, but things like Manimal, Splash, and Swamp Thing cultivated my imagination, and so they are important to me.
Contrary to Hofer’s initial views of nostalgia as a disease state, recent studies suggest that nostalgia has psychological and physiological benefits. In an article for Scientific American, social psychologist, Dr. Clay Routledge states that revisiting fond moments from your past can improve your mood in the present, and ultimately boost your self-image. He cites studies that credit nostalgia for the improvement of social connectedness, stress reduction, and inspiration. A study by the University of Southampton reveals that engaging in nostalgia can provide physiological comfort by making you feel warmer in a cold setting. This gives scientific credence to the idea of nostalgia as a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Such studies alleviate my concern of being stuck in the past. It’s a nice time to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. Perhaps my need to look back is an attempt to retrieve former versions of myself to integrate into a more complete present self. There was a time I felt the need to flee from my past and forget who I’d been. It’s clear to me now that those years on the run were some of the unhappiest times of my life. I’ve also come to understand that I never really had any intention of selling off the remaining childhood artifacts that I had once closeted. They are totems of the past, heirlooms passed on from my younger self to my older self. Today, they are proudly displayed in small room in my house. It fills me with a sense of who I am and who I’ll be. It’s a time machine that allows me to feel the wonder and hope I felt as a child. It inspires me.
Perhaps I’m just rationalizing the fact that I have the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old. Maybe, but that eight-year-old survived some excruciating physical and psychological pain. If I ever run into him on one of my trips back in time, I have one thing to tell him:
“Kid, you’re my hero.”