What It’s Like To Be Obsessively Nostalgic — And How I Broke Free

I was in high school the first time I saw Noah Baumbach’s 1995 movie Kicking and Screaming. At the time, the fast-paced ’90s movie about a hapless group of recent grads finding their place in the world touched something deep in my soul, mainly due to one line delivered by Chris Eigeman: “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now.”

By the time I heard that line, I’d been reminiscing the recent past for years. If you’re wondering what a 16-year-old could possibly be nostalgic about, the answer is not much. Yet I found ways to get sentimental over just about everything. My journals were near verbatim accounts of things my friends and I had said, or dates with my boyfriend. I’d tried my hand at writing a few stories, but all of them were mined from the day-to-day experiences I had growing up in a small town in Illinois. I had piles of photos I’d taken on disposable cameras, sometimes going through an entire roll of film at one lunch period, and tapes of parties I’d filmed on a camcorder. My entire room was, in many ways, a tribute to what I’d done before.

For a long time I thought my nostalgia was a quirk that few others shared, but today it seems the norm. Looking back fondly has become a hallmark of our culture, and given rise to reboots, remakes, and reunions. From Harry Potter to Pokémon to Gilmore Girls, a great deal of time and money is being spent on re-packaging and presenting our past back to us in a way that let’s us feel like we’re reconnecting to something we once found meaningful. But I’ve started to realize that while looking back and remembering the things that matter to us is important, there’s a definite line between being sentimental and getting stuck. And sometimes letting the past fade into the background is the best way to bring yourself into sharper focus. I say that as someone who had to learn the hard way.

Sometimes letting the past fade into the background is the best way to bring yourself into sharper focus.

At some point during my junior year of high school, it sunk in that eventually I’d soon be experiencing “lasts.” The last time I went to class in the building, the last time all my friends lived in the same geographical space, the last bonfire or sleepover or party. That realization was a tipping point for me and I started seeing everything through that lens even when I still had over a year before graduation. The very possibility of losing that time or the feeling of being with my friends haunted me. It became an anxiety driven by the inevitability of change and the uncertainty of the future. Would I ever see these people again? Would we ever do this again? Would we ever be like this again?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I actually hoped to achieve by hanging onto every note I was passed or every crappy picture I took at a local show. Looking back, I was afraid of forgetting. The idea of forgetting a fun night or a place I’d been terrified me and so I did everything I could to keep the memory fresh. In addition to the journals and photos, I kept little reminder items that were essentially junk that I convinced myself would trigger memories down the line. It could be anything — even a weird shopping bag was enough to make me feel like I was holding onto a moment. A lot of them ended up on my walls, which I had covered in cut outs from magazines, movie reviews, random found items, and other things I taped together into a mosaic of pop culture and my own life. It was a literal manifestation of my scattered attempts to hold onto memories and keep from forgetting.

The very possibility of losing that time…became an anxiety driven by the inevitability of change and the uncertainty of the future. Would I ever see these people again? Would we ever do this again? Would we ever be like this again?

If you’re wondering why no one pointed out how weird all of this was, you’re not alone. I often wonder why someone didn’t sit me down for a come-to-Jesus-and-also-throw-that-in-the-garbage-can talk. But I grew up in a sentimental family and my mom has always held onto more things than she could possibly need to remember our childhoods. This point was underlined recently when, after I mentioned it in conversation, she sent me a stuffed cat I got for my 7th birthday and the denim uniform shirt from my very first job. If sentimentality is genetic, she’s the one I got it from.

I didn’t have a sudden epiphany that erased my fear of forgetting. It happened gradually at first, as I lost random things in rapid-fire moves during college or decided to toss a box of notes or a binder of stories while in a bad mood. The final straw was moving to Washington, DC, where my now-husband and I rented a studio apartment. There just wasn’t enough space for all that stuff and I wasn’t about to ask my mom to hold onto decades-old knick-knacks. When I went through my journals or boxes of stuff, I realized that despite having these physical reminders, I had forgotten a lot. Details had slipped away and awkwardness had disappeared.

But here’s the thing: I liked my messy memories way better than the realities. It was impossible to look back on everything I’d actually said or done as a teenager and feel anything but embarrassment, because all teenagers are universally embarrassing and weird. Sure, I’d forgotten a lot of the context and specifics, but my false memories were a hell of a lot better and more meaningful than the exact representations I’d thought were so crucial.

Sure, I’d forgotten a lot of the context and specifics, but my false memories were a hell of a lot better and more meaningful than the exact representations I’d thought were so crucial.

I think of that every single time I see something from the past popping up in pop culture. Even things I really enjoyed, like Harry Potter, feel entirely different now that I’m nearing 30. But there are things that make me feel the same way Harry Potter once did when I was a kid, just like there are jokes that make me laugh just as hard as I did as a teenager and people who are just as close to me as my friends were then. In my attempts to cling to the past, I was banking on the future being less great than my life had been. I assumed I had peaked and that nothing else could be as meaningful ever again. I was using nostalgia as a way to insulate myself and keep a tether to the past.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking I should hold onto something as a memento. But after a couple years of actively working against that urge, it’s easier than ever to chuck it and move on. Because I know now that if something is important, I won’t forget it or how it made me feel. I don’t define myself by my nostalgia anymore, and I’m glad. Turns out there was a lot more to look forward to than I ever realized.