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Past Tense

past tenseI stop: a droll smile and infectious cackle singe my synapses. I feel good. Like endorphins-are-murmuring good.

Maybe it is a sun-baked trip to the beach, the well-received Psych Central articles, or heartfelt conversations with my aunts and uncles. Or maybe it is learning to accept past failures for what they are: character lessons, not character flaws. The past can be a vengeful lover; she will terrorize you if you allow her to.

Rewind to May 2015. I was a disheveled mess. Job turmoil, loneliness, and family angst flooded my emotional hard drive. My logical mind had betrayed me; uncontrolled emotions spilled out. I was teetering.

Straddling between helpless and hopeless, my psychiatrist referred me to Dr. McCann. I braced myself for the labels: Matt is mentally unstable and messed up. They never came.

“Matt, you are normal,” Dr. McCann repeated. I felt anything but. She pressed forward, “You are going through a rough period. Your mother — your backbone — passed away. Your immediate family isn’t in a position to help you.”

But, thankfully, Dr. McCann was. It has been nearly a year since we met. As I recover, I remind myself of her comments.

Recovery, like life, is filled with uncertainty. When I am anxious, I revert to habitual thinking patterns. I ruminate, craving certainty to dispel the intrusive, repetitive thoughts percolating in my mind. Lamenting missed opportunities, past missteps, and personal failings, the anxiety gnaws at my fabric.

“Matt, you can’t change the past,” Dr. McCann interrupts. “You can change the future.”

Dr. McCann is right. It is easier to change the future than the past. My identity has been rooted in past experiences — what a thought means, how mental health has thwarted goals, OCD impact on relationships. My mind is the lawyer who relitigates a decided case. As I recover, I am learning how to move forward, drawing on life experiences to achieve future goals. This, more than CBT or ACT, represents my biggest roadblock and achievement.

Recovery is a daily process. I am training my mind to spring forward, not fall back into familiar traps. Progress can be halting; diligence and patience are rewarded. The past haunts, if we allow it.

Among mental health consumers, it is tempting — borderline reflexive — to relive our past struggles. We own our past; it’s what identifies and distinguishes us. But you, me, the sulking woman in the support group are more than our personal struggles. As we process our trauma, we can, and have to, move forward.

Turning the page is tough. The past provides context for our life story. But if past is prologue, we have an entire book to write. Don’t get stuck on the introduction.


Past Tense

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Past Tense. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 1 Jun 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.