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What Trauma Can Do to Your Sense of Time

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I’m sitting on a dark blue towel laid across rocks at the edge of Cascadilla Gorge, tucked away on a little rock ledge. The sun is overhead, filtered through clouds and branches with clusters of small, light green leaves. The waterfall beside me whooshes in my ears and drowns out the voices of passersby above me. When there is breeze, a light mist flecks my skin. The smell of wet rocks, like the sea, fills my nose. The air is calm and fragrant, vibrating with life. A stronger breeze comes and chills me — my skin and bones contract. The rocks at my back cradle me in a bumpy embrace.

• What is PTSD?


A couple of hours ago, I finished my final tasks of the school year. It doesn’t feel like the cathartic release it sometimes does, but I am done nonetheless. It’s difficult to reflect on a semester and a year that feel so blurry, but I’ll try.

Time has been weird this year — weirder than ever. And the scientist in me cannot figure out why. Where do my memories go? What does passing time feel like? Perhaps it’s because at times I’ve fallen back into waiting for the future rather than creating an inhabitable present. Because honestly, this semester was tough. I struggled through my first-ever serious bout of depression, which lasted over two months. It felt like I was moving through water, everything slowed and dampened. Each day and week became an obstacle rather than an opportunity.

And here I am, in the “future.” I made it to the other side. Now what? My setting is different — I’m home — but I’m not. It’s true, I feel lighter, temporarily unburdened of many of my responsibilities. But no radical change — radical change never happens passively. So if change is what I want, I must either actively pursue it, or accept a slow and incremental version. Change that sneaks up on me. Change that occurs with every heartbeat that pumps fresh blood through my veins.

I struggle to accept that there will not come a day when I wake up and everything is suddenly different. Easier. I won’t shed my skin, with its scars and burdens, and step into a new life. Nor could I without sacrificing who I am. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years waiting to grow up, to get to that hazy, happy place just over the horizon. Maybe accepting that that place doesn’t exist — or that it’s just as complicated as every other place I’ve been — is the first step to getting there. I’ll be “growing up” for the duration of my life.

And at the same time, there is something unique about this age. My life is more fluid now than it ever was, and perhaps ever will be again. Ten years ago, I was 10. In 10 years I’ll be 30. I feel pulled in both directions — back to the simplicity of childhood, forward to the complexity of adulthood. When I ache for an unburdened future, I ache to return to the past. Though in retrospect, my childhood was in no way unburdened. But I buried my pain deep down to maintain a semblance of normalcy, such that I wouldn’t access it for many years.

None of this is simple. My life feels disjointed and discontinuous. My memories appear like home videos; I’m watching grainy footage of someone else. This, because it feels like there are gaping holes – how did I get from there to here? Has any part of me remained the same? It’s like the Ship of Theseus, except that rather than pieces of a ship, it’s fragments of my identity.

Why doesn’t everyone feel this way? Maybe they do, or maybe it’s a side effect of long-standing, unresolved trauma. This feeling may only deepen as I continue to age, as the chasm between past and present continues to widen.

What if instead of seeing this chasm as a black hole, it was a space filled with soft light? Like the light in an open field on a spring morning, or in the gorge where I’m sitting now? In this space, I join hands with every girl I’ve been and every woman I will be.

Follow this journey on Elise on Life

Photo by Jon Chambers on Unsplash

Originally published: September 10, 2018
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