Relating to Time After Trauma

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Relating to Time After Trauma

“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” -Albert Einstein

How does sexual violence change you? Can you actually quantify an impact that is ongoing? How do you measure injuries that move and change like tides, ebbing and flowing nearer and further from the shoreline of your existence? Does time truly heal all wounds or does trauma, in fact, change our relationship to time? What is it about traumatic memory, a pain born in the past, that allows it to so often shadow our present and frighten our future? What part of our human spirit, the place beneath the wound, can actually transcend time and how do we connect with it?

Orienting Towards a New Relationship with Time After Sexual Trauma

Our society constantly measures the movement of time, always forward on the clock, the inevitable turning of the pages on our calendar – dates, anniversaries and appointments, beginnings and endings – endlessly tethered to time. As survivors of sexual violence, time can become acutely significant. There are symbolic dates that loom ahead and overwhelm our thinking, or alternately, we find ourselves lost in a desperate attempt to outrun the immediacy of the present moment when we sense a past we’ve longed to shed tracking not too far behind like a shadow. We are often spreading ourselves, physically, emotionally, and psychically, everywhere but within the here and now. The idea of recording memory in time can feel irrelevant, intangible, and inconvenient. Ultimately, however, our nature as humans causes us and those involved with us before trauma, and particularly, those who remain involved after we have survived or disclosed, to look to time as an indicator of where we should be in our recovery.

Yet, it feels to me that trauma cycles through us with its own unique rhythm. The wounds of our past and the distance between our psyche and our wound is beyond measure. Sometimes we are closer, and the stress chemistry of an event from a decade ago escapes in sweat out of the pores of our skin. Other days we feel further, viewing the image of ourselves like a character on-screen in a silent film – someone we can see but cannot touch, expressing so much, yet burdened with the muting of indescribable pain. Our physiology signals alarms when the topic arises in a space not conducive to the big exploration/excavation that comes with being asked if you have been sexually assaulted, and more complicated still: “How did it change you?”

I am certainly not the only one faced with the dilemma of a well-intentioned person (most recently, a very considerate doctor) who inquires about our past and its impact on our present condition. We weigh our options and make a choice:

How far do I go? What can I share? How much do I trust? You want me to choose words? In this setting? With a clock ticking out the time that remains until your window of listening closes? Do you have tissues? Will it be okay if I cry? Do I want to let myself cry? How much can I allow to surface? Am I willing to “go there” in my re-telling? Where should l I draw the line, when should I begin intentionally regulating my own emotions? Will the residue of this conversation linger into the rest of my day, my week, this month? Should I cancel my plans after this appointment? I want to tell you, but are you prepared for what you are about to hear? Do you really want to hear?

The internal self-interrogation can go on and on – of course, all within a split second of time. The stream of questions that fire in a moment like this remind me of the flash flood of thoughts that raced across my brain when I was assaulted:

Is this just a terrible dream? Is this how this my life will end? Will I be found? Where is God? Do I believe in God? Does this person believe in God? Maybe I should talk about God. Where are you, God? What will my family think? Is this a twisted joke? Am I having a nightmare? Is somebody coming to rescue me? Can anyone hear my cries? Is anyone out there? Is anything out there? I don’t want to die! Please let me wake up! WAKE UP!

As quickly as the questions stream, so too, does the decision to self-protect, one of the greatest survival and coping skills we develop after trauma. We can occupy multiple spaces at the same time. We can be here with you in body, and on another level, we are soaring through space, out of this pain, disappearing beyond the sharp analysis of the mind.

I will eventually elect to select a consolidated response to her question – one that is full of facts that allow the doctor to make sense of me: details that are linear – a beginning, middle, and end. Captured in convenient moments, she will etch my nightmare onto plain white paper with her inky blue pen. I will wonder about the impossibility of her effort to translate my trauma into something she can comprehend. I will calmly deliver tolerable sound bites and casual references to the most devastating day of my life. I will feel the familiar shame of intellectually knowing so much time has passed, and yet, still feeling the centrality of rape like air I breathe. I wish to tell her that without her charts and without tests – I can confirm that all of these symptoms she will treat me for can be traced back to a story I wasn’t quite sure I’d live to tell.

“How did it change you?”

I bring myself back on track. I remember how to do this.

As survivors, we are compelled to come up with strategies for these encounters. No pause, no nuance, and no permission to allow for the organic surge of new meaning that surfaces every time we have the rare chance to tell our story. Except these internal revelations will happen and while distracted by our own insights – we somehow continue using repetitive words that emerge from the conditioned narrative that has enabled us to move through such moments. Our body is in the room, while some part of us has left to follow a new thread of thought. Harnessing feeling, sensation, and the connections that bubble beneath vocabulary becomes a kind of art we master. We sit alongside you responding to directed questions and giving you the facts, while privately, we are unearthing mountains of archived sorrow. We wonder how you cannot see, how you cannot sense, and why you will not name what is writhing right in front of you.

We are right in front of you with the magnitude of this pain seeping from our cells. The answers to your questions are written across our body.

In a way we become careful magicians, physically present while distant at heart. We learn to steward our trauma, self-selecting when and where we share this sacred though excruciating secret. Although, that constant scanning for the right space and time can cause our eventual sharing to escape our body in a resonant scream. Sometimes we startle you with the weight of our truth, sometimes we invoke a boundary that your curiosity and your good intentions could never cross. We are fiercely, albeit unevenly, protect the wreckage of our own loss.

Now we get to draw the line of how much, how fast, and how deep this vulnerability will go.

Yet, for me, the barriers I erect in order to survive the conversation always end up feeling like a tragedy – another byproduct of having been raped. Another moment when I want time to stop and to simply have the freedom to go down into the dimly lit cavern that the question has revealed. When you embark on looking back and looking inside, there is an infinite reservoir of impressions – scents, sights, tastes, touch, and sounds. After some time, if you can stay with it, you perceive time-based edges dissolving softly like watercolor, permeating into the seen and unseen world around you.

We hold an ocean inside and yet there sits just one, small glass on the table into which we have been invited to pour the sea of our response. Someone else would drown in all this salty water, yet it is the constant swirling of salt and water, an enigmatic current that pulls us afloat just when we think we might drown. This constantly circulating sea inside soothes inflamed wounds and delivers buoyancy in our heaviest hours.

How did it change you?

This isn’t just about sexual violence. This is about the immeasurable losses, conscious and unconscious, that land inside of us and create a quiet, yet constant, anguish in our souls. None of us passes through life unscathed. We all have scars that ache – injuries of the heart that require decades of tenderness. They irrevocably shape us – not necessarily for the worse, not necessarily for the better. We see the world differently and we are now seen by others differently. We sense our private battles whispered publicly among old friends at parties. An acquaintance brings it up in the grocery store, a family member sends a text, you run into someone from your past wandering down the street who benignly inquires, “So, how are you doing?” Yet, when approached with the question we’ve been desperate to answer, we are suddenly speechless.

You think to yourself: Someone else could drown.

My doctor’s desire to connect the dots of my symptoms with the darkness of my life seems cruel when the container around her question is so tight. To respond in this space, requires not tapping into emotion, not utilizing my slow pace, and not breaking down. Compartmentalize, describe, and link one thought to the next. In my best attempt, I am treading water somewhere between fact telling and memory feeling – aware of the time, watching the subtle way her body reacts, mindful not to be too explicit, careful to conceal the worst. I realize that I am taking care of her and attempting to protect her from unnecessary horror. I don’t want to scare off another person by disclosing what I know, what I saw, what I can still recall like the morning’s dawn. Of course, I am protecting myself too, as this heart can only bear so much breaking.

It’s not her fault that I feel trapped by this impractical expectation to reply to a question it will undoubtedly take a lifetime to answer, a question whose answer constantly changes as I am constantly changing. While she has taken my breath away with the invitation to disclose to a total stranger, I simultaneously feel gratitude for her intention. It is the overall absence of space in a society invested in “moving on”, to actually still ourselves enough to talk about our losses, that complicates my ability to reply. So when the question I’ve spent a decade examining is finally raised: “How did it change you – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually?” – I feel stunned because I don’t know where to start and I am frightened because I don’t know how I will stop.

Recovery is so much about allowing what many told us to resist. I send condolences to my most precious and painful experience for the inevitability of a dissatisfying response, for not being able to give it the space it deserves. I resent the question that has defined every day of my life leading up to right now as well as my own self-imposed expectations for an appropriate response. I notice the clock ticking on her wall. I take a deep breath in, I fix my mind to a timeline and I begin to speak on the exhale. Since the story of surviving expands with every second, a galaxy of embodied memory that has no limits, I have to locate an accessible entry point. I start on the ground where it began, with my feet feeling the resource of the Earth:

“It was a blue sky morning and I was running in a park. Actually, it is the largest public park on the continent of South America. Twice the size of Central Park, although I’ve never actually been to Central Park, but I know that it is big. The vastness of the space, the size of the forest, and my own smallness within it all always stands out. I came upon a white horse and I stopped to share a moment with them, trying to connect through their soft, brown eyes. I paused at the balance beam and stretched into my favorite yoga pose, Natarajasana, a mid-run stretch. Do you know the Dancer’s pose? I could have balanced there all day…”

Sitting in her office, I visualize the dusty running trail and I am now on it. I feel myself like a small grain of sand. I think about the scope of the experience as my body has stored it and how it could cover the curves of 7 continents of shoreline. Trauma refuses to be condensed and I sense that the sole purpose of its imprint is to amplify. I am stifled by its magnitude while sitting in a square room with four walls. I lose track of the moment like I am on auto-pilot. I refuse to abandon myself to tell the story. It is the glimpse of a red-tailed hawk out the window, floating just over my doctor’s head, that interrupts this disembodiment. The sinking feeling of dictating my rape like like a mere witness is temporarily paused.

Nature keeps moving. Nature brings me back. I borrow the bird’s quiet blessing and I remember to breathe into my body.

With trauma, and memory in general, we can accidentally reach into our childhood while extending our arms up to the sky. The stretch evokes a visceral memory and we reflexively pull ourselves in tight. We might catch the scent of grass we used to lay on, when we savored the comfort of nature, and now, that feeling gone – nature’s beauty is twisted into a reminder of threat. Those moments freeze us again. We circle around an image of ourselves desperate to remember what it felt like to not know this pain.

Some of us have never known the world without this pain. It’s literally in our DNA, in our survival patterning, in our ancestral memories.

Wondering to ourselves about the loneliness that lingers inside, we recall exiting our physical shape during trauma – a surreal, waking dream. Our porous bodies absorbing violence, and simultaneously, we are witness to it. Floating above, our psyche wonders, when, if and how it will ever be safe enough to return – to the body, to the mind, and to the depths within the self. Sinking like a splinter the trauma embeds itself beyond psychological reach. Our body archives the loss. The landscape of bodily sensation becomes riddled with land mines of pain and we begin to distance ourselves somatically.

Trauma can create temporary fissures within our body and mind. After weeks, months, and years of attempting to cope, these fissures can collapse into canyons that force a dramatic separation from the self. While our beings instinctually gift us an “out of body” escape, born of physiology and an unconscious will to survive, the pain that remains buried in the realms of the self from which we have done our best to disconnect seeks to be known. The wounds call out to us – through the rising and falling of myriad symptoms, through repetitive night terrors, through difficult to describe body aches and sensations, and through flashes of imagery that surface when we least expect it. Our sense of embodied coherence, short-circuited for some time, requires our attention. The disparate parts beckon us to bring them back together – slowly, consciously, and with courage.

There are many of us who desire to return to ourselves – not immediately, not always, and not necessarily consciously. Despite the horrors we know we will find inside, there is a complex pull that is irresistible, an innate yearning to return to the only home that will ever truly be ours. Beneath the physical, emotional, and psychic injuries – the soul (or core essence) with which we were born is desperate to be released from the cover of pain and to emerge once again.

I have spent every day since my attack walking along an invisible trail to restore my spirit inside. Looking for signs and symbols, and an eagle-eye perspective of how to survive that can encompass this desolation alongside this newly birthed sense of intention.

We long to relate to the natural rhythm of time as it exists inside our own shape, as it manifests through the cycles of our life. Incrementally, we build resources to spend more time in the here and now, to be selective in our exploration of the past, and to cultivate enough solidity beneath us to support an inquiry into what we intend for our life ahead. We practice syncing our bodies with our heart and mind. Our cells and tissues, and our magnificent, albeit often misunderstood brain, can steward us towards all that we seek. The brain has the space and the body holds the anchor to support internal time-travel as we uncover, discover and, ultimately, recover ourselves. It is in learning to once again sense our own selves that enables us to connect again with others, and to embark on the daunting and exhilarating process of relational repair after interpersonal rupture. Undoubtedly, it is within the immediacy of our own bodily landscape where the journey can begin.

We can learn to synchronize with our own sense of time as the natural rhythms of the body are restored. We can develop the inner strength to protect the pace of a healing process that refuses to be rushed. The universe provides an open-ended invitation for healing when we are ready – in our time and with all the time we need. The impacts of sexual violence cannot be captured in words alone. As well, the timeline of healing cannot be captured by a clock.

It takes as long as it takes.

There is no quantifiable measure for how we embody our grieving or how we embark (again and again) on our healing. It is essential that we discover and engage in the practices of healing that speak the core of who we know ourselves to be. We are as unique as grains of sand along the beach, as vast as the shorelines wrapping around land, and so too, our healing is unique as it is vast. The constant cycles of the human organism will indeed persist – despite our pain, alongside our pain, and counterbalancing our pain. We are learning the delicate practice of relating to time after trauma. If we can slow ourselves enough and liberate ourselves from the calendar in our mind, we will discover that gravity itself inclines our systems to settle and align. 

With practice, with healing, with our continual commitment to living, we become less afraid of the question, “How did it change you?” and increasingly free from external shame around how we respond. Rather, we recognize the boomerang of life-force that has been returned to us in the wake of trauma’s subtle passing. After decades, we may be brought to our knees to discover that in answering this question, “how did it change you?” we are no longer listing our symptoms, we are now declaring our strengths.

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Relating to Time After Trauma was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, as well as a certified yoga instructor teaching private and group classes for the general public and for survivors of sexual violence. You can read about Molly’s work teaching trauma-informed yoga and offering Somatic Experiencing in Portland, Oregon and online by visiting her practitioner page.

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