Trauma Resets the Clock

This is the second post in a series. To read the first part, click here.

As my partner was in the throes of her brain trauma at the hospital, I found myself frequently imagining, wishing, and perhaps even praying, that one day I would go to sleep and wake up the next morning to discover that it had all been a dream. An awful nightmare. By some miracle time would’ve been reversed.

It’s astonishing how hard you can yearn for these things even when the rational side of you knows they won’t happen, and the unbeliever in you knows that miracles aren’t real. In a sense, I understood where this yearning was coming from, yet it made little apparent difference. The what-ifs that dance around in your mind craft an almost inevitable fantasy where you might find answers. If only to go back to that day before the surgery, to tell her to have it somewhere else…

What’s really discomforting, and makes it feel as if the universe is out to taunt and torment you, is how this desire to go back in time sits alongside an ongoing experience that seems best described as resetting the clock. You don’t get to return to before the trauma, but life can be upended in ways that are like having to start over again. And few, if any, of those changes turn out positively, let alone for the better.

It would be stating the obvious to say that since my partner Danielle had her injury, our perception of time has changed. How it’s changed is sometimes challenging to pin down. Although I frequently find myself startled by how often I measure time by the traumatic event itself. While this is common for what pertains directly or indirectly to the trauma, it’s gotten harder to distinguish between what is and isn’t so related to it. Either a lot more has been affected by it than I’m aware of, or this thing – the traumatic experience – has such tendrils that it touches even unrelated aspects of life. Likely it’s a bit of both.

Some events have been so influential in certain cultures that they’ve inspired a change in the way those cultures measure time. One example would be the switch from BC to AD on the Julian and Gregorian calendars in conjunction with the birth of Jesus. A similar example comes from the Islamic world, where the migration from Mecca to Medina and the commemoration of this journey in the Hijra marked the beginning of a new era. The particular historical circumstances that may have led to these changes, as well as the time-frames concerning when they were implemented, are interesting topics, but my focus here is rather on their symbolic significance.

Year zero is a related concept, albeit one that is more metaphorical in nature than it is literal. Most calendars start with a year one instead of a year zero. In popular culture, however, year zero has taken on somewhat of a symbolic meaning as a marker for a cataclysmic event. Whereas the religious shifts in the measurement of time tend to carry connotations of celebration, joy, and renewal, year zero may denote darkness, hardship, and a time for rebuilding. I bring all this up to give a more concrete shape to what I have in mind when I talk about the clock being reset by trauma.

Time is strange in how it makes demands on you. The features of a space can change, but for a while you’ll be able to revisit that space more or less whenever you please. A song, on the other hand, or a film, is something you make time to listen to or to watch. You invest in it. The same is true of an event, which happens in a particular space, but feels much more urgent in the sense of time accorded to it. We talk regularly about participating in events in a manner that conveys quite a fair amount of exertion and attention on our part.

Of course, some things can become habit for us. We may go about our business on a sort of auto-pilot. If anything, though, trauma disrupts our habits and routines. It interrupts the regularity of our lives. This occurrence is jarring, too, as it definitely was for me and for my partner. I remember feeling as if I were walking through a different world at the time. What has surprised me is that even after that spatial feeling decreased substantially, the feeling of being outside of time, or on a new timeline, has lingered.

Trauma is transformative. It can be overwhelming and powerful. Whether we want it to or not, it finds a place of importance within our lives. Certain things about the process of starting again after the clock is reset can be things to celebrate. I am grateful my partner is still alive, and that she’s regained her ability to communicate. Other things may be things to mourn. I miss the autonomy we had before the injury. I miss some of the little things that aren’t there anymore. It’s always hard to know how much a part of your life those little things really are up until they’re gone.

But it would be misleading to characterize this as something to celebrate or to mourn, because I tend to find it’s most often just an alien feeling. The sort of experience you watch in silence, maybe with a weight in your chest, unsure of what’s going to happen. What else could it be when you have such a feeling of displacement? You don’t recall the past in the same way anymore, and you don’t look to the future in the way you used to, either. To a large extent, it’s as if you’ve just lost your frame of reference altogether.

Maybe this is what has to be in order for us to move on after trauma, though. I mentioned the longing one has to return to a time before things were drastically altered, but it’s true that dwelling too much on the past can be bad for us. I think this might be particularly true where it concerns trauma. Coming to grips with things is partially about accepting what’s happened, what’s now in the past, yet accepting this does not mean living in or immersing oneself in it. It means quite the opposite: seeing the past as the past, so that by noticing the differences that are there and the changes that have taken place, we are aware that things have transitioned, and that we should take these new things into account. When so much of what we plan for the future is premised on how things have been going up to this very moment, a shift in the topography around us necessitates that we re-plot our course ahead.

It can be tough and heartbreaking to do this while we still remember how it was before. Most of us understandably just want a moment to pause and catch our breath. Sadly, life is disagreeable about that. Even when you get time off work, some leniency on other responsibilities, or the assistance of your friends and family, you may find yourself wishing for a breath some two years down the road. I have, and I’m sure Danielle has, too.

It’s small consolation to note that the unexpected implies that things may turn out better than we expect. That was what I hoped for and waited for all while she was in the hospital, as doctor after doctor emphasized the uncertainties at play. It was frightening and I knew things could also turn out worse than expected, but for days, weeks even, there was nothing to do but wait. It was barely enough ground to rest any sort of hope on. Yet here we are today. Not unscathed, not unbattered, and perhaps not unbroken, but we’re here just the same. Where we go from this point is not entirely within our control, though it is another part of our story that is uniquely ours, and we won’t be sitting by on the sidelines for it.

To read the next part in this series, click here.

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