Time Travel Exists – Just Ask A Trauma Survivor
Time doesn’t heal all wounds. What might?
Nicole M. Luongo
What if I told you that today alone I have been 31, 19, 16, 5, and 26 years old?
In the West, time is framed as linear — an entity that people experience universally. It is a ribbon that stretches from the past (what happened) through the present (what is happening) and into the future (what will happen).
This ribbon is divided into segments (years, weeks, days, hours) that unfurl stably and predictably.
In the same way that one plus one may not equal two, though, time is tricky. And when it comes to how time is stored in the body— as memory — “reality” is much more nuanced.
I am a trauma survivor. Specifically, I am a complex trauma survivor, which means that I’ve experienced multiple, intersecting traumas that lack decisive beginnings, middles, and ends.
These events started in childhood, and they got cumulatively worse with age. While I have endured distinct, horrific instances of abuse, I have also lived for months and years in homeless shelters, in psychiatric wards, and in predatory addiction treatment centres where maltreatment was normalized or encouraged.
No Mad, disabled drug user escapes unscathed. For much of my life, fear has been my baseline. As a result, my sense of time is warped.
I can be going about my day comfortably an adult when I am transported suddenly to childhood, triggered by nothing more than a hint of colour or an indiscernible smell.
I may present as an adult but internally be frantic, a petrified youth whose entire body — mind is consumed only with invasive, primal screams. I may be in a novel situation and feel such intense familiarity that I’m certain I know what will come next (and often, in retrospect, it feels like I was right.)
I know I’m not alone. The relationship between time and memory is contested, but on one thing the science is clear: traumatized memory is different, and for those of us who have lived through events for which there are no words, so is the passage of time.
What happens to memory through trauma?
That depends on who you ask, but first we should understand “normal” memory (though note there are many competing models).
We make memories by forming new neural pathways to the brain from what we perceive around us. Several types of memory exist, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll focus on three: sensory, short — term, and long — term.
Sensory memory is considered the first stage of memory. All day every day, each of us is bombarded with multiple stimuli that (disabilities not — withstanding) include sight, smells, sounds, taste, and touch. We can’t process all of it, so the vast majority of our sensory memory lasts only milliseconds and doesn’t enter consciousness.
What we retain is converted into short — term memory (STM). STM includes cognitive processes (“working memory”) that store, maintain, and manipulate limited information (approx. 7 items) for brief durations (20 seconds to a few minutes) in the absence of new stimuli. It is necessary to complete basic tasks, and various brain circuits collaborate to produce a coherent, perceptible “reality.”
According to the “component process” view, no brain structures are implicated in working memory alone. Still, it is generally known that one’s prefrontal cortex (PFC) — the cerebral cortex covering part of our frontal lobe responsible for executive function such as planning, personality expression, decision — making, and moderating social behaviour — plays a major role in retaining task — relevant stimuli. Scientists have also suggested that other sensory cortices form the neural basis for working memory’s precision.
Finally, STM that is resistant to interference from competing stimuli “consolidates” into long — term memory (LTM), where information is held indefinitely.
The cellular and molecular portions of consolidation occur within minutes or hours of learning, and they cause alterations to neurons in the brain. “Systems — level” consolidation, on the other hand, which involves re — organizing entire brain networks to handle individual memories, can take months or even years.
The main brain structure required for consolidation is the hippocampus. These densely packed layers of neurons are embedded in the edge of our temporal lobes and are part of our “limbic” or “primitive brain.”
Whereas our cerebral cortex is responsible for advanced human functioning, our limbic systems are older and less evolved. The hippocampus, alongside the amygdala and hypothalamus, regulate hunger, thirst, motivation, sex drive, and emotion. Highly emotional events may be remembered with greater accuracy and vividness.
The study of memory has led to a few broad conclusions:
First, it is a constructive process. None of us remembers perfectly. Rather, we fill in gaps about what we assume occurred based on attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs. This is the case for everyone, regardless of their history.
For those who have had relatively pain — free lives, “episodic memory” (consciously-accessible memories of specific personal experiences) includes data on where one was, what happened, when it happened, and how they felt as it happened. None of these is intrinsically most important.
Recounting one’s first day of high — school, then, will invariably include cognitive distortions but should be fairly benign. One should also be able to relay how long ago this occurred, and feel secure that X time has passed.
When I remember eighth grade, on the other hand, I feel shame. Intense, overwhelming, can’t — see— can’t — breathe— crawling — out — of — my — skin — want — to — shrink — into — the — earth —shame. I am thirteen years old ago. I am excruciatingly uncomfortable. I have the visceral impulse to claw at my stomach and bite the insides of my cheeks to the point of drawing blood. I want to punch the wall.
I can’t describe what happened on my first day of high — school, or on any other day for that entire year. Not because it was bad, per — say, but because by then my entire identity was rooted in self — loathing.
“Episodic memory differs from other forms of memory in that its operations require a self. It is the self that engages in the mental activity that is referred to as mental time travel: there can be no travel without a traveler.”
Research shows that our senses of self are shaped by our environments. In early childhood, our amygdalae — the part of the brain that feels fear and assesses threat — functions immediately, whereas our hippocampus, which puts danger into spatial context, develops as we age.
Regular abuse or neglect influence the maturation of the hippocampus and the left cerebral cortex, and chronic fear alters the integration of sensory input.
A consistently abused child (or one who was raised by an extremely anxious caregiver) will struggle to self — regulate, and is vulnerable to (mis)diagnosis of a wide spectrum of cognitive, emotional, and behavioural disorders. All of this impacts who we feel we are.
Traumatized adults remember childhood and adolescence differently than our peers. Rather than something that happened “then,” those of us with unstable or shame — based identities will struggle to feel that time has passed.
We aren’t refined “travelers,” so to mentally time travel becomes a convoluted process of discerning what is over, what is not, and who we’ve been throughout. Researchers call the phenomenon of not being able to remember specific moments from one’s past “overgeneralized autobiographical memory.”
Instead of recalling our first days of high — school, we may simply know that we felt terrible. Re — imagining that day in the present, which in my case was over 18 years ago, feels equally so.
While trauma survivors may be impaired in memories of daily life, our memories of traumatic material are good — too good. The emotion — superiority effect demonstrates that emotional arousal enhances encoding and forms highly accessible long — term memories.
Specifically, distressing stimuli is remembered with extreme sharpness even if we can’t explain it. This produces seemingly contradictory phenomena: memory intensification of a strong stimulus and amnesia or near — amnesia around what happened before and after.
Explanations for this revolve around the amygdala — hippocampus relationship. Some posit that intense stimuli (getting attacked, for example) triggers the amygdala into its highest level of emotional arousal. In this state, the amygdala suppresses normal hippocampus activity and becomes the exclusive locus of consolidation for the traumatic memory.
For some, the trauma is so overwhelming that it can’t be integrated into one’s autobiographical memory at all. Instead, it resides in the body without context, re — emerging with hyper phenomenological clarity through intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares.
For complex trauma survivors, these same mechanisms are at play. The distinction is that the attentional biases for trauma — related stimuli that everyone with PTSD exhibits are heightened even more.
We are too attuned to triggering stimuli, and we may overgeneralize from traumatic cues to unrelated neutral ones in both past and present.
This means that we struggle to remember any good in our lives or feel joy in the present, in part because we live with uncontrollable hyper — arousal, dissociation, re — experiencing, dysregulation and emotional numbing, all of which may be are labelled erroneously as highly stigmatized mental illnesses, and also because have learned that safety requires always being on guard.
The cumulative toll of unpredictable stress can lead to disorientation; sensations heightened non — consensually but actual events obscured.
The implications of this for one’s sense of self is significant. “Modern” thought literally begins with the self, and while western individualism is contestable, the capacity for self — awareness is nonetheless a salient criterion for personhood.
Without a constant identity, time is also moot. Intellectually I know I’m not the nervous seven year — old who was teased mercilessly for her weight, the bulimic sixteen year — old who got into physical altercations with her Mother over which food belonged to who and who had the right to do what with it, and the desperate nineteen year — old who stole to support her crack cocaine addiction.
When I remember who I’ve been, however, I feel both the same and as though those versions of me didn’t exist at all.
Time is staccato, an onslaught of karate chops — rape! pow! waking up in an alleyway! pow! getting into trouble as a four year old for stealing another girl’s cupcake! pow! flying to England to start a PhD! Pow! Coming — to five weeks later! pow! — that has no meaning beyond the revulsion it induces.
Documenting my experiences helps, but doing so doesn’t negate the dual over — attachment/dis — attachment I have with multiple, conflicting identities.
So what is to be done?
There is no one treatment for complex trauma. For many years, the “gold standards” in psychotherapy fell under the broad category of cognitive behavioural therapies (CBT), which “focus on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours” and encourage the patient to change all of the above to “enhance” their functionality.
For some people, CBT works. Given what we now know about complex trauma, though — namely, that it lives in the body and profoundly alters not just brain structures but one’s entire nervous system— focusing solely on mind — related activities may not be sufficient.
For those of us who need more than CBT, or for whom CBT is actively oppressive, body — focused therapies may be more appropriate. “Sensory motor arousal regulation therapy (SMART), an intervention for chronically abused children, for instance, “aims to enhance sensory motor engagement and promote affective, behavioral and physiological regulation using somatic regulation and sensory integration techniques.” Put simply, it is a body — oriented therapy that encourages kids to feel their bodies (and the emotions that come with it) to “re – wire” their nervous systems. Preliminary evidence suggests that it may be effective, but further research is needed.
For adults, somatic (meaning “of the body”) experiencing has performed well in limited clinical trials. It was developed by Dr. Peter Levine after he observed that prey animals are constantly under threat of death, yet show no symptoms of trauma.
He concluded that animals are able to recover by physically releasing the energy they accumulate during stressful events, whereas humans are trained to repress our self — regulation instincts and act as though we’re fine.
When the full expression of one’s fight, flight, or freeze response is thwarted, the body responds as if being attacked. Somatic experiencing offers a framework to release this stored energy by facilitating the completion of self-protective motor responses.
It does so by accessing bodily memories, not the stories we tell about them. The idea is that by sensing one’s way through, the patient will discharge stored shock and more adeptly handle stress.
Somatic — based treatments may be appropriate for complex trauma. The catch, though, is that in order for them to work one must have left the traumatic environment. And for those whose trauma wasn’t confined to an abusive household or relationship, that’s easier said than done.
The trauma of poverty, for example, can’t be overcome unless one is financially stable.
Scrambling to eat, stay sheltered, and afford basic necessities (while contending with the stigma of being visibly poor) isn’t conducive to healing.
Neither is structural racism and the micro — aggressions that accompany it, nor is the omnipresent threat of violence that some trans people live with.
Complex trauma is just that — complex, and while not a binary category (one either has it or they don’t), those who definitely do have it need it to abate.
The personal consequences of this are that I can’t trust a therapist who isn’t committed to social justice, both in and out of session. Wellness is political, and if a practitioner assumes their work concludes after 60 minutes I will likely not feel safe. Fortunately I have found someone great (who I can currently afford), and my identity is clearer.
My memory and processing issues haven’t gone away, but understanding them makes them feel more manageable.
Hopefully this has offered some insight into why you may be contending with the same.
Nicole M. Luongo
Author. Academic. Mad Woman | I write at the intersections of drug policy, housing justice, and medicine. Memoir coming Spring 2021 (Inanna Publications)