You awake to see a being standing by your bed, next to a whirling portal.
They tell you the portal can take you back in time to any point in your life, but that it will only travel back to the most painful and scary times in your life.
Most people would be unlikely to accept the invitation to step through. But it’s a door those of us with PTSD step through daily, whether or not we want to go.
Anyone who has PTSD knows that a memory can seem so far away for one person so far in the past, but for us it’s like it didn’t happen that long ago at all.
This came up recently when I was rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The series premiere episode involves Commander Benjamin Sisko meeting the beings who reside in the wormhole outside the station. These aliens exist outside of time, so for them everything’s happening at once, and they don’t understand linear time. He’s trying to explain it to them and they’re taking him back to the time when his wife died, saying “you live here, you exist here,” because his mind and heart were preoccupied with that memory.
With PTSD that’s really what it’s like. Some 10 or 20 years could have gone by and something triggers you, and you’re back there, you’re existing there, and especially with the way traumatized brains can work, you can constantly be ruminating without even having a trigger and we’re back there. The emotions based upon our perceptions of the moment can depend on how we relive it, how we react to it, but it definitely feels like we’re stuck there. In that way PTSD really is the worst type of time travel machine there is, because it doesn’t go back to the most interesting times we’ve had, it goes back to the most painful and sticky parts where we can’t even change the past, we just relive it and we deal with it.
But there are workarounds. One skill I learned in my DBT training was reminding myself of my present situation when I slip into a traumatic memory, such as seeing my mom rapid cycling through her different alters almost 5 years ago. When I fall back into the scariness of it I can remind myself that “I am Clayton, it is 2021, I live in Oregon, I am safe.” That helps me fix the time machine and bring me back into the present where I’m not in those emotions, I’m not in that scariness. That has helped when I revisit situations to also be able to see the events as an observer and not so quickly jump into the emotions. This is also the case for me with past life memories that are traumatic I wish I have several. Some of those memories of my spirit go back hundreds or thousands of years, and with certain triggers, can make it seem like I’m there even though it’s been a really really long time and in a different body.
It can also be difficult when certain smells trigger and memory like when I smell certain things in my house or at the doctor’s office that remind me of having chemotherapy which was difficult and traumatic. that’s when the school of reminding myself that I’m past that, and am safe and healthy, really helps ground me and to the present moment and feel lighter.
Another skill is to move my arms in such a way that I’m crossing them in front of my body as a visualize whatever the traumatic memory is and essentially train the corpus callosum to more effectively communicate that this is in the past and not a threat which also helps inform the amygdala which tends to get broken for us with PTSD.
For me it has also helped to, with the right people, talk about the events and reframe them in perhaps a humorous way or lighter way to take out the emotional charge from it that can be easier with time.
Of course that time machine is always there and there’s only so much we can do to keep it from going back to painful moments in our past. But with time it gets easier to revisit memories feeling stronger and more able to deal with them in a way that doesn’t so negatively affect our present moment.