Never Again!

A dramatic vignette shows how trauma alters our experience of time.

Posted Sep 10, 2012

I use the term portkey, which I borrowed from Harry Potter, to capture the profound impact of emotional trauma on our experience of time. Harry was a severely traumatized little boy, nearly killed by his parents’ murderer and left in the care of a family that mistreated him cruelly. He arose from the ashes of devastating trauma as a wizard in possession of wondrous magical powers, and yet never free from the original trauma, always under threat by his parents’ murderer. As a wizard, he encountered portkeys—objects that transported him instantly to other places, obliterating the duration ordinarily required for travel from one location to another. Portkeys to trauma return us again and again to an experience of traumatization. The experience of such portkeys fractures, and can even obliterate, our sense of unitary selfhood, of being continuous in time.

Trauma devastatingly disrupts the ordinary linearity and unity of our experience of time, our sense of stretching-along from the past to an open future. Experiences of emotional trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which we remain forever trapped, or to which we are condemned to be perpetually returned through the portkeys supplied by life’s slings and arrows. In the region of trauma all duration or stretching-along collapses, past becomes present, and future loses all meaning other than endless repetition. Trauma, in other words, is timeless. Further, because trauma so profoundly modifies our ordinary experience of time, the traumatized person quite literally lives in another kind of reality, completely different from the one that others inhabit. This felt differentness, in turn, contributes to the sense of alienation and estrangement from other human beings that typically haunts the traumatized person.

The relentless circling back to experiences of emotional trauma is ensured by the finiteness of our existence and the finiteness of all those whom we love. Trauma looms for all of us as an ever-present possibility. A recent conversation with a colleague about our respective experiences of portkeys to trauma reminded me of a dramatic example of traumatic temporality that I encountered when I was a young psychoanalyst practicing in New York City some three decades ago.  A man in his forties began his first consultation with me by explaining that he needed psychotherapy to help him decide whether or not to divorce his wife. Suddenly, and I don’t remember how this happened, a repressed memory of a trauma that this man had experienced when he was 5 years old sprang into his conscious experience, much as in the old Freud movies. His mother was terminally ill at the time, and he remembered seeing the unbearable sorrow in her face as she anticipated her death and never being able to see him again. Soon after recovering this traumatic memory, he told me that he had decided not to divorce his wife, because he could not bear the prospect of seeing that same look of sorrow in her face. After that one consultation, I never saw him again.

Copyright Robert Stolorow