Portkeys to Trauma

The Navy Yard massacre is likely to be a portkey to trauma for many veterans suffering from combat-related PTSD. I use the term "portkey," which I borrowed from Harry Potter, to capture the profound impact of a traumatic loss on my own 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. One can barely imagine the horrors to which events like the Navy Yard massacre return sufferers from combat-related trauma. 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 perpetual return 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. I have long contended that such trauma can be enduringly borne, not in solitude, but in relationships of deep emotional understanding. In such relationships, we do not encourage the traumatized person to "get over it and move on." Instead, we dwell with him or her in his or her recurring emotional pain, so that he or she is not left unbearably alone in it. As Bob Dylan sang it mournfully in his album Modern Times, "I'll be with you when the deal goes down."

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