The turbulence of healing: A glimpse at trauma through the lens of time

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 - 5:12pm

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Cara Jhang

It’s only been six days since the first coronavirus cases were reported in Michigan, but it feels like an eternity has passed. My heart sinks every time I see another student moving out of their dorm, lugging mattress pads and portable fans across the street to waiting cars. I’ve temporarily moved back home myself and visited Ann Arbor earlier this week to see a ghost town. Empty parking spots were scattered all along South University that should’ve been filled with cars at 1 p.m. on a Monday. I think back to the frenzy of the Bernie rally in the Diag last Sunday, or the dread with which I returned to classes after spring break, and wish my life still looked like that.

Amid all the adjustment, I do recognize my privileges; I have a loving family to return home to and wonderful friends to support me. Even so, it’s important to recognize that the emotions students are feeling during this turbulent time are valid. Social distancing can feel isolating and virtual platforms are sometimes a poor substitute. I’ve already been invited to two “FaceTime parties,” neither of which I participated in, suspecting they would instead be more endless conversations about the coronavirus. I’ll talk, but about anything other than that.

One common thread of advice I’ve gotten from my friends and mentors is that “everything will be OK.” “We’ll get through this,” my professor said during my first BlueJeans class on Monday. Which made me wonder, is the passage of time enough for us to overcome the events of the last couple of months? From an infectious disease standpoint, yes, though projections from the Center for Disease Control show that the spread of coronavirus will probably get worse before it gets better. But from a healing perspective, how long will it take to throw off the emotional baggage coronavirus has brought to communities? How long before the xenophobia and paranoia die down? 

Which brings me to my central question: Does time heal trauma? After this crisis has blown over, I believe we will be able to safely say the coronavirus classifies as a form of community trauma. This pandemic has the potential to inform the way we see the world for decades to come. As much as we like to believe otherwise, healing involves much more than just the passing of time.

Part of the reason time can’t “cure” healing is that healing has an incredibly fluid definition to begin with — a simple Google search will show you as much. I constantly hear from friends and family that “time numbs pain.” Before writing this, I’d assumed that the passage of time almost informed healing and was an integral part of it. Recognizing my gaps of knowledge in the field of healing, I caught up with two experts to hear their insights.

“Healing is to never forget what has happened,” said Laura Monschau, an embedded psychologist with Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School. Monschau has served as a psychologist at the University for over 20 years, including seven spent at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC). “The healing journey is both how to put a foot into the past and feel what was unendurable at the time, and also bring it forward into the future,” Monschau said. 

Listening to Monschau made me realize I’d always thought of healing as a necessary step, an inevitable hurdle to be crossed, instead of an ongoing way to incorporate trauma into my being. In Monschau’s view, healing is less an endpoint and more a lifelong process. Trauma patients rarely feel as though they are suddenly healed. This feeling is universal — we can be reminded of our past at any moment, and thus have to learn to live with it, accepting it as a part of us and shaping our life around it. 

Monschau draws many of her perspectives from Judith Herman, a feminist and social justice-oriented psychologist who’s 1992 book “Trauma and Recovery” offers a three-tiered view of healing. Herman’s last stage involves integrating the trauma into one’s being and moving forward. If this isn’t realized, no amount of time will help. 

Barbara Niess-May, executive director of SafeHouse, a sexual assault and domestic abuse shelter in Ann Arbor, thinks of healing in a different light. “First, survivors need to be safe,” Niess-May said. For some, this safety can be hard to come by. SafeHouse handles over 6,000 cases of sexual and domestic abuse every year, and often the most difficult leap is making survivors feel secure while understanding that safety won’t necessarily assuage their memories. 

“When they’re ready to talk about it, people don’t believe them,” Niess-May said. The #MeToo era has helped in this respect, and as more women feel comfortable bringing their allegations forward, campaigns like Start by Believing urge us to listen to survivors rather than doubt their stories. 

Regardless of what healing constitutes, both Monschau and Niess-May agree that time isn’t the end-all cure. Time has the capacity to change the way we see events — for example, that breakup two years ago probably doesn’t have the same sting now as it did then — but rarely is it the solution. According to a 2016 study by psychologists at Arizona State University, creating expectations for when someone should be “healed” is usually not helpful and a poor heuristic to follow. Monschau stressed the importance of honoring everyone’s “trajectories of resilience” in their individual journey toward healing. “It can’t be rushed,” Monschau said. “It’s a lifetime journey of reintegration.” 

Time can also alter the way we see traumatic events by drawing us out of linear time. We’ve been trained to think of time in a linear sense, progressing from one scheduled event to another, morning to night, but a trauma-riddled brain doesn’t see events as a continuous string. “There’s a liminality to time. You can feel like you’re in linear, everyday time, and suddenly you’re pulled,” Monschau said. Remembering a traumatic event can make time slow down, and this transitory time can make us feel like we’re not in the past or present, but somewhere in-between. Think back to a pivotal moment in your life, and chances are you remember it in bursts of memory. In a car crash last summer, I remember the crunching sound of metal and the feeling of my heart dropping somewhere beyond my stomach, but my memories of immediately before and after the crash are hazy. 

This pull away from linear time isn’t exclusive to the traumatic event alone. Superficial everyday events can serve as triggers and remind us of our trauma. Niess-May believes this is especially damaging for survivors. “Your brain can train you to think normal situations are dangerous,” said Niess-May. Niess-May has worked with many survivors over her near two decades as SafeHouse Executive Director, some who remember sensory details like the song that played in the background during their assault, even years later.

Niess-May, a survivor of sexual assault herself, is still reminded of the life-changing event 30 years later. “There are days when I feel like I’m good,” Niess-May said, “But other days when I’m like wow, that really reminded me of what happened.”

If time doesn’t necessarily facilitate healing, I wondered if the opposite was true: Could time hurt the healing process? Maybe. In extreme cases, Monschau said, “... time can almost seal the trauma in.” Unable to cope with trauma in their past, people may get stuck in a repetitive cycle of remembrance sometimes linked to social isolation. More commonly, trauma may remain underground while life flies by, but reappear suddenly and intensely. In this way, time can give you the false illusion of forgetting while never truly letting you escape. Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be manifestations of this trauma kinesthetically locked in the body, like a caged animal unable to escape. It’s less about diverting your attention until the trauma doesn’t hit with the same ferocity and more about understanding that the trauma may never completely leave you.

Just as trauma has a tendency to linger, the intimate process of healing may last a lifetime. Throughout their long careers, Niess-May and Monschau recall patients who thought they were healed, but came back years later to seek help again, realizing they still weren’t in a comfortable place. “Healing is both beautiful and anguishing,” Monschau said. Though the process itself can be debilitating and difficult, there’s beauty in seeking help and building yourself up after being torn down. Just like the enthralling wonder in an uncontrolled fire, healing can feel like your world is burning around you, but in a wonderful way. “There’s potency in healing in that liminality. It’s not to be feared,” Monschau said. 

Even if you haven’t experienced significant trauma in your life, there’s still plenty you can do to help others in their personal journeys. Avoid judging someone for seeking or not seeking therapy, and understand that the decision to seek help can be incredibly challenging. It’s more than just talking to someone, it’s acknowledging that something is wrong in the first place and feeling comfortable enough to open that jar of wounds. Honor the humanity we all share as part of the same species, surrounded by the same earth, co-existing on the same soil and water under the same blue sky. If someone opens up to you about their trauma, be an active listener instead of interjecting with what you think is best. Operate on their time, not yours. Niess-May believes that the single most significant step to start healing from assault is being believed. “If someone is in front of you and telling you what’s going on, believe them,” Niess-May said.

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that everything will be OK, because it might not ever be, and that’s perfectly OK in its own right. The idea of closure is attractive, but not everything comes to a calming end. There’s grace in just letting things be. Gather the ebb and flow of life in your arms and ride the crashing waves.