Buddy, Got the Time?

When my eldest was in the sixth grade, I think it was, she introduced me to Tuck Everlasting, a short novel by Natalie Babbitt.  It is the story of a family, the Tucks, who drink from a spring of water that grants them immortality.  The book makes it clear that being outside the realm of time may not be as enviable a position as one might think.  In fact, I remember William Hurt, the father in the 2002 movie version of the book, saying something to the effect of “We Tucks just are.”

An eternal present tense, with a defined past, yet now with an undefined future, condemned to watch “real people” come and go, never able again to connect fully with them, lest year after year, decade after decade the pain of separation be repeated over and over and over.

I thought about that book, that quote as I was speaking this past week with one of the veterans I work with.  He’s brilliant, articulate, finally learning to trust himself again, maybe even to trust the world around him again, yet still suffering greatly from the war that he experienced firsthand.  He asked me point blank (and out of the blue, as I recall), “Will time ever be normal for me again?”

“As in how?” was the only response I could come up with.

“Well, when most folks reach my age, they talk about time ‘flying,’ with there never being enough time to get things done or to enjoy their kids or whatever.  For me, though, time is just, well, not.   I don’t know how else to put it.  It’s not as if things seem to move slowly or anything like that.  It’s just that I don’t experience the day to day as meaning much of anything.  Sure, I see my kids growing up.  I know it’s happening.  I know I’m getting older.  Yet somehow nothing seems to register like it once did.  I’m just here.  They’re just there.  Hopefully they’re going somewhere.  But I’m not.”

I was so taken by his self-assessment, its cogency–and its pathos–I could say nothing.

“But, you know,” he went on, “when I do make up mind to do a task, it’s just the opposite.  It’s as if everything is whirling around me, as if I’m moving faster than anyone or anything.  It’s push, push, push, and nothing seems to stop that need to press forward, more and more.  Is that what PTSD does to you, keeps you bouncing between no time and not enough time?”

I had to pause on that one.  In a way it felt right; in a way it didn’t.  He could have been Wiliam Hurt in that movie, after all, although he had drunk from a far more bitter cup than Mr. Tuck had.  Time is for him, or maybe better put, time can just be.

But that wasn’t all he was saying, and I knew it.  I finally came up with this.

“Many of you guys tell me that it feels as if you’re detached from everyone and everything, as if life’s going on in front of you, but you can’t be a part of it, no matter how hard you might try.  That I do believe is PTSD.”

“But I’m not so sure about the other.  In fact, the way you described it, that sounds like what a good military man or woman should do, in any situation, really:  keep the momentum going, never give up, don’t pause until the job is done.  Wasn’t it the case in the military that you were surrounded by others who felt that urgency as much as you do?”

Clearly he’d never considered that.  “You’re right” was all he could say.

“You know,” I went on, “it’s really important not to turn everything in your life into some sort of pathology.  You feel more intense and focused about everything you’re doing than anyone else around you because you are more intense and focused about everything you’re doing than anyone else is around you.  That’s what drove you into the military.  That’s why you were so successful in it.  And you were surrounded by men and women who were just like you.  In fact, had you never gone to combat, had you just retired after twenty-five some years of service, without a drop of PTSD in you, you’d have still been facing this same problem.  Civilians just don’t approach the world the way you guys do”

He smiled at that one.  “Maybe that’s why a lot of us drop dead soon after retirement?”

I do think it is important for us as professionals to point out quite adamantly to those whom we serve that combat veterans with PTSD suffer in civilian society not solely because of the symptoms of their neuropsychological illness (which PTSD most assuredly is).  To go back to the theme of the last several posts, they also suffer because they are warriors, with a warrior’s temperament–and a warrior’s awareness of time.

Many, if not most, victims of trauma (of all types) have very vivid memories of the traumatic event(s), memories that seem to stand outside the realm of time, taunting the victims with their ever-presence.  These persons recall details, chains of events with such intricacy, it seems as if the whole traumatic event must have lasted for minutes, hours even, rather than the few moments it really did.  That experience arises directly from the way traumatic events get embedded into the neurons.  They go for the limbic system, the emotional brain, the brain that doesn’t bother itself with trivialities such as time and logic, but rather immerses itself in experiences that grab us and won’t let us go.  In that way, combat veterans differ little from victims of other traumata.

Yet in no way are most civilian victims of trauma also warriors-in-spirit.  Warriors have an added burden to deal with:  they must return to a civilian world that never would have felt quite right to them.  They are burdened by their trauma; they are burdened by their essence.  A double whammy, back and forth, as in the words of my combat veteran patient, between “no time and not enough time.”

My point today is less about these painful experiences and more about how combat veterans come to understand them.  It turned out indeed to be helpful to my patient to be able to visualize himself, even if for a moment, as just another retired military, no big deal, completely clueless as to what to do in a world that doesn’t play the National Anthem twice a day.  For a moment, he felt normal, even if his “abnormalness” was the very source of his normality.

Combat veterans are not all-PTSD, folks, even the ones who suffer the most.  Never forget that within them is an energy that, if only released from war and directed into the world, can still be–should still be–labeled “good.”  Even if that “good” can be quite a burden itself to bear.

I need never forget that as well.

So, in retrospect it turned out that our hour together was indeed time well spent.  For both of us.

2 responses

  1. Falling out of sync with time might not necessarily coincide with all incidences of PTSD, but it might be more common than you think. Reading this reminded me a lot of Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (appropriately subtitled: ‘The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death’). It’s a semi-autobiographical account of how Vonnegut, as a know-nothing teenager, wound up a POW in Dresden during WWII before it was fire bombed and surviving that hell. Vonnegut’s alter ego in the book, Billy Pilgrim, comes ‘unstuck in time’, which means that his subjective apprehension of the world bounces forwards and backwards in time. He’ll be enjoying Thanksgiving dinner as an old man, then suddenly he’s transported back to the Ardennes running for his life, then bam he’s a boy on his father’s knee, then bam he’s wandering through the human and architectural ashes of Dresden after the bombing. On one level of consciousness, he’s always present in whatever moment he’s experiencing and he reacts as if it’s perfectly natural for him to be there then, but on another level (from which he narrates most of it), he’s watching himself fly through different episodes of his life, trying to make sense of it all. After reading some of Vonnegut’s other books (e.g. ‘Timequake’), you get the impression this isn’t some gimmick he came up with for literary purposes; he seems to have bounced around quite a bit in real life. Your client might enjoy ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ for its own sake, and maybe to know that he’s no freak. Some experiences are like black holes in time, sucking you back into them even when you’re physically doing something else somewhere else in another time, and he’s not the only one.

    • Johann,

      Thank you very much for this. I strongly suspect the veteran has read Vonnegut, so it’ll be interesting to talk with him about that. It’s been a while since I’ve read “Slaughterhouse Five,” and you’ve inspired me to go back to it! I’d never thought about the role of time in Vonnegut’s work. As you may or may not know, Vonnegut was an Indianapolis native (where I am from), so his spirit “looms large” in literary circles in this town. Although I have to say this: a quote was once posted on the Facebook account of my high schoul class. It’s Vonnegut at his best: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” No truer words have e’er been spoken.

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