The Nonconsensual Time Travel Of Trauma
By July Westhale
Recently, while listening too closely to an audio book of Donna Tartt reading her work The Secret History, I accidentally drove straight in a Left Turn Only lane. I’d been distracted by the cute lilt of her voice, the way she’d managed to make each character sound exactly the way I’d imagined them sounding each of the four times I’d read the novel.
Unfortunately, the California Highway Patrolman who pulled me over couldn’t be convinced of Donna Tartt’s charms. When the citation arrived a week later in the mail, I was so shocked at the $300 ticket that I dropped an entire bag of groceries and my thermos of freshly-made coffee onto the freshly-swept front porch of my house. The yogurt split open, and the hot coffee fell right into it, curdling it into the sickly mess I imagine my stomach to be every morning after breakfast.
I’d never gotten a ticket before — never a ticket I couldn’t wide-eye my way out of, anyway. I have a kind of dopey, doe-eyed face — big green eyes that make me look like the world is slowly dawning on me one watt at a time. It makes strangers think I’m naïve and absent-minded, and since it largely conceals my absolute disdain for authority, I rarely correct them.
The truth was, I couldn’t afford the $300 ticket — who could? I am a poet. My income is largely from the contract work I do for a patient advocacy nonprofit (sporadically throughout the school year), ghostwriting for a publishing company, and the occasional copy editing/journalism job. So I decided to fight the ticket, even though it meant driving to San Rafael and appearing in court.
I’d done everything I could to prepare for court — I wore dark, professional-looking clothes, I carried a manila envelope (which was actually empty, but gave me the look of having proof of exoneration, so I thought). I even wore a casual lip, more maroon than my typical vintage red. When I stepped into the courtroom at my 1:30 p.m. slot, I’d prepared for absolutely everything — except being in court.
A friend from the Midwest once told me that buildings in California have the bizarre appearance of being simultaneously stuck in the ’70s and oddly futuristic, a mash-up that manages to resemble no future, or present, that we know of. The courtroom, dressed in a variety of drab browns, sharp angles, and rectangular florescent lights, did seem to resemble a beige octagonal spaceship. If this had been television — and it did look like television, if the most epically boring space courtroom drama also took place in a portable classroom — then I’d have courageously and confidently walked up to the stand, delivered my sanctimonious statement of injustice, and been handed back the $300 I’d had to pre-pay, preferably in one-dollar bills that would look like the tears of working writers around the world.
Instead, this is life. Instead, I immediately felt my body freeze, my blood feeling as if it were slowly swelling up inside my skin. I couldn’t quell, nor understand, the sudden feelings of immobility and terror that overtook me, as I surveyed the judge, the bevy of police officers, and the 40 other working-class people who’d come to contest their tickets during my same time slot.
This is San Rafael, 2015, but suddenly it is Indio, Riverside County, 1994. The judge has the same face as any judge. The drone of names being called for attendance transcends decades, buzzing in a low vibration that makes me feel nauseous. I reach to hold onto something, but there only seems to be me, and I am floating somewhere above two of my bodies: the body of myself at age 8, and the body of myself at 28.
“Do you consent to living with this family?” The judge peers down at me. My aunt and uncle are not looking at me. My uncle, who never consented to anything, glares at the stucco on the ceiling above us. My aunt, I can tell, is silently praying, clutching her oversized handbag where she keeps her Marlboros.
My hand collides with the hard backing of a long bench, which elicits the simultaneous comfort and horror of a church pew. I am in Indio, but not. My adoptive parents are not in this room. The wood of the bench has collided my two bodies together so that I am now one person — one very terrified and blood-swollen person, but singular. The case is dismissed; the officer had failed to appear. As I shakily leave the courtroom and find my way back to my old blue pickup truck, I collapse inside the hot interior. I lay down for a good, long time before I am ready to drive home. I vow never to listen to audio-books while I drive again.
Do you know about EMDR? If not, it stands for Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing. There are a lot of things it does, but the big one, as I understand it, is this: it reroutes and reprocesses the way your brain responds to things, so that you no longer respond out of trauma-instinct, and instead can process events and situations with rationale and analysis. Like normal, non-traumatized people.
I began going to EMDR last winter, after my life began to become really, really amazing. Because after my life started to become really, really amazing, I began waking up in the middle of the night in terror, afraid, suddenly, of death. I’d be in a crowded room full of people, laughing and enjoying being present and then suddenly, be overcome with the dreadful thought that this was a memory already. I began to feel, even in daylight, that I was floating outside of my body, hanging around myself as if by the ribbon of a balloon.
But the middle-of-the-night terrors — those were horrifying. I’d often wake myself up sobbing, not understand why I was crying, only knowing that I was so scared, and so tired, and so tired of being scared. I began to be afraid of going to sleep, and then afraid of the dark, and then afraid of late afternoon. Only the brightest part of morning was safe.
This made perfect sense to my therapist — because she’s a genius and goddess of the world, apparently. So we set about working on changing the neuropathways of my brain to switch from chronic-trauma brain (the other shoe is always going to drop, always stay ahead of everyone else, trust no one, you are going to lose everything) to normative processing brain (it’s OK to have good things happen, take a deep breath, yes loss will happen but you can handle it, you can handle everything, here’s a plan).
“And then I just became terrified, frozen in place,” I tell her in a session, after the courthouse incident. “I’m grateful I didn’t have to speak, but I am worried about this . . . nonconsensual time-travel that happens when I get teleported back to traumatic events. It’s like ending up in Knockturn instead of Diagon Alley.”
(Note: I use Harry Potter metaphors ceaselessly when talking about trauma. I don’t know if J.K. Rowling knows how much her books made understanding trauma-brain easier for me, but I owe her some serious credit for the way I study brain patterns.)
My therapist has me envision both courtrooms, and my responses to each, while she pushes a button that vibrates the small, football-shaped buzzers in each of my hands. She asks me to think about the responses that come up for me, and to lean into them, even if they make me feel sick, or scared.
“What are you afraid of?” she asks.
“Voicelessness,” I say, thinking about the 8-year-old me who’d lost her parents, who had no say in where to go, who couldn’t even begin to understand what was happening to her. Thinking about the 28-year-old me who didn’t know she was walking into a wormhole when she decided to contest a traffic ticket.
Then she asks me to think about what I need in that moment, in order to feel like I was in control.
I think of my hometown. It is a small, orchard-lined town of about 6,000 people, mostly migrant workers. It is poor, and it is beautiful. There is a road where someone once told me R. Crumb used to live. It’s called Moody Slough, and it stretches out lazily past the creek bed, dry now, alongside the Agriculture Site where high school students raise pigs, and into the foothills. I used to drive my old Volkswagon, Lola, through the darkest part of night, to the end of Moody Slough, and cut the engine. Cut the lights. Open the doors that were nearly rusted shut, and drape myself across the hood, where thousands (it seemed) of frogs yelled into the night, in and out of sync, and the stars glared down as hard and glinting as a million knife points.
When I was a teenager, and my parents would kick me out, I’d often come here and sleep on the hood of my car, or in the fields themselves, until it got light enough to go to my 4 a.m. shift at the bait shop. When I go back to my hometown, I still drive to Moody Slough, and thank heavens it has survived the slow development that all of rural California eventually succumbs to.
My therapist has me transpose the two, and suddenly, I am back in the courtroom, surrounded by the same nameless people who are also fighting their tickets. I cut the engine of my body. The fluorescent lights have dimmed, and as I open my rusted self, every one of us begins to sing the terrible, loud, wild songs of frogs.