The Other Side of Reason – The grip of time

Involved in a bus accident that took the lives of six people, David Gibson has been battling through PTSD for over three years. In an effort to better understand himself and to communicate with others, he turned to writing. His first book was The Other Side of Reason: A Journal on PTSD. This column continues that text.

Can I be stronger than my past?
Where my future will have a chance.
Out of the night that covers me.
Looms but the horror of the darkness.
Another reminder that nothing is what it seems.
Silence that ended a nightmare. Forever.
If nothing else I want to scream, enough!
But my courage is only reserved for today.
The fine line, between a tight rope of legacy and pain.
Just another number like #76 and #7.
But unlike a number, a testament to the memory of better days.
A life lost from a family’s lasting embrace.
So to my tears fall without a trace.


I remember a time when my Dad and I were out on one of our great summer canoe adventures to La Verendrye Park. I was probably twelve at the time and I remember this beautiful creek we were paddling in, and during a stop I am looking down at the crystal clear water trickling over my hands. My Dad said to me, ‘son, our time together is like this creek, we can never touch the same water twice, because the water that has washed over your hands will never pass again’. To enjoy our time on this earth is precious, and the lesson my Dad taught me that day has been a part of me ever since.

But, as we all know, the predictability of life is never a sure thing, the adage that comes to mind is ‘Shit Happens’.  But what if you are not prepared or believe that this will ever happen to you? What then?

I always knew ‘we humans’ have a rather tenuous grip on the concept of time, but I never realized quite how tenuous it was until the accident happened four years ago. I always thought I knew how our minds perceive the past, present, and future. "Perceive" maybe isn't strong enough a word: our minds I truly found out construct the past, present, and future, and sometimes get it horribly wrong.

The bottom line is that memory is essential to constructing scenarios for ourselves in the future. We essentially store only bits and pieces of what happened—a smattering of impressions we weave together into what feels like a seamless life narrative.

When we retrieve a memory, we also rewrite it, so the time next we go to remember it, we don't retrieve the original memory but the last one we recollected. So, each time we tell a story, we embellish it, while remaining genuinely convinced of the veracity of our memories. The saying goes to confuse is human; to accept we confuse, divine.

But what happens then in the mind of someone who has experienced trauma? It seems that our memory becomes distorted because our brains react more strongly to the exception than to repetition.

The critical difference between a stressful but normal event and trauma is a feeling of helplessness to change the outcome.

Many people who feel powerless to change the outcome of events resort to “emotion focused” coping; they try to alter their emotional state instead of the circumstances giving rise to it. About one-third of traumatized people eventually turn to alcohol or drugs in a (usually ill-fated) search for relief. This coping behavior is often a prelude to developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

From my experience “there’s nothing ‘post’ about it.”  Living with PTSD is an active re-run of horror.

Failing to reset their equilibrium after a traumatic experience, people are prone to develop the cluster of symptoms that is diagnosed as PTSD. At the core of PTSD is the concept that the imprint of the traumatic event comes to dominate how people organize their lives. People with PTSD perceive most subsequent stressful life events in the light of their prior trauma. This focus on the past gradually robs their lives of meaning and pleasure.

What are we to make of the fractured nature of traumatic memories? Everyday run-of-the-mill memories are problematic as it is. Despite popular myth, the brain is not a camera, accurately capturing the snapshots of our life and then presenting them back to our consciousness without damage or bias. Memories of trauma, often repressed for years, re-emerge in fragments of bodily experience. They are often lacking details that we’d desire in order to fill in the narrative gaps befitting stories of horror and pain. My experience highlights the silent horror that lies at the heart of traumatic memory. Family and friends who walk alongside the traumatized need to be aquatinted with navigating such wordless landscapes.

How do we bare witness to trauma on a community level? How do we collectively support the ability of survivors and their families of traumatic experiences to retell stories that cannot be truly felt in words alone? When traumatic events grip a community, the open and receptive medium of inviting dialogue into the public space can be a powerful force to connect people and validate their shared grief.

How are we to forgive ourselves for doing nothing in the face of trauma? Is silence not an act of perpetuating the grip of time that trauma holds over people?

In a dark time the eye begins to see

-Theodore Roethke-

Until next time.