How time feels different after a trauma

Salvatore asks: I have been facing this tiny problem that sometimes depresses me, so as I have come home from hostel to prepare for my 1st Professional, I thought of writing to you. I think too often about how quickly time flies…and it seems really abnormal due to: 1) how we all SCHOOL friends suddenly became UNIVERSITY going students, 2) how My mom’s 3rd death anniversary is this month though it feels like JUST yesterday she was among us, 3) one of my cousin got married last year, it feels so abnormal cuz we used to play together in our childhood (although she is 5 yrs older than me), and I always knew she was gonna get married way before me. But still it feels unreal how we all became adults from being just under 15 yrs old… It doesn’t feel normal that 4 yrs have passed since my Dad’s death and all the plants that he had planted in our lawn, are still ok and there… Why does time pass by so quickly… I can’t answer this question so could YOU help me understand if there is an abnormality with the time or with my way of processing things… I think in my brain I am standing at the same place I was 7,8 yrs ago while everyone around HAS changed.

Hi Salvatore –


I have to admit, I have a very poor sense of time. All dogs do. That’s why, when you’ve been gone from our house for two hours, we go nuts upon seeing you return – we have no idea how long you’ve been gone, and weren’t sure you were ever coming back!


When you’re young, you humans have a similar sense of time to ours. Remember when you were a little child and you couldn’t understand even the concept of it being a year till your next birthday, or how long a schoolday lasted? Well some of this is because, when you’re that young, a year (or a day) is such a big chunk of your life. But it’s also because your brain hasn’t fully developed. In fact, a sense of time is usually the last part of a human’s brain to develop in their adolescence (you might be finding that you’re more able to schedule your schoolwork now than you were a year or two ago; that’s why – your brain is actually more able to conceive of such things than it was. And far more so than mine will ever be. Isn’t that cool!).


So your sense of time would be changing at this age, no matter what.


Then there’s your recent transition. Starting a university life will change anyone’s sense of time’s movement – you move away from your old friends, and they stay the same in your mind, while their lives move on, they age, they change, etc.


But then there’s of course a far bigger reason for you, in particular, to be having this sort of confusion. And that’s the horrible experiences you went through over the past few years.


Some time back, I was in the back seat of a car that Handsome was driving, and he made a small mistake, and the car suddenly spun out of control across the highway, when we were going around 80 miles an hour (that’d be about 120 kilometers). It was amazing that neither of us was killed.


(Quick note here: the main reason I wasn’t killed was that Handsome had tied me to the car’s seatbelt with a harness he’d bought at a pet supply store. He and I urge all dog owners out there to please buy your darling one of these, and use it, especially if you’ll be driving at fast speeds. No one expects an accident, but if it happens, you sure want to only lose your car, and not your best friend too!)


Handsome tells me that we probably were spinning for something like two or three seconds. But that’s not what it feels like in my memory. I see the whole thing in blurred moments, spread out, as if it took maybe thirty seconds to a minute. When we’re going through a trauma, our brain messes with our sense of time.


And your trauma was way bigger than that car accident. So my guess is that part of you lost it’s usual sense of the passage of time for a year or more.


In other words, you have THREE reasons for time to be off.

The way I see it, imagine that the loss of your parents had been so shocking to you that you’d fallen into a coma for a couple of years. When you woke up, of course everything around you would have kept moving on and changing, but you wouldn’t have registered any of it.


Well I’m glad you didn’t go into that coma, but I think that, to a certain degree, this is just what happened to you.


And the good news, the very very VERY good news, is that you’re waking up. Not that you’ll ever stop grieving the loss of your parents, of course, but that you’re finally able to live in the present moment, in the way that you used to, and see all the changes. And experience them with a healthy dose of surprise: “What, my cousin’s getting married? That’s impossible, isn’t she eleven years old?!”


So here’s the funny part about this, Salvatore. Remember what I told you at the beginning about how dogs’ brains never develop the sense of time yours do? Well, because of that, I go through what you are every day. Life is always full of surprises. “What? Handsome made breakfast?!” “What? My friend is here for a visit?!” And, yes, “What?! Salvatore wrote me?!?!” It’s actually a great way to live.


So my thought for you is, although it’s a very good thing you’ve moved forward to this place, I sure hope you manage to keep a bit of that air of surprise. That you don’t fall into the trap so many people do of becoming cynical, bored, know-it-alls. “Oh it’s raining today, big deal.”


Or, to put it in my favorite way, my rule for a happy full life: If you’re not in awe, you’re just not paying attention.


So yes, it’s amazing your cousin grew up. And it’s amazing your friends have changed. And most of all, it’s amazing to me that you are you, and have survived all you have, and are moving forward in your astounding life.


Thank you so much for including me in it!



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