Looking Ahead

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I don’t know to whom I need to attribute this image.  It’s one of those images that gets passed around Facebook and Pinterest, and everyone LIKES it.  It feels inspirational.  It seems like something one might hear at a political rally or in a stump speech.  There’s a reason, however, why this image and its embedded statement move people.  There’s a reason why people who have been traumatized or profoundly wounded read this and feel…weird.  Perhaps excluded.  Like something about the idea of having a vision and future doesn’t really apply to them.  It feels like a romantic or fanciful notion that Anthony Robbins preaches to extort money from emotionally impoverished people who are easily manipulated.  A vision.  P’shaw.

But, if you have been victimized in your life, then sit back and try imagining where you might be in five years.  Ten years.  Twenty.  Can you do it? Can you see yourself accomplishing what you’ve always wanted? Can you financially plan for it? Are you able to imagine your own future? In color?

I can’t.

I know some people who can.  I’ve met people who really get into the whole Let’s-Write-Down-Our-Dreams-For-Our-Lives thing.  They really bond over talking about the future and their vision of it for themselves.  They are, in fact, visionaries.  They love “dream” talk, and they love listening to motivational speakers who are very future-minded.  Their eyes are always on the horizon.  I wish I were like this.  I’ve never been able to conceptualize the idea of The Future.  I thought I was just strange.  I ran away from the motivational speakers in high school.  I avoided all discussions of the future aside from what could be done in the now.  I didn’t know why I was like this.

I do now.

It’s called a sense of a foreshortened future.  I’ve written about this before, but it’s a topic that’s important to discuss because it impacts every area of our lives.  It’s a lesser known symptom of PTSD.  Why? Because acute symptoms of PTSD involve hypervigilance, startling easily, nightmares, and flashbacks.  Once those symptoms fade people often think that their PTSD is healed or in remission, but what about this sense of a foreshortened future? That doesn’t really describe an acute symptom of PTSD, does it? No, not really.  How does something like this develop? Well, think about trauma and how we cope.  We are exposed to something that our body and brain view as a threat to our survival.  When we are trying to survive we are only concerned with the moment.  We no longer think of the future.  We no longer plan.  There is no point to planning beyond the next few moments because the point to surviving is living through this present danger.  The nature of PTSD is that we are fooled into believing that we are still stuck in a dangerous situation.  Our ability to plan or even look ahead is disabled.  How does this manifest in real time?

I can only speak for myself really without citing academic articles.  My plan during adolescence was to get away.  I had to survive high school and go to college so I developed tunnel vision.  I stopped encoding a lot to memory during my teen years simply because I had my eyes on one goal–get away.  Far, far away.  I had to work my ass off to earn a scholarship and leave everyone behind.  I have only vague memories of high school all of which are mostly unpleasant.  I do remember the violence in my home.  I remember the trauma.  That’s in Technicolor.  That’s what motivated me to work.  My time in captivity is almost in black and white.  The days just blur into each other.  Even then though I knew I had to get away.  I was, of course, terrified, but I was almost equally pissed off that I had worked so hard to get away from the horrors of my family of origin only to end up with a human trafficker.  I wasn’t going to go out like that.  I had to go to college.  That was my goal.  That was my vision.  College.  I had earned it.  That’s what helped me overcome my paralyzing fear in captivity.  I was, I guess, sort of pissed off that I was being kept from reaching my goal.

When I did finally graduate from college I stopped functioning well.  I did not know why.  For years, I never understood myself.  I had done extraordinarily well in college.  Many doors opened up for me in the academy.  What was wrong with me then?

Well, due to a sense of a foreshortened future I had only ever been able to see my future as far as college graduation.  I never believed I would live beyond that.  I could not plan for or envision my life beyond Graduation Day; hence, the existential crisis that followed.  I was not able to manage money.  I was not able to feel grounded.  I was anxious all the time.  I was not able to practice self-care beyond what an adolescent might do.  I was flaky, self-absorbed, and extremely insecure simply because I lacked ontological anchoring.  When you believe that your life really has no future, co-morbid disorders crop up as well like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  Anxiety disorders are common where there is a sense of a foreshortened future particularly OCD because a need to be in control of, well, something is so necessary.  The more control one can have the better.  I used to have OCD to the point that I couldn’t leave the house unless all the tassels on all the area rugs in my house were perfectly parallel to each other.  I would not be able to sit still or focus on anything unless they were perfectly straight.  If there was visible dust on anything in my house, I would feel panic.  If there were crumbs in between the couch cushions, I would panic.  If the top sheet on my bed was not put on just the right way, I couldn’t sleep in my bed.  I would wake my husband up just to fix it.  I drove myself crazy trying to keep something in my world orderly because I had no sense of control anywhere else.

Eventually, I just fell apart.  I didn’t want my daughters to follow in my footsteps so I began dealing with my OCD issues by leaving the tassels on the rug askew.  It was like being tortured.  I made myself only dust once a week as opposed to daily.  Panic! I wouldn’t allow myself to even look in between the couch cushions except on Fridays.  Only then could I vacuum.  And, I’m not allowed to wake up my husband to adjust the sheets.  I just have to live with it.  Oh, the pain! But, I did it.  I even leave crumbs on the carpet now…for a few days! Victory is mine! This triumph over my anxiety has come, however, with addressing my lack of vision about my own future.

I still can’t see or envision having a future, but now I know why.  And, I know that it’s reasonable.  I survived a murderous psychopath who not only tried to sell me but also threatened to kill me! More than that, I tricked him and got away! And then there’s my family of origin…

We have to give ourselves credit for all that we’ve overcome to get where we are.  We are going to be scarred.  I may not be able to envision my own future, but I have people in my life who can.  This is what love means.  We find those people and ask them what they see in our futures.  We ask them to be seers for us.  Dream for us.  Think big for us because our imaginations are too small where our own lives are concerned.  I can see to the top of Mt. Everest for so many people.  I can see all the way to the bottom of the Marianas Trench even, but, when it comes to my own future, I get stuck.  I look in the mirror sometimes and I see the words scrawled above my head, “The girl who got away.”  Even I know that this is not good enough.  It’s an identity rooted in the past, but my brain’s been traumatized.  I need help sometimes.

For you, it’s okay if you need help, too.  It’s completely normal if you can’t see your own horizon or even the next few steps that everyone else can see except you.  It doesn’t mean that you’re weird or stupid or an outsider.  It just means that your brain developed differently because you were wounded along the way.  You experience time differently than others whose brains weren’t exposed to trauma.  It also means that it’s important that we ask our trusted allies for help in this area because we do need vision in life.  We need to know in our knowers that just because we can’t discern a future or dream a big dream or hold tight to a big, fat vision doesn’t mean that one or two or five don’t exist for us.  It just means that we haven’t crossed that threshold yet, but we just might.  And until then, keep asking the people who love you what their dreams for your life are because the last thing we want is to be rooted to our pasts particularly when our futures are quite possibly so good.

‘For I know what plans I have in mind for you,’ says Adonai, ‘plans for well-being, not for bad things; so that you can have hope and a future.’  Jeremiah 29:11

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12 thoughts on “Looking Ahead

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I know exactly what you mean–I recall often having friends who talked about their five-year plans and they would ask me about mine, but I really couldn’t fathom that either. That meme does leave me kind of cold. My brain developed from daily survival through insecurity, instability and trauma. I try to remind myself that’s not my life anymore and be able to see things as more long-term and safe, but of course that’s difficult. I also spent a long, long time getting away, from my family of origin, but surely I’m away now, so I hope I can cement that reality more and just have each day as a replay of life-long issues, fears, insecurities. Your suggestion of not remaining all alone in that quest is a sound one.

    • Thanks for sharing this, PS. For me, I have noticed that if I can imagine a plan for someone else, then it tells me that imagining a future is possible. I think that this comes down to neurogenesis in the hippocampus and new memories getting encoded. For years, scientists believed that the neurons you were born with were it. Now we know that we grow them until we die, and this makes me so happy. We can leave our environments, choose new ones, and then learn how to think differently. I think that with help from people who truly love us as well as help from truly gifted clinicians, we can learn to look ahead and plan for ourselves.

  2. Love this! I didn’t realize that I stopped dreaming until a few years ago. I stopped planning. My plans never worked out anyway, so why plan? But I do think some of that is actually PTSD on some level. I would like to begin to dream again. I think I have in some ways, but not in certain areas and that’s an area where I would love to see more healing. Thank you for sharing this!

    xoxo

      • I don’t think it’s entirely bad, I’m learning to be present much more. I’m enjoying my daily life more because I’m not worrying about the future- I just have no idea what it looks like. But, I wish I didn’t EXPECT bad things to happen, I wish I didn’t expect to be disappointed with life’s happenings. For example- both our cars broke down yesterday. What the heck! Then our little one came down with some vomiting thing- barfing allllll night long. However- the improvement is that I don’t worry like I used to- I know God will take care of the things I can’t.

        • OUCH!!!! Well, that’s just a bad day! It helps to know that we all have those. And, they pass. But, I know what you mean about expecting bad things to happen. When something good happens, I’m often shocked.

          • Yeah, for real!!! Sheesh. It was almost comical. My car started clunking and then just rolled to a stop ON THE FREEWAY! Thank God I was able to restart it and move to the side of the road. DD was hungry and began to have a meltdown. Of course I had no snacks in the car, so attempted to order a pizza because I knew it would take a while flr the two truck to arrive. Apparently they aren’t allowed to deliver on the freeway due to liability. So a friend graciously brought us food. Now I’m just praying it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to fix both cars! I can see our tax return slipping through my fingers…
            Regarding expecting things to happen- I wonder if it’s bad because some Christians say that we must expect good in order for God to provide those good things to happen. As if he is a genie in a bottle or a god we must prove our faith to. I don’t agree with that because I believe that God is god all the time. Some people say if you expect bad things, you will receive bad things… I’m not sure I believe that either.

          • If you expect bad things, then bad things will happen? That sounds like superstition. Reduce it to a human experience. My children have a certain expectation of me on a daily basis. Come Christmas time, they expect certain things, too. Some kids are big askers, and others don’t ask for much. So, by the premise that you’ve introduced, the child that expects little receives little because my ability to choose how to treat my child is dependent upon their ability to expect good things from me. But, that’s not the case. I am a separate entity from my child and can do whatever I want. My behavior and choices are not predetermined by what my child does or how little or how great they expect from me. In fact, love would say that a child who can’t trust–because what you are talking about is a trust issue–needs to be consistently loved and provided for. Their expectations of ill treatment must be proven wrong. They must know that regardless of how they behave or their inability to anticipate or predict positive outcomes in no way affects their caregivers ability to love, care for, and provide for them far and above what they could hope to receive.

            If this is possible for human beings, then how much more is inherent in the nature of God? Perfect love casts out all fear because fear has to do with punishment. When we come from trauma, neglect, and environments wherein we were blamed for someone else’s negative behavior and mistreatment, we don’t learn to trust and believe in the goodness of others. We, therefore, need to experience love and kindness consistently that is given to us not because we earned it, but because the person giving it to us is loving. That’s the job of a parent. Parents love their kids because parents are loving. Not because their kids are always lovable. This is how kids learn self-esteem, self-regulation, containment, empathy, and trust.

            So, for Christians to apply their own faulty understanding of their own human nature to God is predictable but wrong. God is nothing like us. And, you’re not wrong to have issues believing that your future could be good. You’re learning resiliency meaning that you can be okay even if your circumstances are tough. Formula Faith is a lot like superstition. It might make us feel okay in the beginning, but when life gets hard it provides very little real consolation.

  3. That’s exactly what I was thinking. I want to expect good things to happen, I just don’t automatically. But there is some shame in that because of that idea that I must believe good will happen or else it won’t. You write that out nicely and I can see now that my thinking is askew!

    • I am trying to think of how the idea that our behavior determines God’s behavior found its way into the church. Is there some Bible verse or something that was misinterpreted? Is this bent view trickling down from the Prosperity Gospel? Is this view rooted in Malachi wherein it says to test God? In the end, we only need to look John 3:16. God loved the world. The world did not love Him in return. God’s movement toward us is always intentional and originates in Himself. It is not reactionary in any way. And how we respond to God often originates in Him as well. We are just led and gifted to respond as we do or we would be stumbling around in darkness. So, the idea is that God is a source…for everyone. Scripture is clear that everyone, even those who hate, experience the goodness of God. That’s the opposite of formulaic. That makes God someone who loves for the pleasure of it which can then give us peace because He really the unconditional lover. He loves us all the time because He is loving. Not because we are lovable. And not being lovable has nothing to do with worth, and many Christians confuse this. They say things like, “God loves me even though I’m not worth it. I don’t deserve it.” That is a false statement. We are worthwhile and deserving of goodness and love in our lives. Not being lovable, however, is a very true statement. Just look at a toddler in the midst of a tantrum, foaming at the mouth, and throwing things. Uh…not a very lovable moment, but you still love them. A tantrum is just a behavior. Not a worth issue. So it is with the rest of us.

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