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 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