Reflections on Trauma over an X-Axis
by Rachel Litchman
This essay will appear in New South, 10.2, in the coming months.
When I study calculus in eleventh grade, my math teacher tells me that a reflection of a function is a type of mathematical transformation. An x-axis can be a mirror, a divider between what was and now is.
Positives become negatives. Negatives become positives.
When I study physics in eleventh grade, I learn that a reflection of a body appears when light strikes the surface of a mirror. The body reflected exists in two states. One as light, the other as skin.
A physical representation of dissociation (separation of the self).
I think of traumatic memory like a reflection on top of water. There is the image on the surface, the static photo. And then there is an emotion moving above or beneath it, the small waves from currents, a fish threatening to resurface, a man on a boat who comes and dips his rod into the water, shatters the still life.
A variable used to stand in place for an unknown value.
In sixth grade, my math teacher used the chalkboard in the back of the classroom to write down word problems. She gave us homework sheets that asked if you have 64 fish in a pond and there are triple the amount of blue fish as there are yellow fish, how many of each type of fish do you have?
I answered in straightforward sentence. The solution to X is…
Three years after X, I read a book about the process of trauma recovery. In Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, she states, “Nowhere is it written that the recovery process must follow a linear, uninterrupted sequence.” What helps a survivor in one stage of recovery may inhibit a survivor in the next.
As in, the ways to approach X are always changing.
As in, to speak about X, my voice stops. I feel my tongue roll the words in my mouth, toss the dice, swallow all possible outcomes.
In physics class again, my teacher tells me that graphs are used to position two different variables perpendicular to each other. On an x/y plane, this might look like acceleration vs. time, velocity vs. momentum, sound vs. a closed door.
In calculus, my math teacher tells me that the graph of a function can be described either as continuous or discontinuous. Continuous functions are functions that can be drawn without lifting pencil from paper. Unbroken.
Discontinuous functions are functions where the hand lifts from the page and starts at a new point. Broken.
To fill in the spaces between discontinuities, mathematicians draw empty holes.
Even in math, what does not belong is given a place.
X is a discontinuity. An empty hole in normal memory.
To talk about approaching in terms of math, the word “asymptote” is used to describe a boundary that a function approaches but will never touch.
The asymptote can be approached on two sides. Like a person pressing a hand against a mirror but never quite being able to feel the body on the other side.
The thin line that separates.
After X, I went on 3-mile walks down a dirt road every day. In the winter, the trees creaked with cold, and the sun set behind a river. As I walked, a woman’s dog always barked at me from behind an invisible electric line.
It would leap at my body, try to snatch at my arms or legs.
It would never touch me. The electric fence separated me from the dog, but it also separated me from the woman who owned the dog. It also separated me from the house that owned the dog.
In a community that puts up its own electric lines, the body that is not untouchable becomes unapproachable.
In middle school, the teachers would always have to tell me “no running” down tile hallways.
At school, the twist and pop of combination locks, where books clattered and metal lockers slammed.
For my physics unit in fifth grade, I made a toy car out of the empty half of an egg carton, wheels from the red caps of McCormick Spice containers.
It raced as a vector down the hallway.
Graph paper of their own. For four weeks after X, I spent lunch recess placing one foot squarely in front of the other. I traced my hands along the peeling paint of hall murals, red paint flaked under my fingernails, fell like dried skin to tile floors.
A small breath between closed doors.
In eighth grade, my social studies teacher did an immigration simulation to start the year. She turned off the lights inside the classroom and we hid under desks.
We pretended we were in the hull of a wooden ship, approaching a new country in the distance. One month and we would arrive there, one week and we would arrive there, one day—
And when we reached land, we were turned away again. The immigration officers sent us back across seas.
Because of X, I didn’t go to school for a month. When I returned, people would ask me Where have you been?
I didn’t tell them.
I have been on a ship for many months.
I have entered a new country.
I have crossed a foreign sea.
In our basement, the tile floors always fill with rainwater. The flood begins with water seeping in through the cracks under the stairwell, then crawling across the entire floor and filling the room with water two inches deep.
The water always finds a way through the cracks no matter how many towels we put in front of the stairwell.
In physics, the force of water is stronger than the force of the dam that blocks it.
In trauma therapy, a recovery method used to directly expose patients to traumatic memory is called “flooding.” In the flooding process, patients undergo a controlled reliving of their trauma by writing and speaking the memory. Patient and therapist write a “script” of the event in detail, narrating a scene from start to finish.
The act of reciting the script out loud helps desensitizes the traumatic memory.
In other words, the act of speaking is the dam in the river breaking.
Where words are water.
In physics, time is usually the variable running along the x-axis. It is neither static nor constant.
The finite speed of light is 186,000 mi/sec. So fast you can’t see it in motion, only when it’s there.
Takes a new shape. Where the future used to be projected into a landscape months or years away, the future after X narrows its walls into a small hole around my body, cinches itself close to my waist.
Sometimes, it’s hard to breathe.
When X happens, it is the summer before eighth grade. The image of X is frozen, a still life on top of water. I look into the mirror on the back of my bedroom door and watch the way the beams of light reflect back on my skin.
There is a knock on the door.
A discontinuity begins.
In the section “X,” the quote “Nowhere is it written that the recovery process must follow a linear uninterrupted sequence” comes from page 174 of Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery.
In the section “Flooding,” the concept of writing the trauma “script” comes from page 182 of Trauma and Recovery.
Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence— From Domestic Abuse to
Political Terror. New York, NY, Basic Books, 1992.