Memory, trauma, and the foreshortened future.

I’ve no recollection of how I stumbled across it but recently a piece in Glamour brought to my attention the notion of having a sense of foreshortened future, a trauma response in which (for example) “it can be hard to imagine growing old, getting married or having children, because you feel this overwhelming sense of negativity towards the future, and lack of trust in the fact that it will ever actually arrive”.

One phenomenological study (focusing in its specifics on torture) suggests that trauma “can lead to a loss of ‘trust’ or ‘confidence’ in the world”, and I got to thinking about some of the conversations I’ve had in therapy, where we’ve frequently used a trauma lens to look at my (unknowingly) having been autistic for several decades.

Certainly there’s room to argue that this experience was one of losing trust and confidence in the world around me, even as I lost trust and confidence in myself as that world deemed me an apparent failure and fuck-up. Diagnosis, in a very real way, while it helped dissolve the (misplaced) shame of the latter only served to accentuate the former.

Looking into that idea of the sense of a foreshortened future, I came across another study which, noting that trauma “has been associated with a tendency to remember past personal memories in a nonspecific, overgeneral way” “investigated whether such a bias also applies to projections of future personal events”. Interestingly, the study reports finding that trauma survivors “imagined fewer specific future events in response to positive, but not to negative, cues” than the non-traumatized and that “reduced memory specificity in response to positive cues was related to appraisals of foreshortened future”.

This struck me as interesting given my own discovery that I deal with severely-deficient autobiographical memory and in fact have wondered if my inability to fully engage in so-called “mental time travel” into the past might impact my capacity to project myself forward, too.

Reading the Glamour piece, I thought about how the reason I chose slowdog as my first-ever internet handle was because I’d always felt like my life somehow was “five-plus years behind where it was supposed to be”. This, of course, in some substantial way was because of my then-undiagnosed autism, but I also wonder to what extent my inability to mentally time travel played into it.

In truth, I am noticeably fatalistic about my own future, even setting aside and preceding the added weight of living through an almost-completely-unaddressed climate crisis (and let alone setting aside the ongoing global pandemic). My therapist and I discussed, at one point, passive suicidal ideation—not because I’ve any active interest in actually not living but because I’ve some degree of difficulty comprehending the path forward.

(I do not now, and have not for some time, believe that even a successful disability claim will keep me afloat in anything resembling a healthy, independent life. Whether this is a failure of imagination or, ironically, me managing to successfully mentally time travel into the correct projection of my present into my future…well, I guess we will see? It certainly fits with that study indicating traumatized people have a harder time imagining positive futures than negative ones.)

Whatever the case, I find the potential if not in fact likely interplay between autism, trauma, and memory deficiency interesting, and I think it’s mostly safe to say that “a sense of foreshortened future” neatly encapsulates something of my lifelong experience to date.