Billy Pilgrim, PTSD, and the art of time travel

“Those were vile people in both those cities, as is well known.  The world was better off without them.

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been.  But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

So she turned into a pillar of salt.  So it goes.”

~Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Billy Pilgrim.  I love that name, it says so much about who Billy is and what struggles he will be facing as the book tells his convoluted story.  Nothing is in sequence, and one event in the past may lead him back to his present, which may lead him into the future, or back deeper into the past.  I can relate to Billy because I, too, have been abducted by the very same aliens and been given the secret to time travel.  I feel a deep kinship with Billy because he too is:

“…spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun.  He is in a constant state of fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” (Vonnegut 23).

It is impossible to gauge what the trigger may be that will send me barreling head first into a part of my past.  It could be a smell, a word, a deja vu-type situation, or a song…anything can trip the trigger for time travel and the event is not always fun.  In fact, the precursor to the trip comes in the form of nausea, uncontrollable heart rate, rapid breathing, and a sense of living outside of the self.  The sensation is always the same, the destination, however, is always a surprise.

Scripture is very clear about time travel. It says emphatically not to do it.  Paul tells us that he lives by “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (ESV Php 3.13). I sincerely do not know how he managed to do that, I cannot help but allow the past to intrude in violent ways into the present.  I am not even in control of its obtrusiveness and, once it happens, am powerless to push it back into the confines of the past where it belongs.  It is a visitor who intends to stay for an undisclosed duration and will always bring with it an unwelcome parade of pain. Billy knows.  He understands. He has experienced the sensation time and again.  For example, after a simple conversation about the war, Billy:

“…got out of bed, said, ‘Excuse me,’ went into the darkness of the bathroom to take a leak.  He groped for the light, realized as he felt the rough walls that he had traveled back to 1944, to the prison hospital again” (Vonnegut 123).

The triggers, oh the triggers are something that can never be forecasted and nothing prepares the body for the pain that accompanies the trip.  It is all too real, terrifying, and inescapable.  The body is left to relive the pain, the emotions, and the trauma all over again in a delayed sequence.  See, the brain knows what is coming but the body, the body relives the sensations in a bold, vivid sequence that cannot be shut down once the trip begins.  Try as one might, all the screaming, crying, and inflicting pain on oneself will not bring back the present, nothing does.  There was a time when “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” and the hope remains that maybe, some day, those times will come again (Vonnegut 122).

It is not that I enjoy these unplanned trips through the past, reliving each painful moment as I land there in time and space.  I have tried desperately to forget how to time travel and learn to live moment by moment in the safety and security of the present.  I have seen numerous counselors in an attempt to gain the tools to control the intrusiveness of the past, yet to no avail because I have failed to recognize ALL the triggers that kick start time travel.  I think that Kilgore Trout was on to something with his story Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension because he knew instinctively that there are people:

“…whose mental diseases were all in the fourth dimension, and three-dimensional Earthling doctors couldn’t see those causes at all, or even imagine them” (Vonnegut 104).

This is because doctors have failed to recognized the truth that:

“…there really were vampires and werewolves and goblins and angels and so on, but that they were in the fourth dimension” (Vonnegut 104).

I know this is true because I have seen first hand these monsters and no amount of therapy has helped me to kill them.  They intrude at the most inopportune moments and exercise such a control that, some days, it seems impossible to send them back into the fourth dimension and finally be free.  But I am trying, ever so hard.

What helps when the sensations begin and yet another journey through time seems imminent, Scripture reminds me that what Kilgore Trout wrote about the fourth dimension is true:

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (ESV Eph 6.12).

This is not a battle that can be won under my own strength, the enemy is too strong for me.  Like Billy Pilgrim, it becomes extremely important to place a reminder of the battle where it can always be seen.  For Billy, he placed a framed prayer on his office wall to remind him how to keep going even though he was unenthusiastic about living (Vonnegut 60).  It is a simple verse, one that almost everyone knows:

“GOD GRANT ME THE

THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT

THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE,

COURAGE

TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN,

AND WISDOM ALWAYS

TO TELL THE

DIFFERENCE”

(Vonnegut 60)

However, when I read this prayer, I cannot help but feel like Billy in regard to its application because there are several things that I am powerless to change that are forever haunting me, that is the past, present, and future (Vonnegut 60).  When the demons come to drag me back to the past and all its terrors, I need to constantly put on the breastplate of truth that grounds me in the present and prevents the demons from dragging me to the fourth dimension.  The truth stands in the moment.  It revolves around who I am and how Christ sees me.  This needs to be a conscious, daily act because it is so easy to take off the breastplate, toss it aside, and have no idea that it has been removed, that is until they come, those voices of the past, and attempt to drag me back into their horrors.  This is the only effective means of combat I know.

Yesterday those demons staged a surprise attack and dragged me back in time.  I did not even realize I had discarded my armor.  I did not know my defenses were down and I was ripe for a trip to Hell.  Today I feel like the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five as I think about the pain I had to fight off:

“People aren’t supposed to look back.  I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.  I have finished my war book now.  The next one I write is going to be fun.  This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt” (Vonnegut 22).

I am a failure.  I am that pillar of salt.  Too many times I have promised myself I would not look back, that the past was the past and there was nothing left to think about but the present.  There are evil people that lurk in the past.  The towns I have escaped from have demons lurking around every corner and crouching for the kill in the dark places.  There is no need to go back, I know what lies there and some things are best left untouched. My armor is back in place and the breastplate of truth has been firmly fitted and tied down. For now. That is because I know I am a kin of Lot’s wife.  I know that there will come a time when I will look back, the sensations will begin, and I will take yet another trip through time…

Works Cited

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dell.  1991. Print.

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