As an exercise, while you listen to the therapist help Brian construct his life timeline, please practice mapping Brian’s events on a piece of paper. The completed timeline will be provided as a reference at the end of this section.
Brian resumes cracking his knuckles. “What do we do for the life timeline?” he asks begrudgingly.
Gratefully you smile and pick up a worksheet from your desk. “This line in the center represents your life, from your birth all the way till now, and these numbers are for your age. I’m going to ask you about events that have happened to you and at what age. They can be anything, good or bad,” you continue. “Then, for each event, you’ll decide if it was a positive, neutral, or negative one, and give it a rating from -3 to +3. A 0 means neutral, neither good nor bad—we’ll say + 1 is a little bit good, +2 is somewhat good, +3 is very good, and vice versa.” You lean over to your desk to grab a pencil. “Would you like me to write, or do you want to do it?” you ask.
“You can do it,” Brian says with a wry chuckle. “That’s a lot of directions!”
You chuckle too. “No problem—I’ll record the events on this sheet for now. Let’s start with you giving me a little description of, maybe, a couple of sentences for each event. Later on, we’ll go into more detail for specific events.”
Brian scratches his head and looks up at you. “Okay, where do I start?”
“We can go year by year,” you reply, “or you can just start calling out events, whatever comes to mind. What do you think would work better for you?”
Brian furrows his brow and answers, “Whatever comes to mind, I think.”
You smile and nod. “Okay.”
“My…” Brian begins, “my mom and I went to Disneyland.”
“How old were you then?”
“5 or 6, maybe. It was definitely in first grade. My mom worked very hard at the time. She was feeling okay, she had some money, so we went to Disneyland with my aunt and cousin. I remember it was a lot of fun.”
“What was your favorite thing about Disneyland?”
“All the roller coasters,” Brian responds immediately. “Things like that. I don’t know, I really liked everything there.”
“How would you rate your Disneyland experience? Was it a positive, neutral, or negative event?”
“Positive—it was awesome!” Brian rocks back and forth excitedly in his seat.
“A little bit, somewhat, or a whole lot?” you ask with a grin.
“A whole lot!” he exclaims, still rocking. “It was exciting! But…when we came home—my mom was with John at that time—John was drunk, and he started yelling at us, because we were late. He accused my mom that she was with someone else…and he started beating us both…so…I dunno how to rate it.” His excitement has dissipated and he has begun determinedly cracking his knuckles.
“Hmm,” you murmur, tapping your pencil against your jaw. “I wonder if we should put them as two separate events. One of them being Disneyland and the other one for when you got home and John was yelling at you. How would you rate just Disneyland, from 0 to 3?”
“Oh, it was great—a +3!”
“A +3, OK!” you repeat as you note that on the worksheet. “And then what about after you got home?”
“I dunno,” Brian shrugs.
“How did you feel about it?”
He scratches his head. “I was very upset.”
“It was a negative experience?” you ask empathetically.
Brian nods. “Very negative.”
“Would you give it a negative 1, 2, or 3?”
“-3,” he frowns.
“Is there anything else you want to add to either of those?”
Brian sighs. “I wish we could have gone to Disneyland more often. I know I’m not a kid anymore, but I would love to go there with my mom again.”
“It sounds like it was a fun experience for you! What’s something else you remember?”
“Oh, when I got my first bike. My cousin—he outgrew his bicycle, and he gave it to me, and my mom helped me to learn how to ride!” Brian is very excited.
Smiling, you look up from writing and ask, “When was that?”
“It was the summer after second grade.”
“So, you were 7 years old?”
“Yeah 7, definitely,” he nods.
“OK, and how would you rate it?”
“Oh, it was fun! Not as fun as Disneyland, but it was great. +2?”
“+2, OK,” you state. “What else do you remember?”
“Hmm” Brian is contentedly rocking from side to side in the chair. “When I met my buddy Kenny! We were 5 years old, I think.”
“How did you meet Kenny?” you ask.
His answers tumble out, “He was a new kid in town, two houses away from ours. We met in the fields…we got along right away and played together all the time.”
“Are you still friends now?”
“Yeah,” Brian nods enthusiastically. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
You lean forward conspiratorially. “I wonder if we should draw a line from when you met up until now?”
“Yeah!” Brian kicks his feet a little in agreement.
“OK! So, I’ll connect from age 5 to age 12. And how should we rate it?”
Brian gushes, “We argue from time to time, we have some fights, but it is positive overall.”
You lean forward again, “How positive: a little, some, or a lot?”
“Mmm a lot—+3!” he exclaims.
You chuckle. “Alright! And what about the arguments part? Do you want to put that separately or just keep it as a +3?”
“It’s ok,” Brian responds. “They’re not like arguments with my family, they’re different, like a normal thing. Still a +3.”
“Do you remember any other events?”
“Umm…” He stops rocking side to side. “Ah I guess when I moved to my grandma’s. Mom was feeling very bad, like…taking drugs…She is sometimes crazy and upset. That time she was very upset, and drinking also…Then one day, these guys from Child Protective Services came to our house…they brought me to my grandma and…my mom stayed home with her boyfriend…or boyfriends, there were several of them at that time.” Brian scratches behind his ear.
“OK. When was that?”
“Two years ago.”
“You were 10?”
“Yeah, 10,” he confirms.
“And how would you rate that experience?”
Brian looks you right in the eyes, “It was bad,” and then looks away.
“Bad…a little bit, some, or a lot?”
“I dunno. I like my grandma, but I also missed my home…so maybe -2?”
“OK…” you fade out as you finish recording that event. “Any other events you would like to put on your timeline?”
“Umm…” Brian sits in silence for a long time. He shrugs, “Well, I always helped my mother with chores. Because…she was always tired and hungover…and grandma would come to help and she would yell about how the house was dirty…so then I would help grandma to clean the house…”
“When was the first time you helped your grandma clean the house?” you inquire.
“I was very little, like 3 or 4?”
“And do you still help clean the house?”
“Yeah for sure.”
You smile. “Shall I draw a line for that too from age 3 until now?”
“And how would you rate the cleaning: positive, neutral, or negative?”
“Neutral, I guess.” He leans towards you to peek at the worksheet as you finish writing.
“OK—neutral. You have given me a lot of events, Brian! Look at your timeline!” You hold it up proudly. “What would you say about your life?”
He shrugs. “I dunno.”
“What stands out when you see all the different events and the way you rated them?” You look at him expectantly.
“That it’s not only bad things that happened? There are some positives too. But they’re either very negative or very positive…”
You put the worksheet down and cut in, “Sometimes trauma can make it hard for us to remember events as they really happened, and we either focus on very negative or super positive stuff, when there were probably all kinds of things in the middle too. We can always go back and add additional things you recall as we are working together.”
“What do you think that the purpose of this timeline was, Brian?”
He rocks a little from side to side, impishly. “Maybe you wanna know more about me?”
You chuckle. “I do! And, although we are here to talk about your traumatic experiences, we want to get the big picture of who you are because trauma is not the only thing that has happened in your life. We want to see what has influenced you, shaped who you are today.”