Writing Trauma, Writing Survival.

Why write about trauma and suffering? Something horrible happened in your life and it shook you. You don’t want to relive it and you certainly don’t want to ponder on its meaning. This is a natural response of evasion. But trauma specialists talk about the healing aspects of writing. First, Writing helps in processing an overwhelming event and to make sense of it. You don’t write it away to forget but you write it for internal understanding. It’s not an aggressive action of blaming and forgetting but an intellectual act of narrating and nudging our inner world of emotions. Understanding what happened and learning to live with it is called Integration.  Second, writing can also empower us. It is an exercise of truth telling. Often survivors tend to live in denial. The more you write, the more you will be able to believe that it actually happened. Third, writing for an audience (including your therapist) is an exercise of strength. It prepares us for critical judgement and to stand true to our experience despite external factors. Whatever the reason it is that you want to write, this article attempts to provide some tips on how to start.

  1. Forget Structure.

When we write something for academia or work, we should follow a structure that has a logical connection between paragraphs. It is the opposite in trauma narration. Let your mind wander and it will take you places you might not have thought of.  Imagine that you are giving your pen to your mind and you have no control over what is being written. This enables in unravelling freely.  Sometimes, the mind surprises us with its own structure. 

Eg: I went to the market today. I wanted to buy vegetables. I saw beautiful oranges, apples and mangoes. The watermelons were tempting because it was scorching hot morning. I smelt fish from one corner of the market. It reminded me of Sunday mornings at home when my mum prepared fish for our family. All of us used to eat together, joking around and laughing.  It used to be a Sunday ritual for our family. But one day my father passed away due to an unexpected health complication. His death was a shock to our family. I still resent my mother for the way she dealt with it. She stopped caring for me and my brothers after that. We were left to fend for ourselves. Sunday mornings became a nightmare. One particular instance was the day my mother hit  my brother because he was making noises and not letting her have peace for the only holiday she had in a week. I remember crying so hard and praying to god that he would take my mother to wherever my father was. I still feel guilty for wishing that. I feel guilty about everything in my life. My wife thinks that I am too kind to her. She loved the gift I bought for her. Little does she know that I am trying so hard to hide all my guilt.

Notice how the narrative has no proper plot. The aim is to not write a compelling story but to let your mind flow. The narration started with a description of a market visit but later went into an internal monologue of memories from the past and related feelings. It jumped from one state of feeling to another without considering whether everything makes sense. This kind of narration is called Stream of Consciousness writing. You can practice writing about trivial things like your favourite food or your happiest memory to get an idea of how it flows.

2. You don’t have to remember everything.

A difficult challenge in writing about trauma is trying to remember it.  The mind blocks painful memories as a defence mechanism.  This is called repression.  Sometimes there are huge blanks when we try to remember a horrible event.  It can be frustrating to feel weighed down and devastated by an event but you can’t remember its details. You are living its effects but you can’t figure out the source. This feels like an obstacle. But owning your story also comes with the acceptance that you cannot retrieve every detail of it. Some details will remain elusive no matter how much you force yourself to remember.

3. Try this template.

What happened + what you felt in your body + what you felt in your mind +how you feel now + any other perspective.

As said earlier, it’s better not to force the mind into following a structure but you can nudge it into a revealing direction of flow.  You can write about what happened followed by your bodily and mental reactions. These reactions include your senses, body temperature, heart beat rate, etc. You can also write about your mental reactions like tears, shock, or panic. You can then write about emotions like anger, sadness, guilt, etc.

Eg: When I was in my fifth standard, I failed my math exam. I was scared to show my answer paper to my parents. I had to get their signature. My mother saw my paper and she got so angry. I still remember her face. Her eyes were so livid and her face looked hard like she was going to punish me. My mother then hit me with a broom. She kept beating me until I can’t breathe. I ran to the bathroom because I didn’t want her to see me crying. I poured water all over myself. I could feel my body shuddering as the water trickled down me. It hurt everywhere. My skin was beaten until it turned purple. It was painful to touch. I remember crying, thinking how my friends are going to mock me at school when they see my wounds. I wanted to hide myself. I was sobbing uncontrollably. I felt so much hatred for myself. I was a useless child who can’t make my mother happy. I felt angry at myself for being so stupid. I don’t deserve my mother’s affection and love because I am such a bad child. Thinking about it now, I feel sad for my younger self. I am sorry I had to go through all that. I always try to forgive my mother but I fail. Maybe the ideal thing is not forgiveness but acceptance. I cannot forget what my mother did to me but I can control how I make sense of her actions.

4. Try to recreate the situation.

 Imagine you are writing a script for a movie. You would want to insert all details about even the minor things.  You are trying to tell a story and all stories require a setting. The setting is important for your trauma story as well. Try to include many details about the place, time, the objects that were around and the colour of things. Also provide a background to the traumatic event. What were people doing? What were you doing? What was your state of mind? All these details layer down the bed on which you will drop the traumatic memory. Think about it as a frame to your story. When you provide all the extra details of the story, it makes it easier to remember the event. So after setting your frame, insert yourself into it and try following your mind when it remembers and relives the event. This sounds complex but it is pretty straightforward when you try to write.

Eg: This happened when I was 13 years old.  It was a beautiful morning. The sky was bright blue. The trees were moving along with a gentle breeze. I was lying on my bed with a fever and looking out the window. My family along with my parents and brother lived in the second floor of the house. My grandparents lived in the first floor. Even though we lived separately, t was like a joint family. My grandparents had a lot of control on what our family was doing. They provided us this free house to live in. Sometimes my grandfather secretly paid my school fees when my parents didn’t have money. All this made us act according to how they would want us to be. So we couldn’t exactly go against them.  That afternoon, my cousin visited my grandparents. I used to get so scared every time he makes a visit. Since our house was built in such a way, anyone can enter without making a sound. There were two entrances to our house. It always made me feel like we were so exposed at all times. There was no privacy and there was no sense of safety. I remember having a hard time being alone and trying to sleep with my fever. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, my cousin entered my bedroom. I was terrified of seeing him. My body wanted to crawl back into a blanket. I was wearing a red dress with a low neck and buttons. He came to my bed and started touching me like he was examining my fever. But his hands were not just on my face. He was moving his all over my body. Wherever he touched, my skin felt like it was churning. I was so confused with what was happening. I felt violated but how can I complain? My grandparents will tell me I am over- reacting. He was just checking my fever. So I just acted like it was nothing. Like I didn’t feel anything. When he left, I shut both the doors to my house and played loud music on the radio. I tried so hard to mute the feeling of being vulnerable to something that I cannot anticipate or understand.

5. Write about the responses of the important people in your life.

Our experiences are ours alone. Nobody can fully understand our suffering.  But the way we think about a traumatic event could be influenced by the important figures in our life. For example, a child abuse survivor might have faced alienation at school, her friends might not have understood her, her mother would have reacted with anxiety; her father would’ve tried to deny it ever happened. It is important to note down how the people around us were reacting and how we changed ourselves based on that reaction. Often this reveals the beliefs we still hold, our learnt behaviour and unexpressed emotions towards those around us.

Eg: When my grandmother knew that I had shut the door and didn’t let my cousin enter when he came back a second time, she complained to my mother. “Your child is so arrogant. She thinks that she owns the house. How smug of her to not let my grandson enter my own house. You guys think you are entitled to everything. Just know that you are living here for free.” My mother felt enraged with this exchange. She didn’t even bother to ask me why I did that. What my troubles were. She came upstairs to our house and started crying. She felt sad that she had been facing so much torture from her mother-in-law every single day. She felt worthless that she doesn’t have a house for herself. If her in-laws were bothering her, her children were bothering her even more. She started asking me questions: Why hadn’t I kept the house clean? Why didn’t I finish the food she packed that morning? She displaced all her anger onto me. I felt so helpless. I felt like I was a huge burden to my mother. I was going to complain about an insignificant thing while my mother was actually facing far greater suffering. I wanted to help her and make her feel better. So I pushed aside my childish problems and apologised to her for being an ungrateful child. That day I learnt to keep my feelings for myself. Nobody will understand. Moreover, nobody cared. I was disgusting and insignificant and it was not surprising that I didn’t matter.

6. Ponder on the meaning of the event:

Traumatic events changed you. Ponder on the nature of the event. Who were you before the event? What did you learn from it? How did you try to survive it in the face of uncertainty? Who do you place the blame on? Who is responsible for carrying the burden of the event? These are few questions you can ask yourself. You can’t find all answers through writing. You need an empathetic listener to help you make sense of everything. But when you write about the impact the event had in your life, it provides an opportunity to express emotions that you feel for yourself and others. It can be cathartic to vent out all the raw feelings you have but feel restricted to express for various reasons.

Eg: My dad used to beat my mum brutally. One day he beat her so hard that the chair he used to beat her with broke. My mum shut herself in the kitchen and poured kerosene all over her. She was going to burn herself.  I was looking at her in shock. She saw me looking at her and started crying. I don’t remember much about what happened next. This episode had a huge impact on my life. I was too young to understand anything. But now I feel so sorry for my mother. I have an irrevocable ager for my dad. He is to blame for everything that went wrong in my mother’s life. He is the reason I don’t believe in marriages. Because, whatever I have witnessed of marriages is all just suffering and pain. I hate my dad for sucking away the hope and normalcy away from my life. I grew so distrustful of men because I knew everybody had a monster inside just like my dad did.

 Note: The limitations and constraints of expressive writing.

Having talked about the benefits of trauma narration, it is important to note that it cannot apply to everyone. There are two instances where certain factors could hinder a cohesive mode of writing freely and understanding precisely what is being expressed.

  • If the writer expresses her pain in a manner that she herself can’t decipher and understand, this exercise might not help her. She might feel overwhelmed and cannot benefit much from such an exercise. It is essential to make sense of the past and that happens through a mode of writing that is manageable and intelligible to the writer.
  • Another point to note is that the environment in which we write is quite important. We have to find a place that gives us privacy, where we are free to express our emotions and not worry about anybody disturbing the flow. The mood with which we begin to write is also a contributing factor. If we are paranoid that someone is going to see our writing without our permission or if we force ourselves to write when we are not ready or if we are worried about the emotions we might have to deal with while writing, then the entire writing will be guided by these restrictive factors and skew our unbridled flow of thoughts. When we are influenced by external factors such as fear of crying, our writing will not have a natural flow and hence lead to an incorrect analysis during therapy.

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