“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ― Maya Angelou
I’ve recently begun writing again and have noticed the impact it has had on my cPTSD symptoms. PTSD does not just impact veterans but also adult survivors of childhood traumas.
The ACE test is used to determine how likely people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences are to suffer from the effects of trauma and consists of ten questions. It inquires whether or not you went without enough food, or suffered from abuse. It also questions your exposure to drugs and alcohol and domestic violence.
People who score higher than a 4 are at risk, and I score at a 9. Growing up, I always tried to ignore my trauma and end up not being a statistic. I spent the better part of my life, denying that anything I did was a result of PTSD, but it got harder and harder to do as I got older. When looking at my childhood, it seems bizarre to think that I tried to convince myself that I was normal.
By the time I was five, I had been kidnapped by a noncustodial parent (who then disappeared from my life altogether) and exposed to drugs while living with my mother. I almost failed kindergarten due to my mother’s lack of care, frequently cooking for myself, or not eating at all. We couldn’t have a pet because my mom neglected them to the point of death. That or she shot them, or they disappeared.
My grandma once found me playing with a dead bird by the edge of the river behind my mom’s house. After that, we moved in with my grandma, where life was completely different. There was a plethora of food and worldly comforts, but my grandma was physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive.
During a one-week-long summer visit with my mom when I was 10, she had me watch her practice her dancing for work (she was a stripper). That same week I rescued a little two-year-old boy from the back yard pool while his mom and mine did drugs in the house. The babysitter my mom hired to watch us while she went to work that night was higher than a kite and duct-taped my sister’s hands, feet, and mouth, and then hid her in the closet while I tried to find her.
We didn’t visit my mom very often after that, and then she entered the witness protection program when I was 14. Lies and broken promises littered my childhood, like cigarette butts on the beach, ruining something that should have been beautiful. I haven’t been to war, but I feel like I have been battling demons my whole life. I started writing poems and stories in high school but didn’t realize that I was using the art of writing as a coping mechanism.
Symptoms of PTSD
According to Jayne Leonard, a writer for Medical News Today, these are common symptoms of PTSD (or cPTSD):
- reliving the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares
- avoiding situations that remind them of the trauma
- dizziness or nausea when remembering the trauma
- hyperarousal, which means being in a continual state of high alert
- the belief that the world is a dangerous place
- a loss of trust in the self or others
- difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- being startled by loud noises
- Detachment from the trauma
- Emotional regulation difficulties
Writing gave me an outlet that allowed me to distance myself from reality, which included dream-like memories. It helped to quiet my mind from the constant voice of anxiety. Back in high school, I journaled a lot. This type of writing was more for therapeutic purposes, but I started writing poems and stories too.
At this point, I even had a few published pieces. I thought I had a small talent for it and wanted to be a journalist, especially after the local paper accepted an article I had written. I believe that all the writing I did back then helped keep the depression at bay. As I got older, though, I stopped writing.
Life took me on a different path, and I ended up being a business professional. I was about six classes away from completing a Masters in Management and Leading Teams when I found myself asking, “What had I become?” Around this same time, my new therapist suggested writing as a therapy for PTSD (which I was still trying to deny that I have).
However, I did tell her that writing had been a passion of mine, and I would give it a shot. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I get a feeling of fulfillment when I write that I haven’t been able to duplicate with any other job or task in my life, and that is healing in and of itself.
Why art therapy, like writing, works
“Research, albeit limited, supports the notion that deliberately engaging in art provides relief from the distressing psychological and physical symptoms of PTSD” – Bret Moore, Psy.D.
When it comes to expressive writing, like journaling, there are several mental and physical benefits. Mentally, journaling can help you transfer the trauma from your brain to pen and paper, in essence removing the thoughts and allowing you to focus your ideas. For me, it helps me remember things more as singular events and not just swamp of pain that I have no idea how to get across.
Physically, writing can reduce tension. According to Matthew Tull, Ph.D., journaling has been proven to “improve cognitive function, counteracting many of the negative effects of stress, and strengthened immune function.” Dr. Tull suggest these six steps when journaling:
- Find a peaceful place, and keep it quiet.
- Think about your PTSD and how the trauma has impacted your life.
- Write for 20 minutes. Be sure to try and tap into your deepest thoughts and feelings.
- Read what you wrote, and name the emotions you feel while reading it.
- Have a plan to deal with the negative emotions that will initially come flooding back.
- Repeat these steps for at least two days.
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” — Virginia Woolf
It is not easy to tap into all your pain and anguish and jot your thoughts down on paper. It is even harder to take the memories in your head and try and arrange them in a way that is coherent and easy for others to understand.each time I manage to do that, I feel like I start seeing the events of my past differently in my head. The images are the same, but I can look at the scene unfolding with a new sense of clarity.
Writing professionally, for me, is also a long lost dream that I find myself so close to achieving. This sense of following my heart and using my energy for something that brings me joy is also helping to combat the PTSD symptoms. There is something to be said for going after a lifelong dream with a vengeance.
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear; my courage is reborn.”— Anne Frank
Achieving Post-Traumatic Growth
There is a path to healing and managing your PTSD symptoms. For me, that involved a trusted therapist and writing. I can write about the lessons I have learned and the way I use my trauma to motivate myself and hopefully help others.
The other day, a friend of mine read a short story I wrote. She knew that I drew some of the plot from personal experience and told me that my story “made her realize that I was absolutely meant to have the upbringing I did -painful as it was- to be the great writer and storyteller that I had become.”
I don’t know that she is aware of the profoundness of her words to me. As a trauma survivor, I occasionally question, “why me?” As a writer, I sometimes struggle with imposter syndrome and self-doubt; her words helped me find a bit of balance. I choose to continue to have the “outgoing guts” and tell my story. I promise myself not to let the self-doubt cause me to stop.
The personality changes that I have experienced since I started writing again are indescribable. I hope that if writing (or some other art) helps you heal, that you also find the strength to keep going and realize that you deserve some peace and healing. Use your traumatic event to evolve into the best version of yourself that you can be.
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”― Sylvia Plath