Fiction Writing: A Pathway to Post-traumatic Growth
I experienced a pathway into post-traumatic growth that saved my life from the maladaptive behaviours I was losing it to by writing ‘Warrior,’ an adult survivor of childhood complex trauma coming of age novel. Writing fiction enabled me to combat the depression; social phobia and compulsion to avoid the world outside my front door like nothing else I’d previously tried.
Afraid and ashamed, there was nothing I wouldn’t do to hide or execute an escape to conceal the past experiences I believed made me a repulsive person. I also couldn’t bare anyone knowing how much I struggled and in many ways failed to function as I thought an adult should.
In situations where I couldn’t escape, I would hide or be sure to never speak my truth. Keeping everything I couldn’t say silent inside began to get too heavy in my mid-twenties. As far as I saw it, I couldn’t win regardless of what ways I tried to manage the constraints the effects of complex childhood trauma had on me.
I was in many ways naive and with a particular and therefore limited experience in life which meant I had no objectivity; a perversely inaccurate understanding of how the world worked; my rights; self-worth; capacity; people’s agendas; love; family; class; borders and boundaries; friendship and professionalism. Alongside this was the confusion at having grown up in an Italian migrant family that clung to their culture and struggled differently in each of the three generations affected by the trauma of leaving their country, WWII, poverty, racism as well as limited education.
Like many adult survivors of complex childhood trauma, I didn’t have the knowledge required to know I didn’t need to be living the compromised life I was or that the ‘weirdness’ in me wasn’t inherent but the effects of trauma. Furthermore, I didn’t know it would be possible for people to understand, resonate with and accept what was broken about me and even help me. Instead, shame continued to have me cover the mirrors in my apartment with newspaper so not even I had to see the mess I didn’t know how to clean.
For four years I survived by going through the motions like a robot. ‘Living’ as if I didn’t really exist was the only way I could figure out how to bare being here. This protected me against the inadequacy I felt at my cousins and those I’d gone to school with having made something useful, beautiful and admirable of their life. They’d managed to get a full-time job, travel, begin paying off a property, marry, start a family and maintain a social life regularly updated on Facebook. This openness and ability to share their life and happiness couldn’t have been more foreign to how private, unhappy, disconnected and shut down I’d become.
I wanted to be like them so much it hurt, but I continued to struggle daily to leave the apartment I rented, answer the phone and shower. My propensity to self-harm when immersed in emotions larger than me manifested through all forms of self-denial and deprivation such as sleeping on the floor; restricted eating; not allowing myself to make art, listen to music or partake in anything I enjoyed. From the moment I woke until I fell asleep, I would not let myself to take breaks from the research I was doing to understand what was wrong with me and how I could fix it. I cut everything non-essential out. I now recognise this was my default setting for coping with anxiety when how out of control my life, emotions and mind felt became too much.
Why am I telling you this? And what does fiction writing have to do with it?
My motivation for sharing my struggle stems from the ‘happy ending’ (by comparison to my life before this) I’d like to give to others whose adult lives have been compromised by complex childhood trauma. I figure if I share the truth of the life I have experienced and peace, clarity, possibilities, understanding and relief fiction writing gave me, others too may receive the gift fiction can be.
The process of writing a fictional story proved to be a:
- and liberating
means through which to engage with and make something other than what I had become from the overwhelming emotional life, prison of toxic thought processes, and flashbacks trauma produces. This fictional means of processing trauma had a positive effect on my life, health and well-being, for the task of telling a story gave me the creative license to imagine a way out of my psychodrama (mental and emotional reality) every time I opened my word document. It also allowed me to write about traumatic experience in a way that made sense, was bearable, meaningful and possible to plot a way out from. I could keep my story separate from Lumina’s and for therapy and infuse ‘Warrior’ with my emotional truth. Fiction gave me a safe space to imagine and visualise in; a job I could do my way; a sense of purpose; meaning; responsibility and most importantly, an area in my life where I had absolute control over what happened next. And if I decided I didn’t like it, got it wrong, didn’t make sense–it didn’t matter– I could go back and change it.
To tell a fiction is to tell a tale, which holds emotional, psychological, or universal human truth and insight enabling others to connect and resonate with. We unconsciously seek out particular kinds of story (exploring love, grief, fear, joy and sadness) through a novel, film, opera, symphony or play to emotionally engage with what is too threatening for us to acknowledge and feel in our daily life. This is because art mediates and acts as an emotional container, so we don’t have to be alone with our feelings. Art transforms emotion into something other than us.
Therefore fiction is a means through which the writer, reader and viewer of story can safely know and engage with one’s emotional and psychological reality and is achieved through its primary attribute, metaphor. A metaphor is an image, phrasing, setting, character, object or motif that indirectly captures the essence of something else. For example, in ‘Warrior’ the warrior costume is a metaphor for the inner strength, will, integrity and gumption Lumina internally lacks at the opening of the novel. The beach is a setting that alludes to the ocean of the unconscious. The metaphor is an indirect comparison to that which it stands for. To further clarify, Lazarus is a character that acts as a metaphor for Lumina’s connection with her higher self-being resurrected.
By making use of fiction’s toolkit:
- setting (traumatic memory is very much about place and the specific environment it takes place in),
- first person narration,
- image systems (in ‘Warrior’ the image systems are water, art, light, hair, the body and reflective surfaces running parallel to each other so that their meaning and significance both informs and builds upon the other to develop specific meaning and significance by visually representing Lumina’s inner arc),
- a cast of characters,
- story world,
- a sequence of events to speak the emotional
- and psychological truth in a way that says more than documenting the facts and memories I was threatened to never tell.
The threat of the consequences that ensured I didn’t speak. It acted as a powerful muzzle that I was terrified to remove. However, by constructing a ‘lie’ or ‘tale’ that fiction is, I could bypass my muted state by aesthetically exposing Lumina’s trauma story. Because it was not mine, I could write it in such a way that indirectly gave meaning and significance to the emotional and psychological reality I knew something about.
Engaging creatively with traumatic content gave me the confidence, language and conscious awareness of my story which I worked through in therapy. So in writing fiction, I found a way to speak about trauma while still remaining silent which was the step I needed to take before I could dare speak my truth in therapy. The fiction writing experience was indescribably liberating, empowering, enabling and healing for me but like anything it can’t be expected to carry all the weight in the post-traumatic growth process. Therapy, proper nutrition, environment, exercise, vocation, community, leisure activities and being in relationship with others all have a part to play. Introducing each aspect one at a time at one’s own pace.
The first step for me was writing ‘Just Breathe’. I give Lumina the experiences, resolution and satisfaction I craved but did not have in my reality. This vicarious emotional experience and transformation were enough for me to be able to accept what my life had been and actively deal with it instead of being passively destroyed by it and begin to push forward in the direction I believe will lead to the life I desire. It also became a means for me to find a way to enable connection, be understood by and to understand others. The problem-solving component required in storytelling kept me from thinking myself into a dark corner. I’d read other stories to see how they made what I was having problems with work. I’d ask my psychologist how to understand the internal dynamics of certain personalities that had me perplexed, I returned to the place my trauma happened in to remember and understand it as an adult so that I could write about the emotions, mental state and environment authentically in ‘Just Breathe.’ Creating a story indirectly became the light through my dark as it shrunk the monster stealing the rest of my life story to be lived as my own rather than dictated by trauma.
Please feel welcome to share any insights or experiences that involve an emotional journey through trauma and post-traumatic growth. I’d very much appreciate hearing from you.