Using Story to Process the Emotional Experience of Complex Trauma
The purpose of fiction and storytelling is to give the reader or listener an emotional experience. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the undigested emotional experience. Post-traumatic growth is what is possible after such an emotional experience is processed and integrated. The findings from the interdisciplinary research conducted for my PhD show that fiction can function as an art studio in which to cognitively and emotionally process complex traumatic experience by using the elements of the story.
As an adult survivor of complex childhood trauma who struggled acutely with the effects of such experience, I used the opportunity of the PhD to test the one thing I’d thought a lot about but hadn’t yet tried to help me. It was to write a story that communicated how it felt to spend a lifetime running, hiding and at the same time trying to fix everything and everyone while falling apart. I wanted to write about a character who was a mess and on a downward spiral but managed to get it together. Consequently, during my candidature, I created a coming-of-age fiction featuring an adult survivor of childhood trauma who experiences post-traumatic growth.
To do this, I imagined a way in which it was possible for the main character, Lumina, to move beyond the effects of her childhood trauma. I wanted to make it possible for her to achieve what I so desired but despite my best efforts hadn’t managed to manifest in my own life. I wanted, to write the book I needed to read to feel less alone and have hope that it was possible to come out the other side of what I kept failing to work through. Consequently, I wrote Just Breathe alongside weekly sessions with a mental health professional who helped me understand the psychology of the characters. From this, my confidence, strength and trust grew in the therapeutic relationship, and I gradually began speaking about me as well as the people and relationship dynamics I found too confusing and challenging to figure out myself.
The practice of writing Just Breathe offered me a space contained within the conventions of storytelling where I could engage with, what were for me, extremely threatening emotions. This created a very open and malleable holding structure for the messy process of unpacking, giving cohesive form to, working through and expressing as an adult the trauma my former child self-was developmentally unable to process at the time. By mediating my engagement with such disturbing content through fiction, I experienced an essential bridging between my adult self and child self. This, in turn, made it possible to develop the necessary cognitive and emotional resources alongside the capacity to be able to make contact with and put to words in therapy, my own childhood experience.
I achieved this bridging experience by staging the protagonist of Warrior, Lumina di Bauta, as an adult from twenty-four to twenty-seven as she underwent a series of adventures that challenged her to deal with the emotions needing to be emotionally processed to hollow her to put the past in the past. I structured her story in a way that it would be possible for her to meet the struggles halfway. A side effect of doing this was much practice in putting traumatic content to words and order. To write the story of another meant I was in complete control and could ensure things wouldn’t at any point become too much for my protagonist, the reader or myself. As a result fiction writing served as a loophole through which I bypassed defence mechanisms at work to protect access from remembering what I’d promised as a child to never tell and spent years being desperate for anything that would help me forget. Metaphorically, I could tell my truth, engage with it and still retain the degree of discretion I needed to feel safe that none of my feared consequences from speaking would take place.
The first draft of Just Breathe was my story enmeshed with Lumina’s. “My stuff” came out all over Lumina’s, but it did not belong in her story. I had to get “my stuff” out of the way for the story to work just like I had to get “my stuff” out of my way to get on with my life and have a future I desired rather than determined by my past. To do this, I cut the autobiographical parts out of my word document, pasted them in another and took it to my weekly therapy sessions where I dared, a little more each session, to speak about what I’d experienced. The more I did this, with each draft or revision of Breathe, the better I became at distinguishing, understanding and telling Lumina’s story as well as beginning to take my life back.
During the days and sometimes weeks, between therapy sessions, I used all the emotional and psychological discomfort, self-destructive energy and insights that talking brought up for me and translated it into something aesthetically contained within the story world. The overwhelming emotions that I’d always been afraid of and longed to escape now had a safe space for me to put them in. It helped immensely in the making feeling my emotions bearable because the story, Warrior had a structure and world that could creatively and constructively contain the sadness,s, betrayal, anger, and disgust I couldn’t. There was also room for my aching desire for connection, love, joy and freedom.
By giving my emotional life to Lumina as she persisted in overcoming her obstacles, I could indirectly work constructively with and make something out of my traumatic emotional experience in such a way that left me no longer a prisoner to it. These powerful emotions became part of the story’s arc, layered with meaning and significance that gave me the peace and satisfaction not available to me in reality. This alternative has been enough for me to move forward. After writing Just Breathe, the disabling emotions ceased to remain in me. They had been translated into a story which made sense and had a resolution.
Emotions from Complex Childhood Trauma in other Fiction
In Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel In Perfect Light, maladaptive survival mechanisms demonstrated by the protagonist Andrés enable him to survive his formative years but stunt his transition into adulthood. In the adult survivor of complex childhood trauma novels discussed in previous posts including Just Breathe, the protagonist’s dan display maladaptive behaviours such as acting out, addiction, negative attitude and withdrawal.
Adult survivors of complex childhood trauma typically struggle to employ healthy ways of self and emotional regulation due to neglect and not being taught or shown through nurture how to self-sooth and emotionally contain experience. Consequently, maladaptive behaviours are unhealthy substitutes that tend to assist the survivor in emotional regulation and therefore to survive their childhood. These maladaptive behaviours or strategies play such a significant positive role initially it’s essential they be recognised, valued and appreciated for their initial helpful function.
Equally important is the recognition that such strategies to self-regulate are also toxic and not sustainable as they culminate in further problems and obstacles for the survivor. For example, the someone who cuts finds a mu,ch-needed release for their emotional anguish, but it is not possible to participate fully in life personally, socially nor intimately while cutting is needed to cope with feeling. There is no shame or need to hide. Instead, there, is the necessity to seek out and accept help for such pain to be dealt with in healthy ways. Eventually cutting will stop being enough and lose the fix a survivor gets by on. The cuts will have to go deeper for the same relief, and this will be required more frequently until this eventually stops working too. It is not sustainable or an answer but rather a symptom that, needs to be listened to and treated with love, respect and patience. It is the same with all addiction, eating disorders and, thrill-seeking behaviour. Once a survivor acknowledges the help and hindrance of such maladaptive behaviours they’re able with mindfulness, work and the support of others to commence the process of letting them go and opening themselves up to healthy, life-affirming coping mechanisms as well as fulfilling and mature adult experiences.
Once an adult survivor comes to understand and accept the context their trauma happened in, it’s possible for him or her to gradually change their automatic reactions and ways of interpreting situations and others. For example, in writing Just Breathe, I had to understand why it was possible for Lumina as a child to be abused. What was it about the particular family dynamics, key figures and community context that enabled this? What were her maladaptive behaviours and how were they affecting her life as an adult? How did her current relationships and friendships mirror the dysfunction of her formative attachment figures? By understanding and having to account for this in Lumina, I started to apply the same ways of thinking about and investigating myself, family and cultural context as a child and adult.
When an adult survivor can identify the contributing factors to a traumatic experience as well as how they fit and work together to fracture a child’s developing sense of self, s/he can draw connections and begin to make sense of their life story and in turn synthesise the parts they experience themselves as shattered. Consequently, the survivor feels less vulnerable and has more inner resources for being able to understand and withstand the complexities of the way life and interactions with others work. They can become comfortable in their own skin and more accepting of themselves and others where they were previously more inclined to interpret benign situations as threatening, generous people to have hidden agendas and neutral conversation to be insulting or shaming. It is called a “perceived threat,” “perceived judgement” or “perceived insult”. Once a survivor begins to look at the experience from a broader perspective and to consider it from someone else’s point of view they are less inclined to fall into over-personalising.
For example, in writing Just Breathe it became apparent to me that the characters in charge of Lumina’s childhood were very flawed, suffering and doing the best they could. The way Lumina gets treated isn’t personal, but the only way these characters for various reasons were capable of functioning. They didn’t have the inner resources to be better than they were. The abuse wasn’t personal. What I mean by this is that anyone occupying the vulnerable position Lumina was born into would have been subject to the same treatment. Despite what a child may come to believe to make sense of their traumatic experience, a child isn’t ever actually abused because of a failing or wrongdoing on their part. When it comes to child abuse children are always innocent. There is nothing, absolutely nothing a child can do or be that makes them deserve abuse. It is always the child abuser who is at fault and committing the wrongdoing whether or not he or she is ‘acting out’ an internal perversion from their unresolved childhood trauma.
This necessary insight for the adult survivor, who I repeat is never responsible or deserving of what happened to them as a child, can be arrived at within the therapeutic relationship as featured in In Perfect Light. It can also be done through spiritual practice, art making, intimate/special relationships or supportive friendships and community networks, as seen in Sapphire’s novel Push, or by narrating one’s story, as seen in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.
For me, it was in writing Just Breathe. As a person who loves and in many ways needs to understand and make sense of things that confuse, overwhelm, challenge and fundamentally bother me, fiction functioned as a key into a space where it was possible to observe and know the manifold ways in which complex childhood trauma incarcerates the adult, survivor in an internal drama.
The unprocessed prison trauma has adverse effects on one’s external life throughout adulthood unless action is taken to stop this automatic toxic way of being. Fiction gave me the objectivity and authorial role of control needed to have the capacity to begin to work with my traumatic content in therapy by first creatively, playfully ‘picturing out’ internal conflict. The ‘lies’ or metaphors in essence preoccupied and confused me began to make sense as I wrote through them. It was a huge step forward for me because I’d spent years in therapy discussing everything but the only thing I was there to discuss. I couldn’t bring myself to do it no matter how many mind games I tried with myself to be brave enough.
During a conversation with Professor Estelle Barrett who acted as a second supervisor to my PhD, I came to understand that it is not uncommon for the adult survivor to internalise their perpetrator. It just means to indirectly continue to treat and regard the self as regarded and mistreated by the abuser. This form of unconscious “repetition-compulsion” is powerful, debilitating and shows up continually in self-harm and ‘acting out.’ It is also visible in the recreation of toxic relationships and situations that indirectly re-produce in essence one’s traumatic past. Fiction has the tools, resources and creative license to reveal through scenes, events, exchanges and by semantically performing the way the adult’s internal world, emotions, thought system (beliefs) and reactive behaviour perpetuate adverse external experiences.
Showing this in story design through cause and effect, or setups and payoffs, typically plots the protagonist’s arc through to her/his beginning to risk choosing, thinking, behaving, reacting, and being different in the world. There is no story without this shift in perception or behaviour to fulfil the expectations of the character arc for without the coming to approach life differently s/he remains bogged in unconsciously self-perpetuating misery. In life, it seems to be common for survivors to stay stuck and not realise their potential to grow, while others can oscillate between regression and progression without actually managing to move forward.
Fiction, according to its generic conventions, must involve advancing towards the survivor’s capacity to be the subject of thought and speech, as well as a conscious agent of his/her actions. Progression of some degree must take place, no matter how circular or back-and-forth it may seem or long it might take. Structure, and story, demand that something happen and eventually climax before the resolution restores a sense of balance to the story-world and consequently satisfies the reader.
Fiction, as a discipline, can incorporate meaning, significance and relief to meet the needs and expectations readers bring to the novel. The implicit promise or gift of a satisfying resolution is what keeps the reader reading through the protagonist’s trials and tribulations. Real life encounters with trauma have no such obligation to include rewards, order, cohesion, restitution or meaningful insight. Thus, fictional storytelling is a safe means of mediating experience in a way that life will not do, and can never be. Also, fiction has a responsibility to protect the adult reader through encounters with trauma by strategically couching it in a way that makes it both psychologically and emotionally safe, bearable and authentic.
For me, writing such a story was challenging in a way that I have never experienced a challenge before. What motivated me to persist was the need to discover a way in which I could have my protagonist experience post-traumatic growth. Without having this positive and as realistic as a possible resolution to arrive at, nothing at all would have kept me writing. Without the knowledge of a long-term benefit and the possibility for growth what was required from me to produce this narrative would have been too much. That is why I insist it is necessary for an adult survivor who undertakes writing a trauma fiction as part of their post-traumatic growth journey to do so under the mentorship and guidance that can be provided through a therapeutic fiction writing course attended alongside therapy. The reason I am uncompromising on this point is that although fiction is a safe, enabling and transcendent space within which to engage with traumatic content, ‘picturing out’ ones way through the unconscious is no easy feat, especially without specific guidance and support.
Accountability & Authority
Fiction can portray a sense of childhood complex trauma of chaos, anguish and devastation. To give the reader an authentic vicarious experience of an adult survivor fighting to arrive at, and create a capacity to occupy the driver’s seat in their own life. As an author, I felt it my responsibility to be the ‘good enough’ parent/writer guiding the reader through a journey that concludes with insight through the protagonist’s experience of post-traumatic growth In life is never as coherent and structured as you find in the story. For life is not controlled, moderated or structured with consideration to the survivor’s safety, wellbeing and relief.
To feel confident I had a genuine understanding, acceptance and lack of judgement for each character in Just Breathe‘s cast, I ‘method acted’ them. I did this by taking on their dialogue until I felt that I got it right, inhabiting their behaviour, thought patterns, meditating on how life would have been experienced by them. up until their stage time and occupying that particular point of view for as long as I felt the need to. Because of this, I saw myself more as an actor playing a cast of characters and as a director guiding them than a writer. It is as if writing is only one of the things I did to produce Just Breathe. The practice of writing took up less than a quarter of the time that it took to make the story happen. I envisioned the story and watched it as a film in my head, slowing each scene right down until I could arrange words in such a way as to perform it so that affective inhabitation is possible for the reader.
The benefits of a survivor-writer constructing a piece of trauma fiction are that he or she will participate in a broad and layered way of considering the how and why of what happened in the events, figures, dynamics and the environment in which complex trauma has taken place. The process of analysing, understanding and testing ways to represent this assists in depolarising the events, and shrinking the power attributed to key figures. Potentially this enables the survivor-writer to regard their abusers realistically as the complex human beings they are.
This alternative to the perception of the abuser resulting from analysis in the process of narrative composition needs to be unpacked. Why should the unadulterated spectre be more threatening than an apprehension of the perpetrator’s complexity? If the abuser is seen as complex and as a mixture of positive and negative traits, how does this help a survivor to pass beyond all this? Is it because it helps the survivor excuse the younger self for being taken in and imposed upon? Is it because creative writing also allows them to put the traumatic events and surrounding circumstances into a broader, meaningful context?
Survivor-Writers anger, despair, pain and frustration can be employed differently through the writing process than that of the survivor who does not write. In fiction, writing through emotions engages them constructively and contains them within a framework without re-traumatising the individual into a regressive state. Instead, it empowers the survivor, who is at liberty to construct the story in whatever way desired. Also, the narrative invites the survivor, as an adult, to recognise that s/he as an adult author is the one who can decide how the story goes and use words as actions. The story becomes a structure within which the survivor-writers child-self needs can be met so that they can consequently undergo the necessary human developmental stages to integrate as an adult.
For regardless of how threatening emotions from childhood trauma might seem if the adult can stay present as an adult through continuing to write and edit their story, s/he can work through her/his narrative as a means to realise that these emotions will not and are not actually annihilating him/her. And as adult s/he can now provide the child-self with all that was formerly denied. However, if the emotions remain unfelt it is likely they will continue disrupting the adult survivor’s mental, emotional and physical wellbeing through repetition-compulsion.
Therapy helped me deal with my actual story so I could write the fictional story and keep the two accounts separate, although each informed and gave me access to the other. For example, if I could talk about my abusers with my therapist and my memories of them, when I came to write a chapter with the protagonist Lumina’s abusers in it I could see them as complex, nuanced and with stories of their own that deserved to be represented. The reason being, I came to see the perpetrator as fallible, weak and in so many ways weak which made sense why there was a need to abuse power over children. As an adult, my protagonist Lumina, like myself, had no need to continue in fear of our perpetrator. All we had to do was realise we were the ones with the power now. First I processed this through Lumina, then in my own life.
For me, psychological, emotional and physical liberation did not come from the telling of my story in therapy, because I could not do anything with it. However, by writing a fictional story, I have been able to take action, speak and do something about my experience through the protagonist’s story and fulfil my needs of confrontation, closure and exposure to let go of what I do not wish to continue carrying with me.
Furthermore, writing fiction has enabled a sense of release, because I have not told the story as the victim frozen in the fractured way of experiencing the trauma. Nor have I written it as the child, but as the adult author who through the repetition of rewriting and redrafting as many times as necessary to understand how that experience became possible, why, and what effect it had. Through the story, I was able to see how all the pieces could fit together and how the protagonist’s story, as well as my own, could make sense. And this was enough for me.
Most importantly, through this process, I came to understand the abuser as the perpetrator and my child self as a victim, and that I came to be such not because of my doing or inadequacy but because of my circumstantial vulnerability.
In writing fiction, choosing what to include in the telling of a story involves constructive thinking, visualisation, problem-solving and a reconsideration of each component’s meaning and significance about the larger story. This is done at the level of each character, each dialogic exchange, each scene, object, image, and again with mindfulness as to how it then fits within the context of an entire story. After a sustained period of thinking like this, the survivor-writers thought systems in daily life are inevitably affected and fundamentally changed. For nothing in the story is neutral and ideally, each detail contributes to the whole—that is, connects with other aspects of the story. And so connections start to be made about one’s own life and experiences where they were not necessarily recognised before.
This is where life and fiction do not differ. All the details that the survivor notices and keeps in her/his mind are not the only details that there are. However, they are pertinent for a reason and available for connections to be made within the individual’s larger experience once the time is taken to sit with and unpack them. Also, the place and setting in which life unfolds are not neutral, nor are the surrounding people. Thus for trauma to be understood and known, the place(s) where it has occurred need to be taken into consideration. So too do the details salient to the survivor and their resonance with their current situation.
The trauma survivor’s life did not end after a traumatic event or period in their life. Although in many ways the survivor has not been fully alive or free of traumatic effects since, and their life as it had been before trauma has ended, their life itself has not. So, whether they can deal with this or not, life, like their story, goes on with or without their ability to openly and fully engage with it. In encountering the performance of this suspended state of being through the story, they are able to objectively witness this via the safety of fiction.
Furthermore, if the story’s arc is geared towards the survivor’s growth, the transformation that takes place can potentially affect the reader and the writer’s life positively. An example of post-traumatic growth demonstrated and vicariously experienced can inspire, raise awareness of what is possible, and enlighten the survivor writer or reader, potentially instigating for them a process of internal transformation, entailing integration and the consequent freedom to live out authentically what remains of their life.
The trauma fiction Just Breathe and the one I’m currently writing Hope show how life cannot stay the way it is, even after the smallest choices and actions are made differently. When a survivor does things—and responds emotionally open in life—with a sense of accountability, self-regard and expanded awareness, changes for the better have to happen. Even if they’re not the specific ones desired by the survivor, they are steps needing to be taken to arrive.
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