Fiction such as the novels ‘In Perfect Light’ by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and ‘Push’ by Sapphire feature adult survivors of complex childhood trauma that illuminate post-traumatic growth, the clinical term for when survivors come to experience life-enhancing development and insight in response to complex childhood trauma. Post-traumatic Growth may involve positive changes in spiritual life; relationships with others, themselves and the world; in their overall approach to life, as well as a sense of purpose and place in society. For Andres, in ‘In Perfect Light’, he is, at twenty-seven, able to form friendships after seventeen years of shutting people out. He is also able to accept help, go back to school and hold a job. Precious in ‘Push’ too is able to form friendships, accept help and move herself and baby out of the toxic family environment with her abusive mother. She also forms loving relationships with others and most importantly herself. Furthermore she experiences a sense of purpose, ability and place in society as a mother, poet and someone who wants to get her GED (VCE equivalent), a job and a place of her own.
While post-traumatic growth is possible for adult survivors of complex childhood trauma involving sexual abuse, the situation is different from that of survivors of adult trauma, incurred by the diagnosis of a terminal disease, surviving an accident, rape, natural disaster, attack, or sudden loss of a loved one. Adulthood trauma means that the individual has reached a point in life in which they have had the opportunity to successfully undergo the formative stages of human development to establish a secure sense of self (Posttraumatic Growth Research Group, 2014). Often this is not the case for the adult survivor of complex childhood trauma, who is susceptible to suffering the debilitating consequences of being developmentally arrested as a result of not having had the time, environment or nurture necessary to develop a healthy, functioning core self and secure attachment style to recover (McCann and Pearlman; 2009, 46-54, 170-174).
In the 1930s John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst interested in the distress expressed by infants when separated from their parents, developed attachment theory premised on the significance and lifelong implications of an infant’s reactions to its parents’ presence and disappearance. In the 1960s, psychologist, Mary Ainsworth went on to distinguish between various attachment styles and subsequent implications for the individual’s future relationship to self, other and world. Ideally, a secure attachment is formed in a safe, calm and nurturing relationship with guardians who allow the child to appropriately explore his/her surroundings. Such children are likely to have their physical and emotional needs met in a timely and fitting manner. Contrary to this, children of complex trauma experience an insecure attachment style: avoidant, ambivalent or disorganised (Arnold and Fisch 2011, 24).
Adults with an avoidant attachment style tend to become distant in the face of closeness, vulnerability or emotional connection with others. They are typically critical, rigid and intolerant. Like, everyone, they crave connection and love, but at the moment they find it overwhelming and withdraw. Avoidant attachment style can be formed when a child is unable to use formative relationships (established with primary caregivers) to emotionally regulate him/herself due to parents/carers’ rejection and emotional unavailability. The child’s unmet need to assert control over his/her emotions results in disregard of self and a therefore consequent failure to recognise others’ feelings.
Adults with an ambivalent attachment style are known to be anxious and insecure. They can be controlling, lack an appropriate sense of boundaries (too much too soon in friendships and relationships), fearful of abandonment, clingy, blaming, erratic, unpredictable and at times quite charming. An ambivalent attachment style potentially arises when the individual exhibits the inability to exert limitations or capacity to self-regulate. Even in adulthood, they remain easily overwhelmed, highly sensitive to feeling abandoned, threatened, offended or rejected and continue in a highly dependent state. Their eating and sleeping are typically irregular; they are slow to adapt to change and cautious to explore their world. As already indicated they can be volatile and, particularly in later life, their anxious and ambivalent disposition can lead to feelings of alienation, narcissism, and antisocial behaviour.
An adult with a disorganised attachment has strong tendencies towards being chaotic, inconsistent behaviour such as being ‘hot and cold’, insensitive, explosive, abusive and untrusting even while craving security. These individuals are known to struggle with addiction, have violent tendencies and suffer from mental illness. This style typically develops with a child’s inability to recognise what to expect of primary caregivers from one moment to the next: love or abuse. The child feels disorientated and unable to regulate his/her emotions, which results in dissociative states to escape feeling helpless. The frustration that ensues from trying and failing to engage others emotionally impairs their physiological and emotional development. Consequently, the child learns the world to be a dangerous place and people to be unpredictable and unreliable for support or protection which can profoundly disrupt adult life (Arnold and Fisch 2011, 25-27).
Without adequate love, protection and appropriate guidance, children do not and cannot adequately develop the cognitive and emotional capacity to progress into securely attached adults with a sure and functional footing in the world. Consequently, survivors of complex childhood trauma that become insecurely attached adults, emotionally and psychologically lack the internal resources to securely attach as well as those necessary to process traumatic experience, self-regulate, and thus establish an integrated sense of self required for the capacity to sustain intimate connections with others (McCann and Pearlman; 2009, 122-154).
While insecure attachment has alienating effects on the survivor, s/he paradoxically needs to be in dialogue and relationship with others to efficiently overcome the setbacks of the unconscious, and therefore unprocessed, trauma. Thankfully, with adequate professional help, awareness, work and networks formed, it is possible for an individual to change his/her insecure attachment style into a secure one. In cases where post-traumatic growth occurs for the adult survivor of childhood complex trauma, this initially involves a process of establishing a sense of self, the capacity to develop healthy connections with others, integrating the fragmented self, reparenting, emotional regulation, and a transition into adult maturity and perspective. To achieve this takes an adult survivor years of dedicated work, persistence, openness and trust to undergo the psychological, emotional and somatic reconfiguration and development required for post-traumatic growth to be possible. My PhD research has led me to conclude that while something of the post-traumatic growth process can be depicted in fiction and vicariously engaged within reading it, the post-traumatic growth process can be facilitated through writing fiction alongside therapy. Throughout a series of blog posts, I will unpack and support this in future articles explaining the how, why and to what end. The purpose of this particular article is to clarify key terms and establish a context for the argument I will support and clarify in depth.
Trauma is experienced by the individual when a traumatic event suffered is so different from what and how they have previously known and threatening to their sense of safety that the world and others become strange, no longer makes sense or holds meaning. Because traumatic experience cannot consciously be contained, it occupies the unconscious and is expressed through symptoms such as:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event through upsetting memories, flashbacks, and nightmares. Sometimes the trauma survivor will experience feelings of distress or intense physical reactions at being indirectly reminded of the event through a triggering smell, sound, sight or synonymous aspect of the environment in which the original trauma took place. The distress felt expresses itself on a somatic level, which means via the body through sweating, pounding heart, nausea, shortness of breath, vomiting…
- Avoiding reminders of the trauma. Activities, places, people, thoughts and objects that remind the survivor of the trauma are met with a powerful aversion. The survivor may consciously remember very little of some or all important aspects of the event nonetheless the unconscious cannot forget. Consequently, the survivor may experience adverse reactions to activities, places, people, thoughts and objects that to some capacity share an affinity with the external circumstances of the original trauma without knowing the reason why. Although feelings of such aversion are powerful and are experienced as threatening they also hold essential pieces and helpful of the survivor’s story that needs to be consciously recalled and dealt with so the survivor may deactivate the symptoms that limit his/her life and in time grow beyond it. In future articles posted I will discuss how and why fiction writing and reading provide a safe and manageable space in which the survivor can begin to work through this.
- Increased anxiety and emotional arousal. These symptoms include trouble sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy and easily startled, and hypervigilance (enhanced sensitivity to threat).
- Guilt, shame, self-hate, self-neglect, lack of hygiene, disgust or self-blame
- Feelings of being used, manipulated and betrayed. As a child, the survivor was used, manipulated and betrayed in instances such as sexual abuse but this may not be the case in the current adult relationship they are experiencing these same feelings in.
- Inability to trust
- Unconscious re-enacting of the trauma through abusive relationships, risk behaviour, self-sabotage, withdrawal etc. ‘Repetition Compulsion’ is a term coined by Freud to describe the trauma survivor’s compulsion to continually re-enact the trauma on a symbolic level in various ways throughout the rest of their life. I will devote a future article on how fiction writing and reading can help the adult survivor to recognise these ineffective compulsive patterns at play and how a story can be used to assist in the process of identifying, rewriting and overcoming them.
- Depression, social phobias, eating disorders, addiction (to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, exercise), personality disorders, criminal behaviour and hopelessness can often be an unconscious response to past traumatic experience which must be released from the unconscious mind and body. The unconscious will continuously seek to expel itself of the toxic negative energy trauma is via symptoms that can be psychologically survived. This is how the survivor’s psyche ensures its best chances of survival although such coping mechanisms do compromise the survivor’s life and at times result in death. This is because at some point maladaptive behaviours (dissociation, cutting, substance abuse, isolating) stop working. Again I will go into further detail in future posts to show how fiction provides the survivor with the means to engage with his or her unconscious traumatic content through images, metaphors and symbols which is the languages of the unconscious. It relies on symptoms and the body to express itself like fiction relies on metaphor, symbols and externalisation of events, settings, subtext in dialogue, narration and characters’ behaviour to represent what is internally and unconsciously going on for the survivor protagonist and those of his or her world. And this indirectly provides a window to what the survivor writer is often unconsciously seeking to work through and as the story is refined and clarified s/he gains an increased conscious awareness and mastery over this.
- Suicidal thoughts and feelings
- Physical aches and pains
For further information on this, please visit http://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/post-traumatic-stress-disorder.htm
This coming-into-awareness might be understood as occurring during the drafting, revising and rewriting process, rather than the initial writing out. For it is precisely at this point that the writer must listen to what they have written, realise the meaning and significance of what is being said, and aesthetically construct it strategically through a fictional story. The survivor writer writes forward through imaginative resolving of conflict and obstacles.
To organise content coherently, by turning it into the story, the writer is required to occupy the seat of the author by coming into an objective awareness of what, at a subjective level, is taking place on the page. That is, a writer must develop a sense of why and to what end each choice is made, instead of another, and keep the logic consistent and tight throughout. The fictional story which can be imbued with significance and meaning offers a structure through which sense, connection and communication can be made out of trauma and therefore becomes a means through which the unconscious experience is consciously processed. With fiction’s use of story design, metaphor and permission to defer from the facts it becomes safe and possible to both express the truth and rewrite the story in such a way that it becomes consciously bearable and therefore known to the survivor. When in consideration of these factors, fiction seems to make it possible for the survivor to both safely know their story and create a new one for themselves. They can visualise a protagonist’s way out of trauma through the story and by doing this begin to envision, and problem solves a way out for themselves. The survivor writer must undergo a process of superseding what the survivor-protagonist knows and, in doing so, build in signposting so that the reader might imagine the direction the protagonist’s post-traumatic growth will take beyond the story.
Additionally, this distinction between protagonist and writer may also play an essential role in making the traumatic content safe to metaphorically engage with for it establishes the writer’s self is at a distance from the narrator’s world and circumstances. The survivor writer is no longer a child and powerless but the one calling the shots and determining how the story ends. S/he gets to say exactly how every aspect of the story is going to unfold. This not only gives the writer an experience of being separate from the traumatic content but as author s/he is in all sense of the word located outside the narrative and story world created.
By using tales or lies enables a survivor writer to express and give form to their psychological and emotional truth. The lies employed to tell a truth that facts cannot and are what distance the survivor writer from the main character’s world and circumstances. For in writing another’s story the survivor must come to know their own, and this is why the therapy sessions are an essential part of the fiction writing. This is where the survivor goes to bring what is coming up for them with regards to what they are becoming conscious of with their own trauma story.
The trauma content included needs to be understood and consciously intervened with regarding structure, which is a story. This is what prevents an explosion of traumatic content without context, logic, and intention of becoming the unmanageable and unknowable thing that it is in life. For example, the writer has the narrator include scenes, inner monologues, settings, events, as well as observations regarding at the omission of others according to purpose and significance of the story as a whole. The process of the survivor writer getting the structure as a story to work logically is what fosters an increased sense of mastery over previously unconscious content. The survivor writer through writing stops being trapped by the limited knowledge of the protagonist, for the writing, rewriting and revising eventually garners insight and control in ways the protagonist simply cannot and does not have.
I implicated myself as an adult survivor of childhood complex trauma, reading trauma fiction and writing the adult survivor of complex trauma coming of age novel Warrior alongside weekly therapy sessions. I used fiction which proved to be for me the safest space to emerge and grow beyond the mere survival of my own complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I will share my research findings as to the how and why it worked for me alongside designing remedial fiction writing courses to take place alongside therapy so that it can be used for others in need too.
Arnold, Cheryl and Ralph Fisch. 2011. The Impact of Complex Trauma on Development. US: Aronson.
Kristeva, Julia. 1980. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia: New York.
McCann, Lisa and Laurie Anne Pearlman. 1990. Psychological Trauma and Adult Survivor Theory: Therapy and Transformation. London: Pluto Press.
Posttraumatic Growth Research Group. https://ptgi.uncc.edu/what-is-ptg/