Write About Your Trauma
And let the healing begin.
It was my first semester of college, and I was in need of healing.
There were the mono and tonsillitis. The daily adjustment of moving from the house I’d spent my whole childhood, away from my family and everyone I knew. There was 9/11, which felt big and scary, even though I was no patriot.
More than anything, heartache consumed me: over the ex who lived too far away, and the more recent one, who told me, with a faraway twinkle in his eye, that when he cheated on me, “She cried because she was so happy.”
Through this turmoil, I attended a college class called Writing and Healing,
at the University of Florida, co-taught by writing professor Vikram Rangala and John Graham-Pole, M.D. (author and pediatric oncologist, who co-founded the Arts in Medicine program at my university’s hospital). Their thesis was,
“Writing and healing are two processes that really are the same process happening in two different realms.”
I sought a Journalism degree,
but already I knew I was more drawn to first-person, literary writing than I would ever be to just-facts reporting.
This was 18 years ago, but my old syllabus is still stuck in that year’s journal. It was a requirement of the class to journal for at least 10 minutes a day, though we kept our journals completely private and never had to show them to the teachers.
I feel some healing now, just from rereading the syllabus, reminders such as
Make sure your notebook is not so fancy that you hesitate to write badly in it. You must do a lot of bad writing.
You must attend to the health of your body in some fashion for 20 minutes 3 times a week. Writing comes from the body as much as the mind.
My first semester of college, I danced with the idea of suicide. It wasn’t the first time in my life depression visited me, but it was the deepest I’d fallen into it so far.
If I hadn’t had my writing? If I hadn’t had this class?
That old journal is full of sad puppy dog truths:
“I cry every day. It’s the need to cry that bothers me. I allow guys to own my emotions instead of taking control and feeling how I want to feel. Sometimes I cry for no reason, when I finish doing something and see a blank space of time in front of me.”
I wasn’t writing for an audience; no one wanted to read any of that. But that doesn’t mean the writing didn’t serve a purpose.
Throughout the semester, alongside our writing practice, we learned about research studies proving the benefits of writing and other art, not just to our mental health, but to every aspect of our physical health.
The next semester, I took Writing and Love,
Professor Rangala’s other class, with the same requirement to journal every day (though we never had to show it to anyone).
For the assignment A Time I Felt Sexy, I wrote about a man I’d just met, a man who would rape me two years later, though of course, I couldn’t know that then. I wrote about his tattoos and the buzz of his record player, playing Billie Holiday. About how he licked my knee pit, and I liked it. Then last year I finally wrote about what happened next.
We write to make sense of things.
My 4-year-old can’t write yet, but I help her tell, and re-tell (and re-tell and re-tell) stories:
The time she got scared of a sign at gymnastics (a red hand symbol to say STOP).
The time our friend tripped in a puddle and screamed like she was dying.
The time the animatronic Halloween spiders seemed to jump at her with their glowing red eyes.
I help her retell her traumas, help her detail them and make sense of them because I know that telling our stories heals us.
My favorite parenting book: The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., emphasizes this:
“Help your kids make their implicit memories explicit, so that past experiences don’t affect them in debilitating ways. By narrating past events they can look at what’s happened and make good, intentional decisions about how to handle those memories.”
All the advice I read for helping my child works for grown-ups too. We heal when we write. We heal when we tell our stories, when we make the implicit explicit.
So if you are hiding from hard truths, trying to guard yourself with silence, tell your story. And let the healing begin.