Writing Trauma & Telling Stories

It was July 4th weekend, and it was my turn. I drew a card: Tell about a secret desire that you have. I had talked my friend into playing a game–The Ungame–which involves drawing cards from a pile and answering deeply personal questions. You can see why I am no good at cocktail parties.

I read my card out loud.

“Um… Welllll… I’ve always wanted to give a TED Talk,” I said. “Maybe not, like, this year or anything, but eventually—sometime before I die.”

Fast forward three months and I am standing on a red carpet, with TEDxUKY letters behind me, staring into the faces of strangers, hoping my microphone will work okay. We are close enough that I can see their faces. Why did I pick trauma? And writing? I should’ve gone with something funnier. My story. My story is not funny.

I imagine my sister in the crowd. I’ll do this for her, I think. And me. I’ll do this for her, and me, and for all of us whose truth is so horrific that we have wished it wasn’t ours. I can tell the truth to my sister. This makes everything easier.

My mouth goes dry. I open my journal and read. The words, in my handwriting, glow on the screen behind me. I can feel everyone looking.

“My dad killed himself yesterday. I am 9 years old…”

I keep reading, keep breathing, keep showing up. It is very hard to hide once you’ve put both feet in the spotlight. I think this is what it means to be both brave and afraid in the same moment.

I read another entry, this time from college.

I close my journal and look up.

It’s time to tell the rest of the story, the one that ends with hope.

***

And that is how it happened. That’s how I ended up giving a talk to 100 people about the amazing power of writing, of putting language around thoughts and pen to paper. It’s also how the talk ended up being debated and deleted, how reporters turned into publicists and why I had the hardest time writing anything–anything at all–when it was over. Phrases like “potential defamation lawsuit” and “disgusting things claimed” were being texted, emailed and phoned in to me. Basically, it was an introvert’s worst nightmare.

And so I did what I usually do when the Internet is having a temper tantrum. I sat back and watched. I watched some reporters do their job, brilliantly. And I saw others try, and try, and try, but still come up short. I watched people pretend to speak news but have nothing left to say. I watched people lie, omit, speculate, and bully. And it was not unlike our current presidential news cycle: a bit messy, mostly nonsense, and the truth slightly distorted.

I shut down. I quit writing. I quit doing the one thing I had talked about being my “life raft.” I quit talking because all I could see was cruelty on the other side. Sure, some people could write their own origin myth, but I couldn’t even tell my truth to a small group of people without other people losing their minds. Or so it felt.

Even with the support and unwavering love of people who have always believed me, who saw the signs, who pulled me out when I finally said NO MORE, it felt heavy. It was lonely in the way that owning your story can be. It is always hard to see the truth thrown out the window whenever it is deemed inconvenient.

But over the last two months, I’ve learned a lot about being gracious, about giving people the benefit of the doubt, about traveling to see the souls who hold onto truth with the utmost care. I kept telling myself that people–journalists, friends, strangers–were/are all trying their best. And yes, sometime their best is shit–utter and complete bullshit. But sometimes it’s the best they can do with what they have, who they are, and how they’re paid. Sometimes we crash into each other in the middle of life and we are not always kind or present or even human-being-like.

But the truth is: I know trauma. I know trauma and that’s why I talk about it. I talk about it because it can kill us slowly, from the inside.

And I’m not alone. About 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. We know that more than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. We know that an American dies of suicide every 12.95 minutes and over 40,000 Americans die by suicide every year. Reports tell us that 73% of college students will experience some type of mental health crisis while at school. And a study recently showed us that 43% of U.S. graduate students had more stress than they could handle.

This is real life, and we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by not talking about it. We aren’t protecting each other when we send the demons to the shadows instead of telling the truth–the first time.

We need to stop with the hiding, and the shaming, and the victim-blaming. Or to put it more succinctly: We Need To F&$*ing Talk About It. And that is why I gave that talk. I gave that talk because through the lens of my own story I thought we could have an adult conversation, about adult things, and look at the benefits, research, and support for using writing to help process and integrate the parts of our stories we would rather forget. I want people to have the power to tell the story that is theirs–even if no one ever reads their words.

It was through my own writing that I discovered my reality could be different. Joan Didian said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” That has been my experience.

About three years ago I found a therapist who told me to write about my experiences. “That’s how you process things,” he said. And he was right. He suggested I go back and write what really happened. Because while I was in it–while I was trying to survive—I had no perspective on the type of trauma I’d been experiencing. He wanted me to go back and put a context around what had happened. And sitting down to write was excruciating because when I finally looked at it on paper, it was worse than I thought.

But through writing I took steps to help integrate the parts of the story I had worked hard to hide. And I used writing to heal. And that is how it became my life raft.

Telling stories is how we do human together. It is how we say “me too.” As Natalie Goldberg said, “Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.” And through writing–through owning our stories–we set ourselves free.

The story of my marriage and my dad’s death are only a piece of the story that’s shaped me. And some days I look around and realize we’re all living these stories we’re not actually talking about and I wonder what would happen if we were honest with ourselves. I think sometimes we feel our lives are these shitty drafts that we need to clean up before we present them to the world. So we don’t write–we don’t tell the truth–because we are afraid of recording failure. We don’t want our lives to be real.

But dealing with the truth is way more powerful than any lie we could trade for reality because we get to write the ending.

And what if we wrote, and it was exactly what we needed to read?

We might realize we’re not a sad story.

We are amazingly human.

***

For those interested in how writing can help us process trauma, I highly recommend Dr. James Pennebaker’s books  Opening Up and Expressive Writing. I used Opening Up as one of my primary resources for the talk.

Now, back to writing that book of mine.

Update: Due to incoming questions about the status of my talk and whether or not I’ll be posting it online, I thought it appropriate to let you all know the following… On November 23, 2015 I was sent a link to a video sample of my talk and was told it was for viewing purposes only. The email also stated final videos would be posted the week of December 7, 2015. Believing the video would be available in the near future, and unaware I had permission to download the file, I didn’t secure a copy of my talk.

 

Photo Credit: Kelsey & Nate