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Being in the Now: Finding Freedom by Writing about Trauma

Every month, I lead a ReStory Your Life Meetup in the Sacramento area for trauma survivors. Different people come each time.We have been meeting for well over a year, more frequently before I had a teaching job. For a while, a steady group met twice a month at a cafe in Rocklin. Writing is at the center of it, along with the people themselves.

I create the writing exercises before we meet but often change them, depending on what’s going on for the participants. This past meeting, we focused on three writing exercises: 1) In what way was your trauma triggered in the past week or two and how did you deal with it? 2) Write a letter to someone you are angry at regarding your trauma or someone you’d like to thank, forgive, inform, or simply talk to. This ‘someone’ could be a former self as in an earlier you, or a part of yourself. Write to this self or part in third person, i.e. he or she.  3) Pretend you are someone other than yourself who loves you. Have this ‘person’ tell another person five things about you that are lovable and/or admirable. Again, write in she or he.

With each prompt, we freewrite, which involves just letting our thoughts spill out onto the page. We focus in on the topic but allow the writing to unfold how it will. Each person’s work is his/her private material, and there is no pressure to share it. On the other hand, after we do the writing exercise, I open up the opportunity for people to read aloud, for there can be healing in sharing one’s words with others. I think of it as witnessing. After a person shares, there is no discussion or applause or comment. We simply hold the writer and the words we’ve heard with what might be called reverence or sacredness. The truth of the person’s words is powerful and we sit in quiet awareness, respecting the courage it takes to reveal one’s inner self to others. I am still in awe of the stories I heard that night.

Here is my piece in response to writing topic 1):

When was the last trigger? I was putting the light up in the living room with Griffin, and I asked her, do you want to do it? Do you want to go up on the ladder? I  was hoping she’d say yes because I noticed the light, the bright light up there. The light was blaring in through the solar tube, and it was brilliant and flashing. It hit me like the lightning in the thunderstorm the other night–mercilessly. 

Up on the ladder, I felt I was in a battle. I felt I had met the enemy. I turned my head right, turned left, trying to avoid direct light assaulting my eyes. I had a light bulb in one hand and I’m trying to screw it in without looking at the sunlight glaring in–the sunlight magnified a hundred times by the lining of aluminum in the solar tube. 

I thought to tell her that I can’t do it but then I thought, no, I’ve just got to figure this out. I’ve just got to be able to live a normal life and do normal things and not give up because I’m triggered. Cope with it! Just do it, I told myself. You can. At one point, I felt nauseous; this never happened before–this sick feeling. That kind of scared me. But I stayed with it. Just kept telling myself, it’s the glare, the bright light, this’ll be over soon. Concentrate on screwing in the bulb, don’t drop it, don’t break it, don’t hurt yourself or Griffin. I kept twisting. I got it in! I climbed down. Round one. 

Bright lights overhead are one of my biggest PTS (post-traumatic stress) triggers. When I was a baby, awake for a stomach surgery for pyloric stenosis (a stomach blockage) at one month old, the lights above me must have been blinding and terrifying. Ever since researching infant surgery about ten years ago at a nearby medical school and discovering that anesthetic and pain medicine were typically withheld from infants pre-1980s, I’ve been able to understand my panic in certain instances. I am very grateful to know the source of this acute discomfort and terror. Knowledge is power and now that I am an adult, I can explain the panic rationally to myself and find comfort within.

Often one hears New Thought leaders and healers say that it’s important to stay in the now and leave the past behind. I’m all for that. It’s just that sometimes, the now is not available. When one is panicked and holding one’s breath; when one’s heart is beating fast; when one is terrified because one has been triggered, the now has been taken over. Decoding the trigger and soothing self is key. To decelerate this type of response, we must understand our past experiences and the way they play into what’s happening now so that we can release ourselves from automatic somatic trauma response and find our way into now.

Writing enables me to learn how to cope in these situations. By unpacking or writing about my panic attacks over time, I’ve come to understand them and figure out how to manage them. In this way, writing is a key to finding freedom and living in the now. When we share these experiences in writing group with other trauma survivors, we find comfort knowing we are not alone. We feel soothed because others understand. And our courage is bolstered by sharing in each other’s victories and struggles. Writing together brings us out of our isolation which I think is a big part of people’s suffering. Here’s to freedom, writing, healing, and the now! Here’s to community!

3 Responses to Being in the Now: Finding Freedom by Writing about Trauma

  1. I agree. Writing the story over time lessens the sting and allows me enough detachment to see it from a knowing perspective instead of only a feeling perspective.

  2. Thanks for letting your readers sit in (though in a necessarily limited way) on your ReStory Meetup. It’s an excellent program and one day I’d love to be able to actually attend a meeting. You show very clearly how it works. To what extent to folk attend regularly, share their writing, and find the Groups helps them?

  3. Well, now the group is over, but I found that meeting once every two weeks was best. It provided enough space and continuity. Any less and the connection was too stretched. Now if only I could trade one of my community college English classes (paid) with one of my restory groups (unpaid). Maybe after I retire a second time 🙂 In any case, the writing together works. We have guidelines that make for safety. The guidelines are key; otherwise, people would not feel safe sharing. Each group, we may respond to three writing prompts, depending on how long we write and how much sharing goes on afterward. Sharing what each of us wrote is optional, so we never know how much time we’ll have. We comment on the pieces in a limited way. If we do, it’s only to say what was powerful or what we recall that touched us. Sometimes, I ask that the group just listens to the writing read aloud without commenting. These type of boundaries help us create healthy interactions.

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