Writing through PTSD: A Personal Account
I never feel safe.
This is the center of my PTSD—the axis point at which the rest of the disease revolves around. I call it a disease because that’s what it is: a malignant tumor that spreads across my life, leaving nothing and no one untouched.
I am not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 7.7 million Americans aged 18 and over share my condition. And yet, even in the face of these overwhelming numbers, the monster that is PTSD makes me feel isolated. Everyone’s trauma is unique, as is how they suffer through the aftermath. How can any one person relate to the next when faced with those odds?
Just as PTSD is a large part of my life, so is writing. I was a creator of stories long before the trauma, and remain one after—but as I mentioned before, a disease leaves nothing untouched. There is an incalculable difference between my work before PTSD and after it. My earlier writings are fraught with emotion and human connection. My writing after the trauma became emotionless and as closed off from the world as I felt. And then, slowly but surely, using writing as therapy paid off. Once I decided to tap into my experience instead of keeping the memories at bay, I began to open back up. Funny, the power of putting pen to paper—the power that words hold. For me, my own helped me move on and seek care for myself instead of pretending nothing was wrong.
As human beings, society teaches us to do just the opposite of this. Topics like PTSD and depression are considered taboo, even on the cusp of this activist era. On the flipside, the best writers are often referred to as tortured souls, walking a fine line between sanity and self-destruction. I myself have watched men die from the stress of “finding the muse” within their pain. The old adage that claims better art is born out of suffering does not fully touch on the scope of the matter. The easy option is to let the pain consume you. Harder is the choice to use the blood seeping from those emotional wounds as the ink of creativity. Trauma can lead to both destruction and greatness, but in the end that decision comes down to how a writer copes with the demons of their past.
So when you experience something life altering and horrible—so frightening that you must live with that event for the rest of your life—how do you take steps to harness that negative energy and use it to improve your craft? The answer isn’t as simple as “writing about it” directly, as is first instinct. I can only respond with my personal solution. When it got to the point that the trauma affected the one skill I hold most dear, I had to sit back, take a breath, and reflect. What I then realized was that I’d been going about it all wrong. I was creating characters who were as undamaged as I wanted to be—even when faced with ultimate evil—when I should’ve been making ones I could relate to.
So I changed the way I wrote. I began to build fallible characters and throw them into situations that left them feeling exactly as I do all the time: unsafe. When I was scared, I made them scared. When I was panicking, I made them panic. This method gave me the two outcomes I craved most: the most important to the craft being tension, but also someone (albeit fictional) to commiserate with. That feeling of isolation lessened just a little. When the pain is at its worst, I can now think about what my characters would do to overcome the situation, and that in turn feeds back into my work.
Don’t get me wrong here. If I could trade this life lesson for an eraser that would wipe clean the terrible things that happened to me, I would do so in a heartbeat. But no such magic exists, and so I must choose: allow past trauma to render me useless, or funnel that pain into something positive to learn and grow by as a writer.
The point to this spiel isn’t that suffering a trauma makes one a better artist—because in truth, there are millions of skilled writers that live perfectly safe and “normal” lives, and many millions more that have allowed their demons to end them—but instead for that suffering to improve one’s skill as opposed to destroying them, one must first learn how to channel the experience into constructive action. Find an outlet and let your feelings drive you without getting run over in the process.
PTSD breathes nightmares to life. I have experienced that firsthand, and I’m sure anyone else suffering from the same will agree. There are many treatments for it: medication to numb our pain, talk therapy to reveal our demons, service animals to comfort us in times of panic. But as writers we have the added option to translate those horrors into words—if only we can find the right way to do so—and wield that as a power to assist others in the same battle.
There are great writers who have accomplished great things but still led destructive lives. There are poor writers who have accomplished nothing but still lived. There are successful writers who have led ordinary lives. And then there are those who suffer trauma, continue writing, and survive the pain. I hope to count myself among the last group.
So now I ask you, the reader, for your feedback. In the face of trauma, how have you survived? How have you applied such pain to your writing craft? And how, in the end, do you hope your writing affects others suffering through the same?
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