Writing through PTSD: A Personal Account

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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.

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?

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?

Image of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
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Raine Winters

Column by Raine Winters

Raine lives in Cleveland, Ohio and works as a freelance writer and graphic artist. From an early age she has harbored a love of reading and writing, and is lucky enough to incorporate both into her daily work routine. Raine is a lover of all things fantasy and horror related, has a soft spot in her heart for middle grade and young adult fiction, and spends most of her free time running, wakesurfing, or wrangling in her husband and three cats while they perpetrate a massive amount of mischief around the house.

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Comments

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 9, 2016 - 10:25am

I was not a writer until after my first suicide attempt. Before that moment, I was just another military person who just couldn't seem to get his shit together. I started writing as a cathartic gesture. I started with journaling, but hated it. There was no end to random thoughts in my head. But I started writing poetry and that seemed much better. There was some structure. But of course, poetry and the military in today's era does not mix well. If you do write, it is something that is to be kept secret and hidden from the military world. I played along. Two more deployments, the loss of some key family and friends, a few bad relationships, a divorce, add in a wee-bit of alcohol, and boom, second suicide attempt.

The military is a place where not feeling safe is your normal. It is, at all times, standing by for violence. I didn't recognize my PTSD when I first got out of the military. Military medicine chalked it up to depression and called it a day. My friends and family, however, knew something was not right. Firecrackers in the neighborhood were absolutely most definitely gunfire. Any loud low bass booms were IEDs or mortars. Going out on July 4th was not a good idea. So, my family and friends did what any good people would do, they just stopped talking to me and making any plans with me. Because everyone knows, you don't talk to veterans about their experiences. You thank them for their service, maybe buy them a beer, and get away.

I eventually figured it out after a while. I decided writing was a good thing, but I needed some structure. So, I went to college for English to better acquaint myself with the thing keeping me alive. I studied philosophy, which helped me understand this world much better, and gave me valuable ways of learning to work through my internal dilemmas or coping skills. Feminism is a great tool, especially understanding bodily difference and learning to stop comparing yourself to every other human. So, I am of the sort that writes or I die. I keep learning or I die. I push forward with my goals and passions. It makes me an insufferable fuck because I am always pushing.

My writing is quite simple. I take a character in the middle of their life, I give them trauma, then I rip everything away, family friends job money, everything, and then I give them the opportunity to sink or swim. I just like to watch as people rebuild their lives. We all had that "I wish I were born with everything I know now" thought. Well, my characters are reborn in a sense, they have nothing, but they know everything they know now. They just aren't toddlers. 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

....I apologize for the rant. It's just what I do.

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David March 10, 2016 - 3:40pm

Since my health went south last August my writing is the only thing I have control over in my life. I have an escape for a few hours each day where I'm someone else with someone else's problems.

Sometimes that little bit of control is all I need to make it through the day.

Patrick Moloney's picture
Patrick Moloney from Chicago is reading Karl Ove Knausgaard March 14, 2016 - 9:35am

Thanks Raine. This very timley for me,  I suffer for PTSD as result of years of abuse as a child both sexual and emotional. Many years of therapy and sober living.etc have helped.Through all those years. Though I struggeld with it's coherency often, writiing has been a  place for me to open up the wounds to some light. Its therapuetic but its not necessarily therapy, because, it's often tough to know mine and others boundaries and how far to push them,without guidance, before causing just more pain. But I keep finding that pushing them causes pain that may get me to a deeper level of understanding, but also can be crippling is if not done in a safe atmosphere..

Thanks,

 

Pat

EliBrite's picture
EliBrite from the Deep South is reading Eutopia, by David Nickle March 23, 2016 - 10:13am

Raine (and everyone who commented above),

Thank you for this. Topics like PTSD are still treated as taboo -- and like Jose mentioned, often many people (even the people you think should be close to you) don't want to hear your story, or be too near you. It's isolating to wonder what other people might think if they know you've survived one or multiple traumas -- are they wondering if you're a time bomb, a safe hire, a friend or potential partner worth getting close to? It's isolating to see what happens when you do disclose, or when you can't hide some of your reactions, and watch others pull away, either demanding less of you or demanding more -- a more that is for you to be a person this hasn't happened to, or to be well a month or a year after they realized, or you told them, how deeply wounded you are.

Talking to other people who struggle with this is one way I survive. Finding a good therapist, a low-stimulus job, getting a dog for support, moving in with longtime friends who can handle that sometimes I will wake the house up screaming in my sleep -- these things help.

Letting my writing and music go as dark as it needs to be helps. My writing isn't splatterpunk-influenced horror but it's most often speculative and it deals a lot with loss and with bodies -- violated bodies, dead bodies, self-injured bodies, maimed and mutilated bodies. It deals with psychological trauma and maladaptive coping mechanisms. I take the ugliness I've witnessed and I try to put it on the page -- and when I can, when it feels right, I give those characters company that will make time for them, or vengeance, or a means of putting themselves back together. When it doesn't feel right to rescue them -- when it feels right to acknowledge that some things happen to us that make parts of us die -- I let them go down, or spiral out, because at least then, I've done the least I can: I've borne witness for them, and to what happened to them.

Like Patrick, I try to figure out how to do this in a way that won't cause me further harm. Sometimes I stop work on a story and walk away for a while if I feel too raw -- and I think that's OK, too.

P.S. Marc -- Being in the mental space of creating something is a very focused, very cathartic way for me to spend time. In my case, it's partly about control, and partly about shutting everything else out for a few hours -- that escape you mentioned. It's not just an escape, though -- it's a generative act. I finish your writing time or meet my goal for the day, I can look at this thing I've done, there's physical evidence of my worth and my drive. It helps.