Writing about personal experiences is hard. Writing about the worst times in your life without ranting or breaking down, balancing the raw emotions and the battle with authentic memories is something else entirely. And when you write experiences that have happened, you have to go back there, first reliving it and then dissecting it. What really happened? What was really said? What did you feel, and what do you feel now? What is fact, and what is open to perception – yours or someone else’s.
I recently enrolled in a course about writing about traumatic experiences. I don’t normally do online courses or any sort of writing workshop because of money or time or some other reason – I always find one that is always part reason, but mostly an excuse. I did this because something about the course made me pause. When I first saw it I kind of disregarded it. I was sure I couldn’t afford it. But it remained present in my thoughts – nagging at me to check it out. And so I did. And I decided it just might be worth it. I asked my husband and he was very supportive; he thought it would be the perfect writing workshop/course for me to take. And before I knew it – I was enrolled.
I didn’t know what I was going to focus on when I enrolled in the class. The last two years have been all about my medical memoir, and that journey from death back into life, physically, mentally and emotionally. I was torn because writing about that would be the most relevant to what I am working on now. But I have also worked on almost nothing else since. And I kind of need a break. And as weird as this may sound, dying and going through chemo and dialysis, and surgeries and being told that this is it, isn’t the most traumatic thing I have ever experienced. Sometimes I question how it even ranks. I mean Top Ten for sure, and if I lump traumatic experiences together by how they’re related, it’s even the top three, but I wanted to dig deeper and do something different.
I figured I would write something about my parents. I have so many memories to choose from. The steak knife in the bathroom on Halloween… Strangled until I lose consciousness after being beaten to the point where my entire body was varying shades of purple… Or when my mother nearly dropped my baby sister because she was punching me, and I was trying to get away, and then told me that I killed her. (My sister is alive and well, but that doesn’t help the trauma of that experience.) I have a great deal of material for writing about traumatic experiences when it comes to my family. And that is without counting my experiences on the streets because I often found them safer than the conditions at home. Which really says a lot.
But I didn’t write about that, either. What I wrote about surprised me because it was something I had put away. Not as in I’m over it, because unlike my experiences with my family and growing up abused, I’m not sure there is such a thing as, “Over it.” I mean with my family, I’m not even 100% over everything; I doubt I ever will be. But I have accepted how things are and cut away those toxic elements from my life. And that isn’t easy, but I am finally strong enough to do it, and I have, which brings a different sort of peace. But I will never know what it is like to have a family, or to have parents. I’m an orphan and both of my parents are still living. This statement can hurt, and I would be lying if I said I never felt sad or hurt or thought back and wondered why or how things could have been different. There is a longing that will always be there, but the anger is gone. And I no longer hold onto those experiences – they no longer have the power over me that they once did. But this thing is different. Because I’m not sure how moved on I can ever be, and it doesn’t get in the way of my day-to-day, but it is with me every single day, and it always will be.
I’m not going to say, “This is what I wrote about,” because I’m not there. But what surprised me so much was that I wrote about it at all – even if I never expected to show another soul. My husband is the only person who knows about the experience. And I only told him about it three months ago. And before that not a single soul ever knew. My best friends, any relatives, any anonymous resources such as hotlines – no one. I’m not sure why I told my husband when I did. I know I had been itching to tell him for about three months before it finally came out, and why I felt the desire or need to tell him, I don’t know, but I did. And he is great, and he was great about it, supportive and everything I could ask for, but I thought that was it.
I was a teenager when the trauma occurred and I tucked it away, put it in a box never to be opened again. There are parts of the experience I relive often (it is the main feature in my PTSD) but I have never went through the experience, beginning to end. I never looked at the facts or tried to revisit how I felt in those moments. I never had a reason to, and even now I’m not sure I have a reason to beyond this course, which is great, but it’s four weeks of my life and nothing more.
Writing about it wasn’t particularly difficult. I don’t know why. I was detached, as if watching it unfold, but it wasn’t me and I was witnessing the violence and the violation happening to someone else. And I could record the facts. What happened. What was said. What was felt. And that was that. But when I was done, I felt sick. Like hot and sweaty and my chest pounded and I struggled to take a breath and then I threw up. And then I was done. I didn’t reread it. I had no desire to, and I wasn’t sure if I would submit it to the class. And I posted as much, but at the heart of my medium length post was this state: “It’s not about worrying about people’s reactions, or whether or not this is a safe environment. It’s about the fact that once it’s known it can’t be unknown, and I give up some of that control.”
And that bothered me, and it still bothers me. I expected my husband to encourage me to write about something else, and not submit what I wrote when he read it a few days later. But he surprised me. He said that this was what I should submit. This dark, unknown, never-talked-about-before thing that I try so desperately to forget and not think about when it is impossible to do either… For me, I don’t want people to know, not because I believe it was my fault or because I think anyone else will either, and not because of stigma or some other “common” reason. For me, I don’t want this horrific event to be attached to me, when people think of me. You know like if someone is in a terrible car crash and loses their entire family, for years afterward that might be attached to someone’s thoughts whenever they think about that survivor. I just don’t want to be associated with it, in anybody’s mind.
I did submit it though. Because it was the scariest thing I have ever written. And the scariest thing I have ever lived through, which is precisely the reason I keep it in that box. It’s the reason I don’t think about it or talk about and the reason I pretend it doesn’t exist. Even when I carry it every single day, and I do. And that was why I submitted it – the reason I put it in the box was the reason I had to let it out now.
I keep thinking about the person I was, and the person I have become and these are not new thoughts for me, but what no one in my life knows is who I was back then, and how or why I changed. I was the opposite of how I am now, and who is to say I wouldn’t have become more like the “me” I am now anyway, but I kind of doubt it. I was very much “go with the flow” and I never had a plan. I was ambitious, but also one of those people who just grabbed onto life and jumped before looking if it was for a dream. I took risks, and I didn’t always think about consequences. I was never on time for anything and a schedule? Forget about it. I was sweet, and a social butterfly – like the typical Leo, I loved being the center of attention. I did community theater (as in acted, wrote and directed), I loved meeting new people, experiencing different things, and I was much softer than I am now.
But that one event, “changed me down to my core – who I was, what I liked, how I reacted and saw the world.” And that is how I carry it around every day. Because the person I am was born out of this thing that happened. And after nearly fifteen years I wrote it down for the first time. And when I read it I don’t know how I feel. Angry, sad, ashamed, guilty, terrified… these emotions are on some sort of shuffle. The only constant is that disconnection. Maybe I put it in that box too long or maybe who I am is so rooted in it, I have become numb to it to some extent. Or maybe I am as healed as one can be in terms of this event and I have achieved that elusive achievement of acceptance.
An excerpt from the piece I wrote:
“I’m okay with the person I have become. I am strong, and I am capable and I can power through anything… but sometimes I miss the ease and the softness and innocence of who I was, and who I think I should have become. And I’ll never know that person, and that makes me incredibly sad. Sometimes I think what happened changed me for the better, to get through everything else life would throw at me between then and now. And other times, I feel forever disconnected. I’m hard and harsh, and I can’t be vulnerable and I can love easily, but it is the hardest thing in the world to be loved, and accept that I am loved. All because of one day… I’ll never feel the way I once did, or be the way I once was. And that has to be okay. Some days, I think it actually is.”