On Writing Trauma
I spent last week revising my forthcoming essay collection at the Burlington, VT office of my publisher, Holbrook House. I was holed up there, in the creative hub of the Karma Birdhouse building, by myself all week, reading and rereading the past year of feedback, revising, cutting, rewriting, and drinking massive quantities of Trader Joe's cold brew.
The collection, "Feed Me," features essays related to mental health - my bipolar disorder, my eating disorder as a teenager, and alcohol addiction in the family - through the lens of food. It also tells the story of my life-threatening ectopic pregnancy and trying to feed everyone else without understanding what was happening in my own body. Each essay centers around a food or meal and (I hope) offers a message of healing from mental illness and trauma through feeding yourself. But, in order to get to the healing part, I had to lay out all the trauma and raw emotions I'd built up over decades and examine what brought me back to myself, how I climbed my way out of my deepest depressions or pushed myself through mania, how I learned to feed myself. I had to, to quote Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Almost Famous," be "honest and unmerciful." And it was (and continues to be) hard.
"I wrote my first book on my knees," I once heard Vermont author Megan Mayhew Bergman say while discussing the loss and grief she had experienced and how it influenced her short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise (read it). And here I am, on my knees, trying to build something with this pile of trauma.
On the first day of my residency at Holbrook House, I sat at the desk facing the brick wall, and opened up feedback from one of my trusted/beloved writers groups on the essay that was by far the hardest for me to write and the most vulnerable for me to workshop. After rereading all the feedback a few times, I dug in. I spent nearly 8 hours analyzing and restructuring and trimming this one essay. It was a monster that needed wrestling into some sort of manageable container. It was a tight knot of trauma, exploring a particularly terrible manic episode in which I left my husband for two weeks. It's something I don't talk about (outside of therapy) much, as it's very painful and difficult to put into words. And yet, I spent all damn day evaluating every one of those words, trying to look at it objectively, grateful for my friends' outside perspectives. As I read and reread through my greatest shame, I felt familiar anxiety bubbling up in me. Don't go there, I begged myself.
Writing about trauma can both heal some of that pain as well as make you relive it. Sometimes, you do need to examine the source(s) of your trauma in order to understand it, to contain it, to move past it. It can take a long time before you can pack it up neatly on the page or through some other creative outlet. You may never even get to a place where you can write about it objectively, create art from it.
I tried to write about my mother's traumatic brain injury in an essay for my writers group two weeks after she fell down the stairs. "Maybe you're not ready to write about this yet," one of my writer friends suggested. She was right. It would take years before I could try to make sense of it. And drafts of poems, essays, and even flash fiction before I could actually do it.
I had a similar experience writing about the ectopic pregnancy that almost killed me when I was 26. For a few years, I was just like let me lock this thing up real tight and not look at it ever, 'k? and that wasn't really working for me. So, then, I was like here's this poem that's really about depression after that traumatic experience but let's just pretend it's just about watching a lovely fire, amiright? and that wasn't working either. One of my writer friends said in a workshop, "This is lovely and all, but what's it about?" and I just broke down crying at the table. "It's about the ectopic pregnancy I haven't told almost anyone about," I sobbed. Put that poem in a drawer for a few years, before I could finally write about it for HuffPost. And two more years before I told the story to a live (Zoom) audience at the Mad River Story Slam this past April.
That is all to say that writing about trauma is not a slow or simple process. And it's full of traps and triggers that might come from seemingly nowhere, like a simple question in workshop: Cue ugly tears. And while it can have great benefits to healing and moving past trauma, to make sense of it for yourself, it's also really fucking hard and sometimes you have to sit on the floor and cry for a while. Or treat yourself to a latte in the coffee shop below your publisher's office and sit by the waterfront and let the sun shine on your face and take a break before reading that goddamned essay one more time.
Though it hasn't been easy, the process of publishing that essay in HuffPost felt like a release, a letting go of pain I'd been holding in for years and which I still didn't quite understand. Now that it was out there in the world for people to read and engage with, I wasn't holding it deep inside anymore. It didn't feel as huge and scary. I could say, that happened, but here I am now. People - strangers! - wrote to me to say they'd been through something similar or to thank me. I felt like I could control the experience and the emotions, instead of the other way around.
By the end of that first day of residency, I felt lighter, like the experience of that manic episode and all that ensued was behind me, that a burden had been lifted. I'd put it outside of myself. And so, while writing about/confronting your trauma can seem impossibly hard, it's also the best way to move forward, to let go of it as a thing that exists outside of your body, a thing you can name and contain. Writing heals. Writing saves. And I believe that fully.