Why Writing About Childhood Trauma Is So Important
Some years ago when I was in my 40s, I recall a good friend telling me that her 62-year-old mother was having a nervous breakdown. When I asked her what was going on, she said that following her divorce, the trauma of her childhood resurfaced. Her mother had been orphaned at an early age, and now that her husband was leaving her, she felt that the wound of abandonment was being reopened. When this occurred, she sought ways to numb her pain, and eventually found solace in drinking excessively. When my friend pointed out that this was counterproductive, her mom sought the assistance of a mental health-care professional to help her examine her past wounds and figure out ways to move forward productively.
As an advocate of writing for healing, I often find that there are students in my workshops who are trying to come to terms with past traumas. A large number of those dealing with such traumas have been holding onto, and are dealing with, events that occurred during their childhoods. The traumas can be psychological or physical or both. While they might not be readily obvious, many of these traumas can lead to addictions that manifest themselves during adulthood. They can include any and all types of addictions, such as those to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, love, and gambling.
Gabor Maté, M.D., the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and someone who has dealt with addicted individuals in Vancouver, British Columbia, believes that addiction is really only a symptom, but the fundamental problem is actually a history of trauma. He says that addictions originate from a place of pain, and that once people understand their trauma, their addiction can be dealt with successfully. The traumatized individual tries to self-medicate as a way to cope with the memory of their trauma or as a way to numb the pain of the lived experience. Healing from the wounds of the past occurs only when individuals are able to identify or discover the root cause of their addictions. This is most easily done through psychotherapy — usually via talk therapy and sometimes augmented by writing therapy.
In June 2016, a conference was held in Saskatchewan, Canada, called “Innovative Approaches to Justice: Where Justice and Treatment Meet.” The participants at the conference were primarily mental health-care professionals, judges, and lawyers who work in worldwide treatment courts. The attendees came together to see how they could best understand and help troubled individuals in complicated situations, and try to determine why crimes are committed. For the most part, the consensus was that unless we get to the root of these problems, these individuals may continue to be a part of the judicial system for the rest of their lives. Supposedly, the courts in Saskatchewan are acknowledging that there is no justice without health, and they are beginning to believe and recognize that some individuals act out because of a history of unresolved trauma.
By rewriting the narrative of our lives and reading or hearing the stories of others — whether they be about heroes, heroines, gods, goddesses, or others — we learn that before the characters see the light, they enter a period of darkness. We also learn that such stories contain a universal message that can help provide meaning and understanding for our own lives. Writing our stories helps foster an inner awakening and a transformation of the body, mind, and spirit. If we stop and think about it, we can see that every story we hear or tell is a story about transformation. Looking into and examining our past — the patterns in our lives, where we came from, and where we’re headed — is one way to understand who we are.
Those who’ve participated in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings know that this type of deep reflection is a huge part of the writing process. On the road to recovery, when AA attendees do personal writing exercises, they’re advised to divide their writing into three parts:
• Their past
• What happened that might have led to their addiction
• Who are they now (that is, belief systems, strengths, and weaknesses)
Participants in these meetings and also in my workshops might then be advised to look for threads or themes running through their lives, and to identify any patterns or commonalities. To take it one step further, they might be asked to identify any lessons they learned along the way, and any insights that might have come to them. This sort of life review is a powerful way to paint a portrait of oneself, and help provide a good context to writing one’s narrative.
Sociology professor and author Arthur Frank (1995) identifies three types of narratives written by wounded storytellers or those who write about difficult times — the restitution narrative, the chaos narrative, and the quest narrative. The restitution narrative is most often associated with a history of trauma because it relates to another type of writing, the reconstitution narrative, in which the writers long for a sense of acceptance of their traumas as a way to create coherent stories of themselves and their lives. In this way, traumatized individuals bring together the shattered or fragmented aspects of their experiences to form a meaningful bridge between the past and the present.
Earlier on Huff/Post50:
The 5 Drugs Most Commonly Abused By Post-50s
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on July 13, 2016.