By: Marilyn L. Davis
“Recovery unfolds in three stages. The central task of the first stage is the establishment of safety. The central task of the second stage is remembrance and mourning. The central focus of the third stage is reconnection with ordinary life.” ― Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery
I write quite a bit about memoir and recovery because I believe that when we write about our past lives, we give ourselves an opportunity to live a better tomorrow. I know you probably think that’s pretty cliché. I realize it does sound like I should have a dreamlike image and caption it with this as a meme.
Please, hear me out.
When people have grown up in traumatic situations, including molestation, incest, divorce, foster families, and addiction, there’s a lot of emotional baggage that is brought into their adult lives. Even if there were no traumas and a seemingly perfect family life, there can be events that alter a person’s sense of self that can carry into other relationships, their views on the world, and prevent them from being all they could be.
Memoirs Let Us Interact from a Safe Distance
Emotional safety is critical when writing a memoir.
Yet, the very act of disclosing secrets, emotionally charged memories, and contemplating showing it to others does nothing but heighten the anxiety. So, how do you make yourself feel the fear and write it anyway?
Perhaps the words of my mentor will help, “You lived through it; writing about it will not kill you.”
While that may seem harsh as a stand-alone statement, if you think about it, there is both truth and encouragement in the statement. Tell yourself:
- “I did live through it.”
- “I did survive.”
- “I did come out on the other side.”
Those three sentences became a sort of mantra while writing and maybe they can help you.
Memoirs Aren’t about Vengeance
I worked with a woman at the recovery home who was sexually abused by her father, and when she told her mother, she was confined to a mental hospital for six months in the 1970’s. She found escape in drugs, alcohol, and sex. Drugs and alcohol numbed her, and sex proved that she was desirable to other men, something her father told her would never happen because she was damaged goods.
When she came to the house, her primary therapist told me there was no history of sexual abuse, yet within two days of meeting me, she disclosed her traumatic past. In tears, she stated that she wished her mother and father would die so she would get relief because drugs, alcohol, and men weren’t working anymore.
I asked her why she had not told her therapist, and she said it was because she didn’t think she would understand her anger, resentment, and rage against her parents and that I would and for the first time in her life, she felt safe in talking about what happened. I asked her if we could talk to her therapist together and my suggestion was going to be that she start writing about her life.
When we met, the therapist asked what I hoped the writing would accomplish. I told her it was twofold.
- I said that the initial writing would be all of the things she wanted to say to them but did not or could not. I thought that writing in different colored pens, such as red for anger, blue for sadness and green for the envy she felt towards other girls would also help her focus on the feelings and thoughts.
- The review of her writing would then help her categorize her thoughts and feelings and decide how best to either confront her parents, with the support of the therapist, or choose which aspects she was willing to forgive.
At first, she was hesitant to write, but I encouraged her to write something daily. I cautioned her that it was best not to write about traumatic events right before she retired for the night. Most of us can’t shut off the thoughts easily in early recovery. So, she made a commitment to write for fifteen minutes in the morning. After three days, she was writing up to an hour.
Healing Through Writing
When she was about fifty pages into this exercise, she told me that she didn’t feel as much rage as before she started. After her next therapy session, she asked me to read what she’d written. She warned me that the language was raw. I told her that I didn’t shock easily and that whatever language she had used was what she needed to say.
Four months into therapy and writing, she asked to use the computer one evening. She said that while she was present in the moment with her feelings using the pens, she and her therapist thought it time to confront her parent in writing, and she thought she needed some distance. When she wrote with pen and paper, all of her sense were engaged, and she could get in touch with more of the emotions. Writing on the computer gave her some emotional distance. However, she was clear about the damages that her parent’s actions caused her, how she felt as a child growing up, the abandonment by her mother and the ease with which she was shipped off rather than believed and protected from her father.
Because of additional readings, she was able to forgive them for herself, not for what they had done, but because, as she put it, “I need to be free of the resentments, rage, anger and find value in myself again.”
She also asked if she could start attending church services, as she wanted to return to the comfort she found in the religion of her childhood as she missed the connectedness that she felt when she attended. She realized that it was the simple act of praying that brought her solace. Falsely blaming God for her life and the actions of others meant that she did not have these comforting rituals to reassure her that she was okay.
I encouraged her to return if that would help her better cope with her past and move forward in her recovery. I told her that I strongly believed that each individual should find and then develop a relationship with either a Higher Power or a belief system that worked for them, for it is the one sustaining sanctuary and place of safety in a sometimes seemingly hostile world.
Five months after she sent the letter, her parents were killed in a car accident. She chose not to attend the memorial service, but we made arrangements with the funeral home director for her to go with her therapist and I the night before.
As we sat, she asked if we would join her in the Lord’s Prayer. We held hands, and when she reached the passage, “. . . And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” she stopped and started crying softly.
Her therapist and I each put our arm around her shoulders and she said, “I could not expect forgiveness from those I have harmed, unless I was willing to forgive my parents, nor can I forget the abundant forgiveness I have been given from God.”
I knew at that moment that she had healed considerably in a short time.
Is It Time to Put Pen to Paper?
Writing a memoir, even without the intention of publishing it can and will be a cathartic experience. This woman today works with sexual abuse survivors and always has red, green, and blue pens when she conducts workshops. She is about to celebrate 20 years in recovery as well. She stresses that the simple act of recording what she wanted to say to her abusers was the beginning of healing.
And of course, she reminds the participants that they did live through it, and that they can write about it as well.
For more about waking up to the nightmare of sexual abuse and the influences on us even after the abuse stops, I’ll link to Sedated Secrets: Waking up to the Nightmare on From Addict 2 Advocate.
I’d also recommend that anyone who does want to write about their abuse have a therapist who is specifically trained in either sexual abuse or trauma.
For more about effective memoir writing, here are a few other posts that might help you develop your memoir.