The Art of Resilience

The reason I started this blog was to share my interest in therapeutic writing. As many of you know, this focus has changed slightly but today I want to return to a topic that remains important to me: therapeutic writing and resilience. I will begin, however,  with what creates the impetus, the need, to develop resilience: trauma and suffering.

Suffering happens. Trauma causes lasting, ongoing distress. Bearing witness to trauma and suffering helps us recognise, acknowledge and relieve the pain. Being resilient is understanding trauma, knowing that it results in alienation as well as dissociation from the traumatic event itself. Resilience is being aware of how trauma disconnects us from our self and our perceptions. Trauma flays friendships, undoes families and leaves us at the mercy of others; to advocate resilience is to acknowledge the struggle to comprehend or change the situation, to acknowledge that trauma makes us feel like ‘a nobody’.

Well-meaning suggestions about how to respond to trauma, and claims that our trauma is less traumatic than another’s, serve only to undermine our survival, suggest our story is not worth sharing or we haven’t ‘suffered enough’. Comments like this rob us of the ability to decide, for ourselves, the personal quality and potency of our suffering; they turn us away from resilience and back to the trauma.

Does defining trauma as

unspeakable [and thus] resistant to representation

silence us, leave us powerless to deal with or learn from the trauma? When trauma is endlessly reproduced and recycled by the media, either for entertainment or as ‘news’, are we being conditioned to accept trauma and suffering as ‘normal’? When groups of people are traumatised, do we know those groups, know individual members of the group, only by their trauma, only by their suffering?

Who benefits from labelling individuals and entire cultures, as ‘traumatised’? Who gains by robbing individuals and entire cultures of their agency, their ability to heal from trauma?

If we study and understand the impact of trauma, shouldn’t we also study and understand how to heal from trauma?

There are some who believe in

the transformative potential of trauma itself […] the possibilities of psychic regrowth

that is a possible outcome of trauma.

Art makes healing from trauma possible. Art is an act of survival. Art builds resilience.

Why art? Because nothing else is strong enough to contain the destruction of the self.

Art doesn’t theorise suffering, it engages with it. Trauma can not

properly be grasped in a purely cognitive manner … its … chaotic and meaningless character

must be encountered through writing, painting, music, drama and movement.

   What of the risk? What if by ‘re-creating’ the trauma we are ‘re-traumatised’? Memory, as it is newly understood, is a process of

selection, emphasis and amplification.

Is it possible that by drawing on our memories of trauma, actively choosing how to represent our trauma, what to represent, what to amplify and what to ignore, we can regain agency? Can remodelling our trauma provide us with the means to craft our recovery and learn to take control of our lives?

Therapeutic writing builds resilience. It helps us discover our meaning of the trauma, and reject meanings imposed by others. Therapeutic writing, like any writing, is an exacting art. It needs the support of a counsellor, who is also a reasonably skilled writer, to witness and guide the process of safely remembering and reconstructing the traumatic event. It needs someone who knows that resilience is flexibility, plasticity and strength. It needs someone who understands that the story of trauma inherently contains a story of survival and the story of suffering is a story of resilience.


The views expressed here are not not meant to serve as medical advice or replace consultation with your physician or mental health professional. The information contained in this blog should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem. If you have experienced trauma you should consult with your medical practitioner or a qualified mental health care provider about your personal questions or concerns.

References

Emily Ashman, ‘Psychic Resilience in the Fragile Images of A Petal: A Post-Jungian Perspective on Retraumatisation’, in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 171-187.

Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin, ‘Trauma Narratives and Herstory’ in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 1-12, p. 7.

Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery from Domestic Abuse and Political Terror (London: Pandora, 2010), p. 52.

Stephen K. Levine, Poiesis: The Language and the Speech of the Soul (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers 1997), p. 120.

Stephen K. Levine, Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), pp. 38-41

Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas, ‘Trauma Texts: Reading Trauma in the Twenty-First Century’ in Trauma Texts ed. by Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), pp. 1–8, (p. 1).

Photo Credit: Pixabay

 

Seven Posts in Seven Days: Three

Trauma, Healing and Literary Writing

For today’s post I want to return to the original focus of this blog: Therapeutic Writing. I also want to try something new: asking questions at the beginning of the post instead of at the end. I guess it’s the teacher in me; perhaps my questions will enhance your reading, maybe you will find them irritating. Either way, please feel free to comment on the post, my questions or anything you want; just remember to keep it polite!

Here are the questions:

  • What feelings, if any, does this post provoke?
  • What problems or objections do you have with the opinions expressed here and why?
  • Is there another way of looking at this issue?

And here is the post:

I recently read an excellent article by Kelly Sundberg on Brevity, where she shared a remark an examiner made when Sundberg defended her PhD thesis, which was a series of linked essays about personal trauma. The examiner wondered whether the work was ‘melodramatic’. Sundberg was justifiably stunned by this comment. My initial response to her blog was that academia still has a long way to go before it accepts PhD projects involving research filtered through the candidate’s personal experience.

I experienced a slightly different response when, back in 2008, I started working on my thesis; someone suggested I should focus more on my trauma. I was uncomfortable with this. My experience was, and still is, powerfully personal and I didn’t want it to become the subject, throughout my candidature, of campus gossip, however well meaning. I also wanted to protect my three children and my parents, who appeared, albeit briefly, in the memoir that was a crucial part of my Creative Arts thesis.P1000499

Like Sundberg, I agree with Jessa Crispin’s misgivings about trauma as an entry into a ‘club’ of women who write about their pain. I didn’t want to join the club; I wanted my thesis to focus on well-being and  survival, which is why I researched writing as healing or, as Sundberg puts it, that ‘dastardly term’ therapeutic.

As I neared the end of my PhD the issue of trauma again raised its head. I was advised to demonstrate my awareness of ‘trauma studies’ and how I incorporated it into my research. Trauma studies, for me, examines distressing, depowering and damaging events or situations that result in the ongoing misery or suffering of individuals or groups, and which leaves them unable to enjoy or participate fully in life. Studying the causes, effects and consequences of trauma is certainly important. The danger lies in trauma defining our individual and cultural identity, and we ‘become’ the trauma we have experienced or witnessed. This risks characterising the individual and, I believe, entire cultures as victims, not survivors. It also risks ignoring the very necessary and difficult work of healing a trauma.

Emily Ashman believes in

the transformative potential of trauma itself and the possibilities of psychic regrowth that may emanate from traumatic individual and collective processes.

Steven K. Levine suggests we acknowledge trauma while fostering a creative response to it. For Levine, healing is an act of survival, something made possible through art:

expressive therapy teaches the art of survival, survival through the making of art. Why art? Because nothing else is strong enough to contain the destruction of the self.

Believe me, I appreciate the benefit of studying and writing about trauma. The problem is, focusing on trauma may mean, as Sundberg acknowledges, trauma becomes the main factor in how women (and men) are perceived. I think this ‘fetishizes trauma’ instead of addressing its causes and treatment. When trauma, but not the means to prevent or assuage trauma, is validated, we live in a culture that upholds and prolongs suffering and alienation. I want to make it clear Sundberg does not do this, quite the contrary, and I agree with her that the comment made when she defended her thesis was inappropriate. Sundberg is right to worry

about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma. I am worried about the notion that writing about trauma is somehow easier (or less than) other writing.


This is how I feel about therapeutic writing, which means I disagree with Sundberg’s comment that:

‘Like most literary writers, I do not believe that literary writing should be therapeutic.’

Why? Is it impossible to be a ‘literary writer’ and write about healing or write as a form of therapy? Good writing, which is what I presume Sundberg means by ‘literary writing’, does more than ‘tell a story’. A therapeutic writer (of fiction and non-fiction) is capable of constructing an interesting plot and creating a memorable, intelligent narrative voice that clearly portrays engaging, multidimensional characters. Therapeutic writing can also employ evocative, stimulating language that conveys a coherent, meaningful and universal theme. Therapeutic writing can likewise describe humankind’s best and worst qualities.

Instead of focusing on trauma, a better approach is to endorse and validate healing and promote healing as a cultural, and not just individual, activity. Therapeutic writing, like any other form of writing can achieve this. It only takes the kind of hard work, attention to craft and the ability to draw on one’s lived experience that Sundberg says she devotes to her writing.

What do you think?

References

Emily Ashman, ‘Psychic Resilience in the Fragile Images of A Petal: A Post-Jungian Perspective on Retraumatisation’, in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 171-187.

Stephen K. Levine, Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), p. 120.

THERAPEUTIC WRITING: REMEMBERING TO FORGET.

My partner Caolan is an actor. He is currently appearing in a local production of Eurydice, by American playwright Sarah Ruhl. The play is a modern interpretation of the ancient myth of Orpheus who enters the underworld in an attempt to retrieve his beloved wife.

Eurydice, not Orpheus, is the main protagonist of Ruhl’s play. As well as being deeply in love with Orpheus, Eurydice misses her father, a character Ruhl introduced to the tale. Of all those who dwell in the underworld, the ‘Father’ (he has no name), is the only one who remembers his life and the people he loved. On the eve of Eurydice’s wedding he writes her a letter that sets the play’s events in train. Caolan plays the Father and in the last few weeks, while he has been in rehearsal, we have discussed Eros, the intimate, sexual love that Eurydice feels for Orpheus, and Philia, the affectionate, loyal and joyful relationship she shared with her father. We have also discussed the significance of memory, loss and grief that performing in, and watching, a play like Eurydice produces.

Although it has been claimed that Ruhl wrote the play to honour her father, no one but the author can know if a piece of writing is intended to be therapeutic. The play, and watching  Caolan and the other cast members perform in it has, however, made me think about how therapeutic writing can heal the pain of losing a loved one.

‘How,’ the Father asks towards the end of the play, ‘does a person remember to forget?’ The answer lies in one of the many powerful symbols in the play: the River Lethe.

DSC_6707

In order to reach the Greek underworld a soul had to pass through the waters of oblivion. In the process memories were surrendered and those left behind were forgotten. Unlike the dead, those of us who remain are cursed with remembering. Forgetting a lost loved one seems abhorrent. Memorials, photographs, benches by the sea, a tree planted in a special place, a loved one’s piece of jewellery or article of clothing worn close to the heart, a treasured personal effect, or shrine are ways to ensure memories of the beloved will not fail us. Such memorials also make the lost one real to our descendants although in reality, all they do is pass on a memory.

In Ruhl’s play, as in the classical myth is, Orpheus is told, ‘As you walk, keep your eyes facing front.’ Not only does he fail to do so, but in Ruhl’s version of the tale, Eurydice, afraid the man she is following is not her husband, runs up to him. When Orpheus turns to face his wife she is forced to return to the underworld. I think this means the bereft must do two things, remember the beloved while looking to the future. The work of grief involves negotiating between the two, and although our memorials may help in this process, another way is through story.

Our parents begin our story before we are born; we are the story of their hopes and their future. We invariably, however, insist on shaping our own story because that is how we come to terms with existence. Just as the content of every life is different so is the way we structure and tell our story. Our story-voice is like a fingerprint. I am not referring to the sound of our voice as we talk, but the words we choose, the emphasis we place on certain events, the repetitions, the patterns, and the symbols we use when we story our lives.

Poetry is story distilled in the crucible of language, rendered down to a sauce, and poured over the meat and vegetables of life. Theatre is story as dialogue, of souls glimpsed through the dark and tempered through the magic of a spot of light.  At these times story is a flame, its dogged blue heart burns to be told and in the telling you and others may be scorched, such is the insistent nature of story.

We are terrified of what will happen when stories jumble, syntax dissolves and phrases melt away like marshmallows over a fire. Maybe that is why we fear death. We do not know, as we cross the Lethe, or crumble in the bowels of a vast oven, which of our stories a loved one will tell as they drink lustreless coffee and chew over the dusty biscuits. But story us they will. A distant relative begins with, ‘I remember when …,’ a cousin adds their morsel to our tale, the way a cook adds herbs to a pot. A neighbour adds salt or a little pepper, a friend stirs in the name of a song you danced to at a party back in … when was it? It won’t be a matter of ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’, because their telling thickens our story. Those gathered, whom we loved, will smile, nod and take a spoonful of our story and add it to theirs. Our stories will continue because remembering is the way the bereaved look forward. Eventually, however, those who partook of our story will forget our quirky ways, our gait, how we smelled. Only the story remains, the way Sarah Ruhl’s story on the stage is now a part of   Caolan’s story, and the other members of the cast. It has also become a part of my story, and I have, in a small way, passed it on to you. If, as Ruhl has indicated, she finds solace in ‘telling someone something strange and funny that happened to me to make myself feel better’ then the healing is our way of looking forward.