As a ghostwriter who specializes in grief and trauma, I meet people in the worst of places. I sit with them as we travel back in time, hand-in-hand, to confront real-life monsters. I journey with them into dark corners of the world where they’ve experienced violent encounters, deaths of loved ones, life threatening illness, and horrific accidents that left them forever changed. Together, we defeat the monsters, bring loved ones back to life, and break free from twisted, jagged wreckage where they’ve remained trapped in their minds for so long.
Trauma is one of the most complex things we as human beings can experience. For some, it ignites a fire within. The injustice of pain creates a nearly immediate, undying desire to do something—anything. Sometimes we pump that energy into immediate launching of initiatives in hopes of catalyzing some measure of change. Other times, that desire to do something results in less healthy forms of action like revenge seeking, self-harm, or turning to substances in an attempt to numb out.
Others feel less capable of doing anything at all with the pain. At first it drowns us, then it envelops us, and eventually it simply drapes over our shoulders like a blanket—that pain is the only connection we now have to our loved one or to the person we were “before.” We wrap ourselves in it, we burrow into it, we let it cover our wounds.
In this, pain ends up being a salve.
What I’ve learned is that some of us hold onto pain for that exact reason. The pain of trauma becomes a vital part of our identity. We worry that letting go of the sting somehow detracts from the experience. Instead, we wallow, we remain in a state of victimhood, we shroud ourselves in the pain, we surround ourselves with other victims and choose not to heal. That choice isn’t wrong, nor is it even hard to understand. If you’ve been through something that changes you, it has changed you, and we didn’t get to choose whether or not what happened did, in fact, happen. However, what I’ve found in my work is that we do get to choose some of the ways in which trauma changes us. And we certainly get to choose what we do with it.
I struggled with this for a long time after the loss of my father, and even before he passed as I remained caught in the throes of his alcoholism—seemingly forever stuck in the cycle of being a child of an alcoholic. I was afraid to let go of one ounce of the pain, anxiety, or sadness. I worried that if I did, I would be dishonoring my experience. I believed sitting in pain validated the ways these events effected me. I worried that letting any part of it go meant that I was somehow “over it” and that people would no longer remember that part of my story. They’d look at me as someone who skipped through life having never experienced a thing, even though I felt like my mom, sister, and I had survived a war.
That, my loves, is where I found a place where the trauma could exist in my life without creating the compulsive need to hang onto sadness and pain; in that one little word: survival.
I began to realize that I wasn’t someone who was burdened with the weight of suffering. I was someone who had survived some pretty gnarly shit, and that I could let the gnarly part go and cling tightly to the lessons I learned from it all. I could use my experiences to connect with others more deeply, to help them feel more comfortable sharing their own pain with me, and empower them to do something with it. My work allows me to take the most awful things that ever happened to someone and turn those experiences into stories that catalyze change, add to cultural conversations, and offer hope.
Wherever you find yourself on your grief, trauma, or your healing journey is exactly where you need to be right now. My intent is not to push you through it or to urge you to rush your healing. Instead, I want to remind you that the acute pain you feel (and may even cling to) is not the thing that gives your experience value. It is simply one of the many results of your experience. You can choose to hang onto the pain, or you can choose to loosen your grip on it. The truth is, it will never, ever fully go away; that’s not how trauma works, but you may get to the point where the pain can part like clouds. As the pain breaks, it could reveal the underlying, positive things you are able to contribute to the world thanks to your experience(s). This is why we write: to change the world one word at a time. We simply can’t do that if we don’t allow ourselves to let go—just a little. Remember, releasing the pain does not dishonor the experience. In fact, it has the power to do the exact opposite. When you allow yourself to see clearly what was gained when all seemed lost, you might just find a drop of truth that gives rise to a tidal wave of change.
Written by our founder, Alee Anderson. Click HERE to learn more about her writing journey and career.
Photo credit Jimi Anderson @jimiandersonphotography.