After trauma, what we believe becomes the stories we tell about ourselves and about what happened. The center of our world seems irreversibly altered, and to a degree it is. Things will never be the same. Our thoughts become skewed; the world takes on a hue of blinding red—everything around us feels like a threat, like danger.
We internalize what happened to us, turn our anger on ourselves, or the world, or on those around us, and our self-image and beliefs are distorted. Trauma makes us unable to see the world and ourselves the same way we were before. Sometimes, our reflections become unrecognizable. Trauma may feel like something we can’t escape, but in creating we break free, learn to trust ourselves, and most importantly, find ourselves again. Trauma isolates you, but art connects you.
Trauma is complex, and in many ways, mystifying. It’s hard to describe what it does to you, because there are as many reactions to trauma as there are survivors. If there is one commonality between every trauma experience, it is that in some way it is disembodying—one day you are you, and the next moment, you aren’t. As survivors of abuse or assault, we live in a world that isn’t always stable.
Often, it is an instability we’re born into. Sometimes we can stay in the present, we see and hear ourselves as we are, but then we’re back there—trapped in that basement, bathroom, or garage, alone. When we relive the incident(s) we are taken away from ourselves; forced back into the worst moments of our lives. This, I say from experience. We become trapped in these memories: we relive what we wish we could forget, what we try desperately to escape, and we fade from ourselves.
Trauma manifests in a myriad of ways; in negative thoughts that become toxic patterns or beliefs we see as fact, and therefore don’t question. We can find ourselves repeating and recreating various aspects of events that led to the trauma. It can take on the form of familiar, but toxic and abusive relationship dynamics, ones we’re often used to. We oscillate between feeling an encompassing blank, numbness, until we ‘wake up’ to feel like we are drowning under the weight of everything we feel.
In effect, these patterns become a recreation of the trauma, a reliving of a story we desperately do not want to acknowledge, because acknowledging it means we have to accept it. But, only in facing what happened can we move forward, and no one ever tells you that accepting what happened does not mean you condone it. We cannot change what happened to us, we cannot change what someone did to us, but we can change the way we view our story, and that is all the power we need.
The power to reclaim ourselves lies in our ability to create. Giving ourselves the space we need to tell our story, with our voice, on our terms without judgement is what allows us to heal.
We can break these cycles and see through the lies we’ve been made to believe. Through writing or in keeping an art-journal, which is a type of mixed media journaling, we are giving ourselves the greatest gift we ever could. It also happens to be the one thing we’ve always needed. We stay with ourselves. When no one else does, we hold our own hands. We listen despite the imposed silence trauma brings. We acknowledge our stories and our pain. We give ourselves a voice, when the rest of the world, even our families and friends, refuse to hear us. It isn’t easy—very few things in healing, if any, will be easy, but that’s okay.
You are worth the effort it will take—even if you don’t believe it yet. Starting an art journal is simple, but in execution, it can be more challenging. Though all you need is a blank notebook and some pens, or whatever else you might like such as paints or stickers—what you need most of all is permission from yourself to sit at the blank page and release. It requires effort and dedication. Sometimes on paper trauma can take over, and what was meant to be a safe space, becomes a place in which you relive what happened. If you’ve ever started a journal and abandoned it—that may be a reason why. In journaling, like in life, you need to strike a balance—you need to give yourself the space to tell your story and you need to give yourself a reason to come back to it for the next page.
That being said, a journal should never become a place where you feel you must censor or deny yourself. The one thing I, and every survivor, needs most of all is to be heard and seen. You need to feel what you don’t want to let yourself feel and you need to write down the stories you are afraid to acknowledge. To create a sustainable journaling practice, you need to give yourself this space to speak and you need to try and find one good thing to balance the pain of writing your stories. To survive, all you ever need to do is focus on the moment as it comes.
Focus on what, for a fraction of a second, makes the pain quiet. Find one thing that allows you to see something else, something other than trauma, and then write about it. Expand on it, capture the moment in your journal, however you can, in the spaces you have between telling your story. Even in pain, good moments can be created.
Make yourself coffee or tea in the morning and if this is the only good thing you can find in a day, that’s okay. Embrace the soft glow of a candle you bought for $5.99—realize that the fact you even bought yourself a candle is monumental. If, in witnessing a sunrise, you are able, for a moment, to see something outside yourself that allows you to breathe, capture it. Relish in the moment you manage to see that one star after minutes of staring up into the blank night sky.
Life is often like this; at first, it’s hard to find a small point of light in the encompassing dark, but once you do the sky lights up with stars. These things are so simple, yet vastly expansive. The smallest moments, on bad days, become everything. It’s why it’s necessary to find, reflect, and capture them for yourself as much as you can, even when you are ‘bleeding’ your story out on paper.
All you need to create is your own permission to feel what you need to feel. Do not apologize for it. Do not censor yourself. Do not silence yourself—this is an ongoing practice for all of us. The stories we have to tell are not easy stories to bear, but they need and deserve to be told. Telling them to a blank page will be everything when you have nothing. Give yourself the space you need to tell your story.