Wednesday, February 18, 2009

PTSD Healing: Learning To Say It Out Loud, Part 2, Or: Rehearse!

For many of my undiagnosed PTSD years my brother and I lived together on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. During some of that time I dabbled in playwriting. When my first play went into production I learned pretty quickly that what we put on the page sounds different on the stage.

As I rewrote and reworked the script, I added to the revision process by reading the characters’ lines out loud. This disturbed Bret. He’d come home from work and hear a few different voices speaking in my room, and then, when he stuck his head into say hello there would just be me sitting at my desk, pencil and script in hand, looking up at him as if he’d just interrupted a deeply fascinating conversation.

The first time this happened Bret carefully looked around the room and then back at me.

“Who are you talking to?” he asked cautiously.

He looked worried. I was, although we didn’t know it at the time, deep into PTSD, so he was used to me being a little off and needing some looking after, but having whole conversations with myself was something new.

“There’s no one here,” he said.

“I know.”

“But I heard voices.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m revising.”

What I had discovered during rehearsals was that two things were happening: actors’ verbal interpretations of my writing gave different inflection and meaning to my words, and also: sometimes the words that sounded so right in my head sounded really awful when put together on the tongue.

I am not the Magellan of revision – for centuries poets, playwrights and other writers and orators have been revising their work by reading it out loud. For us writing our trauma scripts there are some great advantages to reading it aloud before we speak it to anyone else:

[For those of you who are already speaking with great ease, you are not exempt from today’s exercise! We all hold back. We all keep some details, images, or instances secret for ourselves. Sometimes it’s because we just can’t bear relating them, other times it’s because we don’t know how. Now is the time to figure out how to say what still haunts you.]

1 – You get used to hearing the story yourself. We can’t help it, we get emotional at the thought – much less the act – of relating what happened to us. If we don’t practice what it sounds like before we speak to someone else then we’re hearing it all for the first time at the same time we have an audience. This is not necessarily a recipe for success. We’re dealing with our own emotions about the past at the same time we’re feeling very emotional and vulnerable in the present. Not the best way to go.

2 – You get to hear how the words sound. When we’re writing, we can tend to overdo it a bit. Big fancy words and long explanations sound wonderful when we’re speaking to ourselves, but you’ll lose your audience this way. Likewise, if the phrasing is ambiguous and lacking detail the audience won’t get the whole picture which, in this case, is extremely important. By rehearsing out loud you can decide if there are better words to express what you mean, more succinct ways of telling it or more facts that should be conveyed.

3 – You get to practice the feeling of speaking and remembering at the same time.
We deal with enough unwanted flood of emotion without bringing it on ourselves. Let’s not take the positive step of beginning to tell the story and sabotage it by not being prepared for how it feels to hear it and feel it at the same time.

4 – You get used to how it sounds when the ideas, memories and emotions exit your head and enter the world. In our heads memories can loom so much larger than life we can’t imagine shrinking them down to world-sized pieces. But we can. When we put them on the page they shrink a little. When we speak them out loud we get to see that they are only memories, after all. They are not happening in the moment and, though we may be a little psychologically skewed, we are still strong enough to pull it all together and share the burden with someone else.

I could go on; this is just a starter list for the benefits of speaking. These items only relate to where you are in the process today of writing it out and getting it ready for public consumption, which is a topic we’ll tackle next week.

For today, to continue the BRIDGE THE GAP healing workshop your goal is to begin reading out loud the script you wrote a few days ago. Find a quiet place where you are isolated and alone. Block out at least 30 minutes when you can read your script out loud, revise it, and read it through again.

Look for phrases you stumble over, words that just don’t fit, ideas that don’t really get the point across when you hear them out loud, and gaps in the narrative that need to be fleshed out.

Trust your instincts. When something doesn’t sound right you’ll know. Stop, revise, start over again from the beginning. The goal is to be able to read through the entire script without feeling the need to revise anything.

Final tips:

Play with your voice. Experiment with how high or low, strong or weak, full or thin it is. Find a register that feels comfortable. Don’t fake it. Be real.

Control your breath. Read slowly. Do not be in a rush to get out the story. Take your time. Breathe. Speak slowly and clearly. This will help your audience take in and understand what you’re saying, and it will also help ground you. The breath is an extremely strong source of calm to the body. Use it to your advantage.

(photo: EmazingEm)


Anonymous said...


Sometimes things are best left unsaid.

In the UK we have cinema ratings of U, PG, 12, 12A, 15, 18 and X.

Most peope I tell (which are few BTW) get the Cert U. version. Some get the Cert 12 version. Very, very few get the Cert 18. version.

I've found that even the people who think they want to know really don't.

When I get beyond the 12/12A version people start to freak out and so I'm not sure it's necessary.

I once blogged something close the Cert. 18 version and it some people were seriously upset by it.

I think there is a time when the desire/need to share and communicate becomes self-indulgent.

Anonymous said...

A second point I want to bring out is that whilst story-telling even if to yourself is a useful exercise in integration there is a genuine risk of changing the past by the stories that you create about it.

Every time a memory is accessed it is changed and rewritten in some way even subtly.

The third and final point is that it's very easy to define yourself in terms of events of the past rather than who you are today.

I can say that events that are in my past did happen but the guy they happenned to is in a very real sense long gone. At the same time I know that the echo of that guy can still visit me as occurred yesterday.

I feel I walk a line of acknowledging my past, continuing to deal with the consequences of that past but at the same time move on from it and live the life that I have today which whilst in a large part defined by the past is the life that I live today.

Michele Rosenthal said...

Mike-- You bring up interesting points, to which I would say (in the order in which you wrote them)...

1. This post is part of the BRIDGE THE GAP healing workshop, which takes as its origin the beginning of the healing process. This month, the focus is learning to tell the story so that PTSD sufferers begin to move beyond replaying events to themselves and prepare to reach out for help.

It is up to each PTSDer to decide the level of detail he/she desires to share. The point is not to go around telling our suffering to unspecified people who may or may not want to hear it, but to develop the ability to have a dialogue with a support network: specifically chosen family, friends and practitioners, the identification of which we'll begin to look at next week.

Anyone to whom we tell the story should be in the position to have chosen to hear it and indicate how much detail he/she desires. If we are suffering without support or healing, then telling the story is not a self-indulgence; it is a necessity. Healing cannot occur if we are all alone with our thoughts.

2. I agree with you that we can (unwittingly) change details of the story each time we tell it. However, I don't believe this is important at the moment: in the way that I feel learning to speak is intended here, the definite accuracy of the details and how they may be glossed over is not the point.

I don't, of course, advocate deliberately changing the facts or making up unfactual details.

However, from all of my research about and experience of PTSD, what I have learned about memory is this: the details and how we change them become mute; it is how we FEEL about the past experience that causes us to continue to suffer. This is not so attached to the details we may change or create so much as it is attached to subconscious imprints we maintain and retain from the original event.

Learning to speak allows therapists and our supporters to understand where we hurt the most, and what impressions of the trauma are still plaguing us, and therefore what needs to be revised.

Of course, I promote as much accuracy as possible, but if we cannot remember every detail or honestly make mistakes in choosing what we think we remember, the exercise of putting together the remembered fragments still moves us forward. I wouldn't hold back anyone's healing by cautioning them that the story may change or inhibiting how they approach learning to speak.

Likewise, by writing down the story it becomes more cemented and less likely to change.

3. I agree with you wholeheartely about the importance of defining ourselves in terms of today rather than yesterday. If you read around the blog some more you'll see that's what I'm always talking about -- that is, in fact, the entire point of the BRIDGE THE GAP healing workshop. The end result will be that participants deliberately construct a post-trauma identity which is built on rediscovering and choosing who they are in the present and future despite who they were past.

Thanks for stopping by and offering your perspective!

Anonymous said...


Whilst I agree with you on so many things I have found that it is within the support network where the difficulty comes in getting a story rating suitable.

For instance, my parents really wanted to know what went on and in the early days I was unable to tell them very much. Over the years I have filled in the details.

What I found was that initially telling them the truth even at say Cert. 12 was deeply upsetting for them and so for me. I found it to be retraumatising.

With me I had an effectively ongoing situations so the people who came on the plane with me knew that I'd find it difficult and wanted to be there for me but even so I'd pick up on their tension.

At times, especially prior to walking into court it was quite necessary to lie to them to keep them calm in order that I could do what I needed to do.

Somewhere I do have at least one Cert. X version of events written down. I wrote one as soon as possible after the trauma and I've written several more in the intervening years.

Part of the difficulty for me was always the shame that went with telling the story - the sense that somehow I'd failed to cope with what life threw at me.

What was helpful to me was that the lawyer who volunteered to take on my case was genuinely shocked and ashemed of what had gone on in his country and so his team worked really hard on things.

Which I guess brings me on to the final issue I had with story-telling. Disbelief. Even within the support network there was a desire not to beleive what I said; I desire to avoid entering into the world where I lived.

That desire fed back into me in a reluctance to want to believe it myself.

As for therapists. I spoke to 4 and 3 refused to take me on the grounds that they couldn't help me! That was unhelpful!

Professionals are human too! :-(

Anonymous said...

OBTW In case I miss the most important point.

Storytelling is incredibly useful and helped me a lot even if at the time it was distressing for me!!!