Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Survivors Speak: The Power of the Word

This week's survivor speaking out is Catatonic Kid, prolific and insightful PTSD blogger, and also - a poet. I interviewed CK about how she uses poetry to heal. You can view her terrific poem, 'Before' here.

Also, in the reverse of this month's BRIDGE THE GAP topic about how we communicate and educate those around us about PTSD, yesterday Catatonic Kid wrote about our peceptions of how people communicate with us. Check out her post, 'Quit Taunting the Fish', for a great discussion about how we need to be aware of when our PTSD thinking gets in the way of our correctly perceiving what's being said.

What, if any, relation did you have to writing poetry before using it as a therapeutic method?

I started therapy when I was rather younger than most, so I'm not sure there actually is much of a before. I suppose, having grown up in an highly academic household, poetry was all around me. Easy enough to pick up a book as a tool before you even know what it is you're really holding or might potentially get out of it. I tend to think more in poetic terms and big ideas than not anyway.

My PTSD came to a head via a somewhat circuitous route: severe major depression that took hold around age 13 or so... I began writing poetry seriously around that time too. The poetry started a little before I totally 'crashed and burned', but honestly, the time period is basically one long fuzzy stream of not much of anything, so it's hard to say what writing was for me then.

Something in the way of a code perhaps, to keep what I expressed from the heart a little more private. It was so easy to lose track of things in those days that writing them down once in a while probably helped to ground me. That's saying something since I was 'off with the fairies'.

What first inspired you to explore your trauma/PTSD experience in art form?

I'm not sure 'inspired' is the word I'd use. It felt/feels more like an instinctual need. When you're as disconnected as PTSD/trauma makes you, for me, writing bridged the gap.

At first, when the snowball really got rolling down the mountain, I was essentially in the state my online nick implies (borderline catatonic). I started with my first psychiatrist at 14, and was barely able to speak at all for the first 6 months+ with her. She was, thank the powers that be, extremely patient and in the meanwhile (when I couldn't see any light in that indescribably intense fog) I used writing to express a little of what I was going through, when I could.

Somehow I'd concluded that being invisible was a workable solution to the trauma, so when I couldn't talk except in blank yes/no statements reading and writing became my voice. That was how I began to figure out how to filter out the pain and focus on the present, bit by tiny bit.

In what way do you feel using artistic expression has furthered your healing?

I'll answer this one with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's words because they far better capture how I feel about it:

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death."

When you begin with creativity, in whatever way/s, you reach for both the lost and the sublime. You will only rarely get there, but just knowing that those heights exist in contrast to the devastation trauma leaves behind re-ignited some of the passion, love and self-awareness I've needed to cope.

What's the single most important benefit you've discovered from expressing your trauma this way?

Top on the list has to be that, quite frankly, writing helped keep me alive and kicking. When you're living like a ghost, so distant from the world that you cannot even see the world (quite literally), then any means of expression, anything to communicate even just a little of what you can sense is a great thing.

There's a fitting story I recall. It's like you're hanging from the edge of a cliff, and you know you don't have the resources to pull yourself back to safer ground. You know you're probably going to die, but instead of staring helplessly at death you look around you.

And what do you see? A red rose tenaciously clinging to life in a clifftop cranny. So you think to yourself, if that rose can grow here and still be so very beautiful then maybe I can too. Poetry was like that for me. It kept me going until I was able to recognise for myself that I have needs - something I took great pains to ignore for as long as possible.

What have you learned about healing by filtering it through art?

Oh, many things. First, I suppose, that healing is about feeding your whole self, and that art can tap into the parts we don't normally have particularly brilliant access to. Wisdom comes in more ways than we could possibly comprehend.

I mean, we often think of healing as being about curing sickness. But one of the things I've learned through getting creative is that healing can mean a whole range of things, and it's a different path for every single one of us.

People respond to my poetry in ways I would never have imagined when I first started writing, and I'm grateful to have been taught probably more by their reactions than my own words. That process has shown me that healing is a commitment of the first order, and that it isn't a destination but a complex, dynamic journey.

Creativity is just like that, you see. Maybe you don't have the 'right' words today, but you have faith that somewhere in this grand Universe of ours you will find them... The force is out there - just to horribly mix my pop culture references. ;)

Do you have a single piece of work that you feel best embodies what you were trying to express? What elevates this piece above the others?

Nope because all this really is a continuous process. That single piece is, if anything, the future. What elevates it is its potential to be. I guess writing/healing/trauma has also taught me to value what I might become over what has been.

Creativity is the best friend/teacher I've known, and I'm not just talking about my own creativity here but human imagination. It has been there regardless of whether I was in a fit state to be around other sentient life forms or not. You don't have to leave your safe zone to find it; it's always there, in everything.

What tip would you give someone who is interested in exploring the idea of addressing his/her own traumatic experience through poetry?

Tips 'eh? I'm not sure I'm entirely qualified for this sort of thing, but I'll give anything a shot once.

First off, write because you want to.

Try not to be too hard on yourself in the process. It doesn't need to be a masterpiece. It only needs to be somewhere near your truth.

Writing takes practice, like anything else. But when it's something as close to your heart as healing, then it only matters that it's your voice in action, your journey recorded at your speed.

'Survivors Speak' is a weekly feature written by or interviewing a survivor and PTSD experiencer about some positive aspect of healing. If you would like to participate in the series (anonymously if you prefer), please email me thoughts, ideas, and topic suggestions: parasitesof.themind @ yahoo.com.


Detlef said...

"You don't have to leave your safe zone to find it", or to be creative. I think that's what really makes creativity a key to open the door of the dungeon. A way out where elsewhere there is none. And it's not about "masterpieces", or standards from outside, but about an authentic process.

Thank you for this interview!

Marj aka Thriver said...

Amazing interview! I enjoyed getting to know CK better in this manner. Thanks!

I don't know if this is the right place to put it, but I think a self-care topic or a "nurturing your inner child" topic would be great for this series. It seems like so many trauma survivors of all kinds are challenged by finding appropriate ways to take care of themselves.

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Marj -- Are you up for the challenge? Why don't you join the Survivors Speak crew and write a guest post on the topic of self-care? Or, we could do an interview about your thoughts on it. Let me know if you'd be interested in participating.

Wellness Writer said...

Very nice interview. I'm a big fan of CK's writing and it's nice to hear about her background!


Cristina C. Fender aka Chica said...

It's nice to know more about the inner CK!


Marj aka Thriver said...

I've never written a guest piece before. How do I join the Survivors Speak Crew?

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Marj Email me for details: parasitesof.themind@yahoo.com

beauty said...

Great interview. I've always known that my writing was more than just a passion, it was also a means of helping me along my healing journey.

I struggle constantly(for whatever reason)to give myself permission to write creatively every day.

Michele Rosenthal said...

@beauty - I used to teach writing and creativity at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The #1 thing I saw my student struggle with was FEAR. Once they named, confronted and dealt with their greatest fears about writing I saw their pens endlessly flow.

"I struggle constantly(for whatever reason)" -- what's your greatest fear about what might happen if you give yourself permission to write? In the answer to this I'll bet your creativity will find its freedom.

Roman said...

When the CKid says: "Creativity is the best friend/teacher I've known, and I'm not just talking about my own creativity here but human imagination.", I remember Prof. Richard Walter's words: "And humans who fail to engage in creative expression – as creators, as observers – are not a whole lot different from walking, talking, breathing, sweating pieces of flesh."

Richard's words virtually saved my life; CKid's words make the said life strangely beautiful. Thank you.

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