What I Learned By Writing About My Trauma
I published personal essays about my dysfunctional childhood — was it worth it?
Recently a friend and I were discussing the act of writing about trauma. She said that our trauma is ours, and we are allowed to do with it as we please. If that means writing about it, then certainly there are less constructive ways to process something so challenging and personal.
Her words stayed with me throughout the rest of the day. My friend is also a writer, and she understands how the process of writing about trauma can be transformative. The reason that books and essays about traumatic and difficult experiences — books like Tara Westover’s memoir Educated — are so popular is because people find dysfunctional lives relatable and interesting.
Most of us didn’t grow up in an abusive family and repressive religion like Westover, but many of us have encountered our own challenges and can relate to the emotions and feelings Westover describes. We can also marvel at how she overcame the difficulties that are much more incredible than average.
If you’re thinking about writing a personal essay or memoir about something extraordinarily challenging you experienced, especially if it was a traumatic experience mentally and emotionally, you should know what you are getting into beforehand.
The first time I went “viral” on Twitter was when I shared a glimpse into my experience being raised in a repressive religious household that undermined science and feminism, the very topics I write about today. That tweet resulted in an invitation to share my story with an Australian radio show called Science Friction. I was also commissioned to write an essay for a science publication.
After that, I proceeded to write two Medium articles about my experiences with an anti-feminist, anti-science religion. One was published in GEN and syndicated by POPSUGAR , while the other was featured in Human Parts. After their publication, my readership grew twice its size overnight.
I learned a lot from those experiences. I also learned a lot from the mistakes I made along the way. Here’s what I regret, and what I’m grateful for.
I should have reconsidered how much I was willing to share
If I could go back and spend more time thinking about how much to share, I would probably write less than I did. Once you’ve shared your secrets with the internet, they are out there and you can’t take them back. I think I should have been more selective with my phrasing and reconsidered how much of my stories I gave out.
I don’t necessarily regret writing about my life, but it is surreal to have complete strangers suddenly bring up a traumatic experience and I just have to roll with it. I’m the one who chose to share, and this is the result. If you’re okay with strangers knowing nearly as much as your therapist, maybe you’ll handle this better than I did. But it can occasionally be weird when someone I don’t know is privy to deeply personal experiences.
I have never felt judged for sharing my story, but every now and then I encounter someone online who uses my past to put me down. These occasions are few and far between, but it stings when they use my trauma to suggest I’m not a good person — or that I’m ignorant or toxic or whatever — because of it. Someone might use your own story against you, and it sucks.
Sharing trauma through personal essays or a memoir can be like opening a door that is impossible to close. Make sure that it isn’t the door to a closet full of skeletons.
I should have thought about how it might cause more dysfunction
Something I didn’t necessarily expect was for the family members I wrote about to look me up, find the essays, and pick a fight about them. Unfortunately, writing about our dysfunction caused more fights and dysfunction.
But surprisingly, the biggest impact was on relatives who perceived themselves as the subject of my writing when they were not. I felt bad when I realized they were hurt by my words. I have since made progress resolving these issues with them, but I certainly had to apologize for the impact of my writing and listen to their point of view.
Even if you aren’t on speaking terms with the people involved in the stories you plan to write about, sharing them could bring those people back into your life. If it does, you need to be prepared. I am grateful I had access to therapy and anxiety medication when the dysfunction resumed because of my writing. You need resources like this if you’re going to write about trauma.
Working through trauma is already difficult and personal. Writing about trauma can be just as challenging, both in the act and during the aftermath. That’s part of why it’s so important you choose how much to share and are careful with your phrasing. Especially when you take into consideration how people you weren’t writing about could be hurt by your words.
Of course, I don’t think you should censor yourself entirely or worry about what others will think to the point you aren’t writing honestly about your own experiences. I’m just trying to stress how important it is to thoughtfully consider what you do say.
I learned that I am not alone in my experiences
After being on the radio and writing that first essay for the magazine, I received a lot of messages and emails from readers and listeners. I was surprised to learn how many people could relate to my experiences or were simply moved by them.
Trauma is powerful because it’s a universal truth. It’s like that saying, every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way. When we share our stories of overcoming our hardest experiences, we inspire others — but we also find solidarity in each other knowing others have been through similar things.
You’re not the only person who has been through what you’ve been through, though it may feel like it. There is an entire community of people who can relate to my story, and they can be found under the hashtag #exvangelical on social media. Because I wrote about my experiences, I found that community. It was incredible to suddenly be surrounded by people who could relate to me.
Finding community is, I think, a good argument for writing about trauma. We may not realize we are not alone until we are willing to speak up.
Writing about my trauma helped me more fully process it
There is certainly something to be said for writing about our most challenging experiences. By taking a difficult period of your life and turning it into a story — something with a beginning, a middle, and an end — can take the power away from it.
It turns your experiences into a neat little package. Suddenly, you become aware of the lessons you learned. The emotions you felt leap from the page but don’t bury you anymore. The problems are resolved at the end. This isn’t to say that the trauma doesn’t still affect you, but it feels more distant when it has been transformed into something different.
I have a tattoo on my left wrist — flowers growing out of an open book. To me, it represents the life that springs from the written word. But in a more abstract way, it also represents how I’m growing from my past.
Writing about trauma is a way to grow and change from it — to turn it into something that benefits ourselves and our readers. It is a difficult dragon to slay, and it’s possible that we can never fully recover, but writing about it — whether or not we choose to share that writing with others — can certainly help us along the way.