A post-traumatic recovery journey framework for creative writers

While we can’t change the past, we can change the way we view the past and the story we tell about it, which can transform identity. This is the premise of narrative therapy. However, some writers choose to work with fictionalised traumatic experience because of the difficulty of exposing hidden subject matter in an autobiographical work. Creating a fictional work may allow reflection on traumatic experiences with similar emotional aftereffects, but with the emotional distance to be able to write with a deeper exploration of the subjects writers are reluctant to confront autobiographically. This article proposes that writing a fictional account of traumatic experiences might achieve similar benefits as the personal accounts relied upon in narrative therapy. It further deduces that the hero-journey model could provide a metaphor for writers to become the hero in their own post-traumatic growth journey through creative writing. The culmination of this article is a mapping of the commonalities between White’s maps of narrative therapy steps and Campbell’s Hero’s Journey stages, and a case study of how this framed my post-traumatic journey through creative writing. This framework may be useful for other creative writers embarking on a similar writing journey for post-traumatic recovery.

Keywords: Trauma — narrative therapy — Hero’s Journey — crime fiction

 

Introduction

This article is an exploration of working through the effects of trauma through creative writing, including a case study of how the process of writing fictional accounts of traumatic experience turned the tide on the lingering effects of my lived experience of primal wound trauma. Primal wound trauma is defined as when our ‘authentic sense of self is plunged into the experience of annihilation and nonbeing’ (Firman & Gila 1997: 2) through abuse or neglect. This can lead to ‘a fundamental splitting of the psyche into a negative sector and a positive sector’ (Firman & Gila 1997: 10–11), which Rowan (1990: 8) terms ‘subpersonalities’. I consciously chose to work with fictionalised traumatic experience because of the difficulty of exposing this hidden subject matter in an autobiographical work. Creating a fictional work allowed me to reflect on traumatic experiences with similar emotional aftereffects, but with the emotional distance to be able to write with a deeper exploration of the subjects I was reluctant to confront autobiographically. The fictional work produced through this process, Ebb and Flow, is a domestic noir crime novel that delves into primal wound trauma and its effects. The protagonist, Florence (Flow), has a dual personality split between good and bad as a result of psychological and physical abuse by her father. She names her darker side Ebony (Ebb). The plot revolves around the disappearance of Flow’s four-year-old daughter, her abnormal reactions due to her past trauma, and her post-traumatic recovery journey. 

As grounding, I researched the development of treatments using personal narrative as a tool to reshape memory and lives following traumatic events, in particular the processes employed in narrative therapy. This article proposes that writing a fictional account of traumatic experiences might achieve similar benefits as the real and personal accounts relied upon in narrative therapy. It further deduces that the hero-journey model could also provide a framework for writers to become the hero in their own post-traumatic growth journey through creative writing. The culmination of this article is a mapping of the commonalities between Campbell’s (2004) Hero’s Journey stages to White’s (2007) maps of narrative therapy steps, and a case study of how this framed my post-traumatic journey through creative writing. This framework may be useful for other creative writers embarking on a similar journey.

 

Narrative therapy

Narrative therapy, developed by Australian therapist Michael White, comes out of postmodern and social constructionist critiques of human behaviour, asserting we can choose who we want to be through retelling the story of our lives. White and Epston (1990: 3) propose that behaviour associated with trauma is determined by the meanings people attribute to traumatic events. These meanings are ascribed through a process whereby people ‘story’ their lives. The most powerful transformation trauma survivors can make is to re-write the story of their lives and who they are. Narrative therapy supports the ‘re-storying’ of lives through the development of a new identity by looking at ways to create an alternate life story. White and Epston claim that, with appropriate questioning by trained experts, the therapeutic process can foster ‘the evolution of lives … akin to the process of re-authoring’ them (1990: 13). By re-writing their life stories, trauma survivors can redirect their futures.

This process seemed to align with my need to re-write my lived experience of trauma to resolve my lingering symptoms of dissociation. Dissociation can be understood as a mental process of disconnection. Sufferers may disconnect unconsciously from their thoughts, feelings, memories, or even their identity as a coping mechanism (Victoria State Government 2012: para 1). McAllister reports ‘treatment for dissociation is reassociation, or putting consciousness back together’ (2000: 30). My previously dissociated subpersonalities had been merged through psychoanalytic treatments, but Rowan (1990: 9) suggests dissociation exists along a continuum and I still suffered from the dissociative effects of numbing and depersonalisation. I often felt I was somehow outside of my life, and I was missing out on the emotional heart of my experiences. In commencing my creative writing project, my interest was twofold. Firstly, I wanted to illustrate a literary treatment of the effects of dissociation that I had experienced. Secondly, I proposed that writing a fictional account of my traumatic experiences might achieve benefits similar to the writing of real and personal accounts to put my consciousness back together.  

Trauma survivors tell stories of who they are and what happened to them, generally believing these stories are real, but these stories can be distorted by internal beliefs, the influence of others, and the limits of memory. White and Epston (1990: 10) claim negative elements of trauma survivors’ stories can be influenced and reinforced by others, even without intent, by simply allowing the story to be re-told in the same pattern. If people continue to carry these stories with them, they continue to perpetuate living them out, even when they may not be entirely true. These claims support the premise that every story may contain fictional elements. White and Epston (1990: 13) further submit that people have to fill in gaps in stories from their lived experience and imagination — exacerbated by the reality that memory is not always reliable. They contend every retelling of a story extends it: that people enter into stories, take them over, and make them their own. This suggests the process of re-storying may also encompass fictional elements. According to Detrixhe, interaction with fictional characters can have benefits including ‘identification leading to personal change, familiarity with emotional constancy, and strength by example’ (2010: 64). From this I reasoned that, framed by the principles of narrative therapy, creative writing could deliver a similar post-traumatic growth process for re-storying the lives of trauma survivors. While contemplating how to put these narrative strategies into practice in my creative writing, I was also considering how I could represent the post-traumatic growth of my protagonist, Flow, using Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

 

The Hero’s Journey

An established plot arc characteristic of crime fiction, the three-act monomyth known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’ seemed to offer a scaffold for conveying stories of post-traumatic growth. In 1949, Campbell first published The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell 2004), which sets out seventeen plot-steps which he had identified as occurring in many of the ancient myths, religions, folklore, and folk tales he examined. He described the hero as ‘the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations’ and ‘as eternal man — perfected, unspecific, universal man — he has been reborn’. His task is to ‘return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed’ (2004: 14-15). Heroes in crime fiction may not be entering caves and labyrinths to fight mythical creatures, but may enter grim, threatening spaces and the depths of their own minds to fight demons.

In her dissertation, The freedom to live: Finding empowering connections between the Hero’s Journey and trauma recovery, psychology student Laura Vecchiolla claims there is a ‘deeply rooted connection between storytelling, the myth of the Hero’s Journey, and its possible connection to trauma recovery’ (2015: 2). While her study focusses on the clinical recovery process, it leaves room to consider how writers of crime fiction could take inspiration from a story that finds its central character on such a journey, leading to resilience and character-building where the character may emerge re-born — stronger, braver and more confident for having struggled through the challenges they faced.

Expanding on this staged model, and similarly to Vecchiolla, I considered the Hero’s Journey plot steps might also offer a new strength-based metaphor to assist with trauma recovery. The aim of Vecchiolla’s thesis study is not only to offer a metaphor for clinicians to assist with trauma recovery, but also, and ultimately, to help trauma survivors recognise they are the true heroes in their own recovery journey. I deduced the hero-journey model could also provide a framework for writers to become the hero in their own post-traumatic growth journey through creative writing. Vecchiolla’s study is limited to second-hand accounts of trauma told through the testimonies of trauma therapists about their clients. She recommends the next step as interviewing trauma survivors for first-hand testimonies, and this article seeks to do this by providing a more rich description of the complex and unique experiences of a trauma survivor — being that of the author/researcher’s own lived experience. To link current therapeutic practices using narrative for healing to the post-traumatic growth potential of the hero-journey stages, and test the efficacy of the metaphor, I incorporated White’s (2007) maps of narrative therapy and proceeded to map the two models.

 

Mapping the post-traumatic journey

Table 1 maps Campbell’s Hero’s Journey stages to White’s maps of narrative therapy steps. Campbell structures the journey in three stages: Separation, Initiation and Return (2004: 28). This exercise predominantly uses the seventeen plot-steps Campbell identified in 1949. Vogler (1992: 19) later condensed Campbell’s seventeen plot-steps into twelve key story stages as a template for movie screenwriters, with the addition of an initial step where we meet the hero in their ‘ordinary world’. This map incorporates Vogler’s first step to provide an initial stage to map to the pre-therapy embodied narrative carried by the trauma survivor. In mapping the two models, I discovered commonalities exist between the stages as demonstrated below.

 

Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

White’s Narrative Therapy

0 ORDINARY WORLD: we meet hero prior to their transformational journey

EMBODIED NARRATIVE: problems are internalised and form part of individual’s self-description/identity prior to therapy

  1. SEPARATION OR DEPARTURE

1 CALL TO ADVENTURE: marks the hero’s awakening of the self

CALL TO THERAPY: individual awakens to the effects of their problem-saturated narrative

2 REFUSAL OF THE CALL: entering into the unknown, hero may at first misinterpret or refuse the call

RESISTANCE TO THERAPY: problems are created and kept alive by individual’s connection to important others

3 SUPERNATURAL AID: a supernatural mentor appears to offer hero support and guidance

NARRATIVE THERAPIST: appears and takes a de-centred position to ‘scaffold’ therapeutic conversations with individual

4 CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD: hero crosses into a new sphere of experience

DECONSTRUCTION: therapist becomes co-author to individual who has agency to deconstruct and re-write their new life story

5 THE BELLY OF THE WHALE: hero descends into ‘the belly of the whale’ to be reborn

EXTERNALISATION: disconnecting the problem from individual’s self-description/identity to recreate identity

  1. THE TRIALS AND VICTORIES OF INITIATION

6 THE ROAD OF TRIALS: hero faces initiatory ordeals/tests to begin transformation

7 MEETING WITH THE GODDESS: hero comes to know (woman represents knowing)

8 WOMAN AS THE TEMPTRESS: hero’s mastery and ability to push past temptation

RE-AUTHORING:

  1. faces trial of challenging others who have contributed to identity conclusions
  2. comes to know the origin and untruths of existing identity conclusions
  3. ultimately defies these identity conclusions

9 ATONEMENT WITH THE FATHER: hero must confront and be initiated by the possessor of an incredible power and relinquish attachment to the ego

THICKENING THE NARRATIVE: relinquishing the dominant story by filling in the gaps in thin stories with unique outcomes and exceptions from lived experience

10 APOTHEOSIS: death of self enables hero to achieve a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss

RE-MEMBERING: death of the old story of self by upgrading/honouring or downgrading/ revoking the influences of others

11 THE ULTIMATE BOON: transcendence is finally penetrated, experienced and understood for the first time

ALTERNATE STORY: elevating the subordinate story suppressed by the dominant story to form a new identity

  1. RETURN AND REINTEGRATION WITH SOCIETY

12 REFUSAL OF THE RETURN: hero is not always committed to returning

13 THE MAGIC FLIGHT: hero is forced to escape with the boon, which may be jealously guarded

DOCUMENTATION: although confronting, writing letters and documents for others for their consideration and response may act as counter-documents to the problematic story important others attempt to reinforce

14 RESCUE FROM WITHOUT: hero may have to be brought back from his adventure by assistance from without

15 THE RETURN THRESHOLD: hero returns cleansed and at peace

DEFINITIONAL CEREMONY/ OUTSIDER WITNESSING: public/social ritualistic acknowledgement of new identity claims from outsiders builds authenticity and brings peace

16 MASTER OF THE TWO WORLDS: hero can move comfortably between inner and outer worlds

CONTRIBUTOR: sharing new knowledge and stories for the ‘Book of Knowledge’ to help others, recognition as expert in the outer world

17 FREEDOM TO LIVE: hero has learned ‘to be’, through the death of the former self, the new self is able to surface

NEW IDENTITY: individual has developed a new alternate story/identity, wisdom and improved functioning

Table 1: Mapping Campbell’s (2004) 17 plot step Hero’s Journey to White’s (2007) maps of narrative therapy

 

Once I established these parallels, I set out to use this hero-journey framework, scaffolded by the principles of narrative therapy, to embark on my own hero-journey toward post-traumatic growth through creative writing. The goal of the hero-journey is not to return to the status quo, but to return transformed by the experience with the bonus of a boon or treasure collected during the journey. The post-traumatic growth journey can be expressed in similar terms. Tedeschi and Calhoun describe post-traumatic growth as a positive psychological development that ‘has surpassed what was present before the struggle with crises occurred’ (2004: 3-4), observing that the potentially transforming power of suffering has been recognised for thousands of years in religious teachings. The model provided a fitting metaphor for the journey I had to take into my psyche to turn the tide on the effects of my lived experience of primal wound trauma, and overcome the dissociative symptoms of numbing and depersonalisation that lingered. I now present this as a case study of my own experience to outline a post-traumatic journey framework for creative writing that might apply to other writers.

 

A post-traumatic recovery journey case study

Ordinary World/Embodied narrative: According to White and Epston, trauma survivors often internalise their problems or issues. An individual who has suffered from domestic violence may have internalised certain things about themselves that they have been told by other people in their lives, and these become a core part of their identity. These internalised belief systems can stop people from getting out of problematic situations. I explore this concept of embodied narrative through my novel’s characters. The protagonist, Flow, has internalised her ex-husband’s story that she is a bad mother. When her daughter goes missing her detached reaction, triggered by her feelings of inadequacy, causes suspicion. Flow’s own mother, Sandy, had internalised her husband’s story that she was stupid so she never sought to learn anything new that would enable her to get a job. She remained stuck in the same perpetuating story, believing she did not have the means to leave Flow’s abusive father and support them both when Flow was young.  

At the commencement of this project, I was not aware I carried some of these internalised beliefs influenced by others. Flow experiences a traumatic near-drowning in my novel, which is an extended fictional version of an incident from my furthest-distant memory. This memory signalled for me the beginning of my primal wound, as I had been taunted over an extended period for my ineptitude and clumsiness. The memory of this incident surfaced in my conscious mind through the ebb and flow of writing and remembering. This memory caught me in a tight grip as I remembered the feelings those cruel words evoked. My chest tightening. A feeling of inadequacy coursing through me. I felt leaden. This surprised me. How could these long-forgotten words elicit such a strong reaction? I discovered through the research and writing process that it was because they were accompanied by not only a traumatic memory of an accident, but also by embodied and visual memories. They morphed into all the other psychological taunts by ‘important others’ in my life across the years that made me feel inadequate. Deep down, I still believed I was a ‘bad’ daughter, partner and mother — an imposter in my own life. This was a core part of my personal narrative as I set out on my journey, and it kept me numbed and detached from my life.

Call to Adventure/Call to Therapy: Having studied Caruth (1995) by this stage, I understood traumatic memories needed to be integrated into a full story to be comprehended. It occurred to me my story was not complete, as many of my memories had been blocked rather than integrated into my consciousness. I thought I had let my traumatic memories go, through various forms of psychotherapy and self-care, but it seemed I had just repressed them, and was still experiencing embodied reactions over which I had little control. Bringing these memories back out into the light felt like the first step toward working through them and moving forward. I continued to write scenes in my novel that were based emotionally, but not literally, on incidents I dredged up from the past, believing this would ultimately change my cognitive perception and emotional stability. But 40,000 words later, I realised the story, my story, hadn’t changed. I was still holding onto the past and feeling detached from my life. Although I had ‘reassociated’ my dissociated psyche through therapy, problems remained to be solved.

Refusal of the call/Resistance to therapy: My creative writing hit a wall. I became paralysed and blamed it on writers’ block; but in reality it was an emotional block. I was resisting the need to explore these memories further. Around this time, I presented my Confirmation of Candidature report for this project. The committee requested I engage a therapist to work with me on the project because of its traumatic content. I was resistant to this too, feeling this would be burdensome rather than supportive. I remained locked in this paralysed state for months, focusing on my research as a distraction. 

Supernatural aid/Narrative therapist: Following the direction of the committee, I engaged a psychologist but moved no further ahead in my journey because I felt the psychologist was not engaging with my goal to create a fictional narrative for change. I began to research narrative therapy and discovered the patient had full agency in this type of therapeutic relationship. Denborough (2014) mentions Michael White’s view of taking a de-centred but influential position as a therapist, where the patient holds a key role in their own therapy and re-storying, making them not only patient but also quasi-therapist in a generative way. While the therapist asks questions, the patient as co-researcher discovers and develops their own knowledge. This co-contribution appealed to me because it valued the skills and wisdom of the individual first and foremost, and empowered them to be agents in their own growth and healing. I located a narrative therapist with complementary qualifications in creative writing who I felt secure in working with on my project. Vogler (1992: 19) refers to this stage as ‘Meeting the Mentor’. The narrative therapist became my mentor in my post-traumatic growth journey by engaging with my creative writing.

Crossing the first threshold/Deconstruction: Epston says ‘Every time we ask a question, we’re generating a possible version of a life’ (in Cowley & Springen 1995: 74). The narrative therapist began asking questions that helped me to deconstruct the story of my life in order to begin re-constructing it. By expressing curiosity about the behaviours and motivations of ‘important others’, he encouraged me to consider ideas outside of my own experience. He highlighted themes of blame, judgment and agency in the early scenes of my novel for me to contemplate their meanings in my own life, and introduced me to theoretical concepts to understand my feelings of detachment and their origin. His most valuable suggestion was that I step into the shoes of the ‘important others’ in my narrative and write from their perspectives. This not only allowed me to consider alternate perspectives of my experiences, but also led me to develop the mother, Sandy, into a point-of-view character through which to explore alternate perspectives of both Flow’s and her father’s story. I crossed the first threshold, and my post-traumatic journey gained momentum.

The belly of the whale/Externalisation: With a new understanding of what had been, it was time descend into the belly of the whale to discover what could be. Externalisation gives a problem its own identity (White & Epston 1990). Rather than labelling a person, such as stupid, the problem is given its own name, like knowledge. Externalising the problem as outside of a person means they can take steps to rise above their current circumstances; in this example, to learn. Once externalised, problems can be recognised in storylines, and alternate outcomes can be imagined.

I found myself applying this to my personal situation. Rather than being labelled as a ‘bad’ mother, partner and daughter, I used this new distance to explore how I reached this identity conclusion under the influence of others’ ideas and beliefs. Writing through the character of Flow, I explored alternate definitions of mothering and partnering that deemed it acceptable to retain a sense of separate self, and grasped where this had been threatening to the important others in my life. I was able to recognise that these alternate outcomes were not ‘bad’, just different from others’ expectations of me. The release of guilt facilitated by this new story brought an immense sense of relief.

The road of trials, Meeting with the goddess, Woman as the temptress/Re-Authoring: I had separated from my dominant story, but there was more to master on my hero-journey. According to White and Epson people often tell themselves a single, ‘thin’ story in which they have made conclusions about their identity and their life potential. In narrative therapy, re-authoring is about elevating the subordinate elements of life stories as a foundation for new possibilities.

In writing fictional accounts of traumatic experience, however, real-life memories are often hidden. Journaling provided a way for me to expunge the memories behind the fiction and work through issues of self-perception, without having them exposed publicly. Alongside my reflective journal about the writing process, I maintained a therapeutic journal. Creative writing doctoral candidate Eugen Bacon (2014: 6) detailed how she journaled in different modes, using a cathartic journal as ‘a reflection of the self and the evolving self, as I invent and re-invent myself’. Doctoral supervisor Dominque Hecq poses some helpful questions to guide this journaling process, which align with the narrative therapy process. She suggests exploring ‘who is responsible for your identity and who contributed to the composition of your life’s narrative’, the effects, how this holds you back and how you might change and maintain a new identity (2009: 49). These questions produced beneficial outcomes in my journaling process with my aim of re-authoring self, and provided further material to work through in my novel.

A necessity of the recovery process is the ability to revisit trauma without being re-traumatised. Van der Kolk (2014) also sees the path to recovery as an active rebuilding of self, but adds that finding ways to maintain calm in response to traumatic sensations is important; avoiding them is what can make us vulnerable to being overwhelmed by them. Bolton (1999: 30) likens the journal to a grown-up’s security blanket, which serves the purpose of working through these overwhelming sensations in a safe environment. This excerpt from my therapeutic journal illustrates how I was safely able to elevate subordinate elements of my story and challenge identity conclusions that I was a ‘bad’ mother:

I had become aware of watching families when I took my children to the park as a single mother when they were young, and feeling a deep pang of loss. And then feeling it was too late to ever achieve that fantasy, so the whole experience became negative and painful and stopped me from having fun with my children. But I can’t think of a single family I know who have the perfect family I wished for as a child. So as fantasies go, it probably never really matched reality. Instead of wishing for something I didn’t have, this process has prompted me to instead focus on some of the happy memories from my childhood. Some linked to the holidays we had, the times spent with my mother’s large extended family, the things my father taught me (to fish, to shoot, to build things with tools). And the things I did with my children that brought joy — simple things like dancing around the living room to Wiggles and Video Hits, long bike rides along the river, and building things from scraps, to more exciting things like diving in the Whitsundays, skiing in NZ and go-carting and rafting in Bali.

This reflection in turn prompted me to introduce scenes into my novel where Flow has positive interactions with her daughter, including a holiday at the beach, a visit to the park to feed the ducks and foregoing a big night out to snuggle up watching Disney movies together. This challenged assertions Flow was a ‘bad’ mother and, by extension, allowed me to challenge them further in my life.

My real-life memories also needed to be externalised to work effectively with the narrative therapist. Journaling provided a data set that was available for analysis. The therapist debriefed me about this externalised and ‘storied’ output, assisting me to create objective distance between the self and traumatic memories. Writing fictional accounts of experiences leading to effects similar to mine, with the accompanying journaling, has given me a space in which to ‘story’ the events from my past and purge my emotional and embodied responses. The therapeutic journaling process has, to borrow Bacon’s words, helped me in ‘kick-starting the analytical gaze at self’ (2014: 6) and initiated DaPra’s evolution of thought process (2013).

           Purge (trauma)     >>>     See problem in a new light    >>>     Evolution of thought

Atonement with the father/Thickening the narrative: Having challenged my identity conclusions, I needed to thicken my narrative to achieve post-traumatic growth. Tedeschi and Calhoun claim the success of post-traumatic growth is not a direct result of the traumatic experience, but the extent of ‘the individual’s struggle with the new reality in the aftermath of trauma’ (2004: 5). Narrative therapy assists in this struggle by filling in the gaps in thin stories with exceptions from lived experience to support a new reality: ‘As people begin to inhabit and live out the alternative stories, the results are beyond solving problems. Within the new stories, people live out new self images, new possibilities for relationships and new futures’ (Freedman & Combs 1996: 16). My ambition was to thicken my narrative by working with fictionalised traumatic experience to imagine these possibilities.

Fictional accounts of trauma are predisposed to the reconstruction of stories because fiction already calls on us to interpret and fill in the gaps in stories through lived experience (Bruner 1986). I came into this project assuming that I just had to bring down my defensive walls, but I discovered so much more as I explored the emotions and motivations of my fictional characters. Although fictional, the writing of my novel was inciting my embodied and emotional memories and allowing me to see possibilities for change in my own story.

As a result, I began to sense changes in my emotions and behaviours. DaPra discusses this in scientific terms, looking at the way neuroscientists have proven recalling memories changes the brain’s organic structure. This is referred to as neuroplasticity: ‘an induced change in some property of the nervous system that results in a corresponding change in function and/or behaviour’ (Shaw & McEachern 2001: 4). The more I worked with the plot lines of my novel, the more I felt at ease with my past. DaPra argues that beyond the initial cathartic effect of writing, ‘the organizing, editing and structuring’ (2013) of the writing process results in cognitive restructuring, and the lasting benefit is in the ability of the trauma survivor to see the experience in a new light through the evolution of thought. As my thoughts evolved, my anger and bitterness dissipated, and I felt the walls begin to come down. I was more willing to let others into my previously depersonalised world. Bolton (1999: 25) agrees that the drafting/redrafting process is where meaning is found. My identity was evolving throughout the creative writing process. 

My ability to re-story these events, and thereby re-invent my ‘self’, was greatly enhanced by working with the narrative therapist, who could point out connections and relationships between my past and my fictional writing that at first evaded me. Campbell (2004) sees this part of the journey as a confrontation with the possessor of an incredible power (in narrative therapy terms, an important other), requiring the relinquishing of the ego, evidenced by this exchange with the therapist (personal correspondence October/November 2016):

Me: Most of the nice things [he] did for me came with an infinite expectation of gratitude.

Therapist: Might he have been proud of having done something nice? (or trying to be proud?) Might he have been hoping to validate his pride through acknowledgement of it having been nice for you?   

Me: Wow, I’d never even considered this because I was so focused on the negative impacts this had on me.

Therapist: how about … putting your protagonist aside to write from the point of view of these other characters, and see what evolves? That might be a way of developing their humanity and complexity.

Therapeutically, it could involve just having a rest from the focus on yourself for a while and considering these others, at different times in their lives, even times before you were around.

Me: I did this and then decided to bring some of these other characters’ stories in by adding Flow’s mother as an aside narrator, with her own POV and chapters. This gives another perspective of the father, different to Flow’s perspective. The mother shows the father’s background story too … and since writing this I feel I have moved to a much more compassionate position in relation to [his] flaws.

DaPra claims ‘working with a therapist can also help the writer to order the emotion’ (2013). Working in this manner with the narrative therapist fostered further cognitive processing and evolution of thought by relinquishing the ego’s need to blame and judge, and delivered further emotional release.

Apotheosis/Re-Membering: White and Epston regard people as having everything they need to address their problems inside of themselves, but often these qualities have been supressed by the dominant stories they tell. Narrative practices respect people as the experts of their own lives, so the Re-Membering process is about asking questions to make people more aware of the skills and knowledge they already possess to overcome their problems. White (2007) considers this an incubation process. As part of the post-traumatic growth of my fictional character, Flow, I wrote scenes in which she began to take back control from her sub-personality, Ebb. During this process, I had a sudden epiphany. All the strong traits and characteristics I attributed to my own sub-personality, the ones I thought were not me, were actually inside me all along. The fact that I had been able to bring them out into the open was an opportunity for me to learn and embrace them as part of my true ‘self’. My perception of my dissociation moved from a deficiency to a hidden strength. Writing about these strengths in the creative work helped me to reframe my position from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’ in my experiences, and to continue to bring down my defensive walls.  

The ultimate boon/Alternate story: Identifying with my protagonist, Flow, as she followed her hero-journey and resurrected important relationships in her life has been helpful in my hero-journey. Allowing her to take a stand and speak up about her story has allowed me to build distance between myself and my feelings about traumatic events in my life and re-envision an alternate story in which I was able to take back control. I have come to an understanding that my past does not determine who I am. This transcendence and rebuilding of my identity is the ultimate boon from this experience.

Refusal of the return, The magic flight/Documentation: It was at first difficult to bring the events from my fictional world back into the real world. I struggled with how much I wanted to reveal. But as I documented my post-traumatic journey throughout the process in conference papers, journal articles, book chapters and the creative work, it became easier to reveal elements of truth. These documents were presented to reviewers and beta-readers for their response. While this provided a source of validation, I also found myself having to defend my research position at times, as the gates between academia, arts and health can be jealously guarded. Alongside this thesis, these documents remain as a legacy of the process, readily available to others who choose to embark on a similar journey.

Rescue from Without, The return threshold/Definitional Ceremony, Outsider Witnessing: White’s (2007) Definitional Ceremony metaphor is based on a poststructuralist or non-structuralist account of identity where identity is a public and social achievement shaped by cultural forces deriving authenticity from social processes. People are invited to tell their stories and witnesses are invited to respond as to how the person’s story moved or assisted them. This can be very therapeutic because it authenticates the experience, creates connections, and when the experience resonates with or helps others it can give the person new purpose. Tedeschi and Calhoun (2004: 11) agree that disclosure in supportive social environments aids the cognitive processing of trauma. This part of my hero-journey was achieved by presenting my research in supportive environments at conferences, some of which included the retelling of my personal story to help others. The positive responses authenticated my new identity claims and strengthened my emotional stability.

Master of the two worlds/Sharing new knowledge: I have developed my research into writing workshops that empower people to re-imagine their strengths and to create new life stories and identities through fictional characters, and have been delivering these successfully into the community. In this role, I now move easily between my new world and the old one of my lived experience, sharing my experiences with those who might benefit from my newfound wisdom.

Freedom to Live/New Identity: I have learned that while we can’t change the past, we can change the way we view the past and the story we tell about it, and this has transformed my identity. But this is not the only boon gained from this experience. The journey itself has strengthened me, I have gained wisdom through new knowledge and experience, and I have forged strong allies along the way. Both I, and my fictional character Flow, have completed our journeys and have become the heroes of our alternate life stories.

 

Conclusion

Therapeutic processes are not systematic, and trauma survivors may respond in different ways to therapy, so this chapter has presented possibilities for individual’s to address problem-saturated narratives and their subsequent effects on their lives through creative writing. Everyone develops stories about themselves and these narrative scripts act as blueprints as they face challenges. The human brain is wired toward confirmation bias – finding, noticing, and focusing on our pre-existing beliefs (Plous 1993: 233). Because of this, trauma survivors can find themselves in circumstances that confirm those biases. When they expect life to be a certain way, their confirmation bias finds evidence to prove them right, the belief is reinforced, and so the story is perpetuated. This article has demonstrated that trauma survivors have a choice to change that story, and transform their lives because their brains will then find evidence to prove the new story right.

The case study in this article provides evidence from my post-traumatic growth journey to demonstrate the success of my proposed model that maps Campbell’s seventeen plot step Hero’s Journey to White’s maps of narrative therapy. It is hoped that this personal example will be a guide to others in conducting their own post-traumatic writing journeys.

 
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