I recently took two weeks off from writing creatively.
It was not completely intentional, either. I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Lisbon, Portugal to attend a creative writing workshop called Disquiet. The workshop was pretty intensive: each of the twelve poets in my cohort sent in six poems, which were then annotated and discussed by a master poet, a TA, and the rest of the group. At the rate of two poets a day, each person’s poetry got a lot of in-depth feedback.
I anticipated that I would spend hours and hours each day writing–or at least editing–my poetry, and maybe even start a new fiction project, something inspired by the sights I saw while I was out of my usual surroundings. In actuality, I hardly even made time to journal. The preparation for this trip, everything from making sure I had enough medication to last me the full two weeks and a few days extra (just in case of a missed flight or some other unseen obstacle) to talking out every single worst-case scenario I could possibly think of with my therapist, had left me feeling quite nervous. I think most of the people who know me well were not only trying to convince me I could successfully take this trip, but themselves as well. I knew that undertaking this sort of adventure would truly be a test of how much progress I have made since I began this leg of my college career. I used to cling to routine and resist the slightest deviation from what I had established as my normal. Adventure scared me, spontaneity was not in my vocabulary. I think everyone was worried I would have to come home early–including me.
One thing I have noticed about my anxiety is that things are almost never as bad as I imagine they will be. Normally, this just becomes yet another thing to beat myself up over, “See you should’ve known that [insert thing I was worried about] wasn’t going to happen! You’re so dramatic! You freaked yourself out for nothing because you’re an idiot…” but the flipside to this is that since I had months and months to prepare for this trip, I got all of the worries out of the way before I actually left. In the same way a parent might let a toddler run around before bed in order to tire her out, I spent so much time mired in anxiety about leaving that by the time my bags were packed, I was good to go.
PTSD has, in effect, rewired my brain. Hypervigilance, being overly aware of one’s surroundings, is a double-edged sword. I pay attention to details, and always notice small things that might be changing around me. As a writer, paying attention to these sorts of things is beneficial because it helps me write descriptions of my characters’ clothes, environments, etc. But on an emotional level, hypervigilance is exhausting. Every time I see someone who looks like Tim, the man who raped me, I feel extremely vulnerable and afraid. While I have made huge progress with the symptoms of PTSD, some of the residual fears still linger.
While I was out of the country, though, I felt more free from my past than I ever have before. Yes, I saw skinny men with long blond hair, but the rational part of me was quite certain that the odds of Tim and me being in Portugal at the same time and place were nonexistent. “That’s just some dude with hair,” became my mantra every time I saw someone who vaguely resembled Tim. Eventually, I stopped worrying altogether and became so focused on how much fun I was having that Tim was as far from my mind as I was from home.
Writing is a tricky business. Workshopping can be even more difficult. I have had the opportunity to participate in two fiction workshops during my time at Stetson University, and one poetry class that involved a little bit of workshopping, but the difference between those with my classmates and those with strangers at Disquiet was drastic. One of the many things that kept me up at night worrying about the workshop was the possibility that all of my classmates would see right through my flimsy metaphors and flowery language and discover the poorly concealed trauma that inspired my poems. My least favorite question about my poetry is, “What happened to you?”
Luckily, no one questioned me or played armchair psychiatrist. I didn’t get any especially groundbreaking feedback either, but as a future college professor, the workshop experience was valuable anyway because that is the type of class I hope to teach someday.
It takes guts to participate in a workshop, whether you’re giving or receiving the feedback. Having your poetry examined by a group of strangers is daunting to say the least, but so is speaking up and making a suggestion. Many writers say that they feel they learn more about writing by listening to others’ work receive critique, and while I am not sure if I fully agree, I can see both sides of it.
I’ve had numerous therapists tell me that self-harm does more than just numb emotions that I don’t want to feel. When I started scratching my arms and legs with thumbtacks and similar items at age thirteen, I had no idea that that would be the beginning of a debilitating habit that would stay with me for over a decade. There were so many unintended consequences–not just wearing jeans all summer long and missing pool parties, though those were also side effects I experienced from self-harming. For the duration of my adolescence, and much of my early twenties I was always preoccupied with self-harm on some level. I would visualize the damage I planned on doing to myself, write about it, and sometimes even take photos of the injuries right after I made them. Over the years, the habit became more extreme as I switched out pushpins for razor blades and covered more and more of my body with injuries.
Eventually, I began to feel like I was living a double-life. I was so successful in my academic endeavors and rewarded for my hard work and passion for writing in many ways. Between good grades, consistently making the honor roll, publications, and a growing circle of friends who knew little to nothing about my mental health and self-harm struggles, it gradually became very difficult for me to continue to view myself as solely a victim of rape and deserving of the pain I inflicted on myself.
As I’ve mentioned previously, running became crucial in the process of stopping self-harm. I’ve never liked exercise, and had often been cautioned against exercising at all due to my history of disordered eating. When I took my first run (on Christmas Eve of last year), I had no idea that literally running away from my problems would alleviate such a tremendous and longstanding burden. Oftentimes, the question, “Do I want to feel better?” is way more difficult than it should be, and I really had to ask myself if I wanted the life that had always seemed unreachable, a life in which I treat myself with compassion, kindness, and respect.
After I got into a consistent running routine, a whole lot of other little things fell into place. I’m not saying that exercise can cure mental illness. In all likelihood, I will be on medication for the rest of my life, and I’m okay with that. My point is, the change in mindset necessary for me to even be open to trying something different was the beginning of a greater shift in how I care for myself and view myself and my place in the world.
It has been a little over five months without self-harm now. For the first time, I went on a trip without packing any sharps or bandages. The scars on my legs will probably be there forever, but when I look at them and feel their little raised lines on my thigh, all I see is a reminder that I don’t have to go back there, that I have a choice in how I treat myself.
A big part of why I started to self-harm and continued for so many years was that I felt like I needed to be punished. After experiencing several traumas, which were partly responsible for a long period of intense psychosis, any sense of identity I may have had was obliterated and replaced with a victim mentality. I thought I saw Tim everywhere, in every parked car, in every silhouette of a long-haired man. Awash in trauma and unwanted memories, self-harm offered something else to focus on. As I rebuilt my identity from the ground up, I was able to move away from seeing myself as only a body and the violence that had been committed against it.
This will sound really cliché, but I think self-love is a lot like the sky. It changes throughout the course of a day (or even hour if you live in Florida), but its always there. When I wake up, it’s sunny and warm, and I feel great about myself. A few hours go by and when I look back at the sky, it’s a little bit cloudy–what’s going on? Do I need an umbrella or a snack? Should I wait it out? Maybe I busy myself with some everyday task, and then peek back out the window and it’s changed again.
I used to feel like self-love was all or nothing. I hated myself beyond belief, and when I look back, I see a lost little kid who was in so much unnecessary pain. I have journal entries from around the time I was twelve or thirteen calling myself useless and worthless, and just a few pages later, the details of my first flirtation with self-harm appear. Forgiveness is a complex and personal issue; I don’t think there is an objectively correct stance on forgiveness when it comes to addressing whether or not to forgive Tim, and I don’t think I even want to decide that anytime soon. What I do know is that I can forgive myself for the years of abuse I put myself through at my own hands.
PTSD is a cold hand on my neck forcing me to relive the past when I am desperately trying to keep at least one foot in the present. Getting the opportunity to travel was beneficial in more ways than one. I felt like I was fully experiencing the present for the first time in a very long time, and that ghostly grip of the past melted away. Now that I am back home, I don’t necessarily expect things to be smooth sailing forever, but I feel confident that I can glide on the knowledge that I am far more capable than I thought I was, and that although I cannot change the past, I have a choice in how much I let it affect me. I brought several souvenirs home from Portugal, but the most valuable thing I acquired on my trip was freedom from the past, something I have desired for a long time. Soon, I will dive back into my creative projects and see where they take me. I am excited to see where I’ll go next.
One thought on “Present Tense”
Sweet Katie: I have to confess that I wondered whether you’d actually go to Portugal for this event. I remember a time when you weren’t sure how to get to the Publix where you were hired to be a cashier – and it was about five minutes from your house. I’m very proud of you for going, and even more proud because you navigated yourself around the city when you needed to, and you took care of yourself when you were ill. You’ve come so far, and now I can’t wait to see what’s next for you! Love you, girl! .