Storytelling, neuroscience, and healing trauma

Craig Roveta "Refracted Light"
Craig Roveta "Refracted Light"

by Debra Hosseini

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
Rumi

Craig Roveta "Refracted Light"

Craig Roveta “Refracted Light”

For the fourth time in as many years I’ve enrolled in a writing class offered through Santa Barbara City College. As many people know I’m helping my Aspie boyfriend Kurt write his memoirs. I’ve posted some of the stories on The Art of Autism website. These stories are humorous and fun to write. In contrast some of my past stories about Kevin and his traumatic adolescence have been hard to put down on paper.

After listening to writer’s in my class share their stories (some traumatic), I decided to revive a difficult piece I wrote in 2010 when Kevin first received his diagnosis of schizo affective disorder. I have no doubt I suffered from PTSD. I’m sure Kevin also suffers from PTSD for events that lead up to him being put in juvenile hall, a psychiatric facility and then a group home in another city. What happened was traumatic for the entire family. In the next week, I’ll post the piece and book review on my new website autismwhale.com.

PTSD is marked by an inability to construct a coherent story of our past. Traumatic memory is like a series of still snapshots without music or words that reside in the right hemisphere of our brains. The left-side of the brain does the thinking. Emotional and cognitive disassociation between the two sides of the brain occurs during traumatic events. The part of the brain that is most impacted by traumatic events is the Broca, the center for speech. The amygdala, the hippothalmus, and the prefrontal cortex are also affected by traumatic events.

According to a 2009 study in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders moms of autistic adolescents and adults have similar stress to combat soldiers. I know many people on the spectrum who feel they have PTSD from being bullied and shunned as children. It is traumatic to be forced to conform to a neuro-typical world.

Thomas Armstrong in his book Neurodiversity in the Classroom (2012) says “Think about your greatest difficulty or limitation in life … Now imagine that you have been tested and found wanting in that area, and that you are then sent to a special program where you spend most of your time focusing on that area.” This made me think of parents who force their two and three-year old children to sit at a table for forty hours a week doing ABA exercises. How wonder adults on the autism spectrum often express anger and trauma about their childhood.

On the Art of Autism website, I share stories of autistic artists who’ve overcome traumatic events in their lives through their art. Many of these artists write poetry and prose as well. Out of the Darkness into to the Light: The Craig Roveta Story which is in the current issue of the Australian Autism Aspergers Network Magazine shows the power of art and love to heal.

So why is storytelling of traumatic events healthy?

When rereading the piece I wrote four years ago, I had many realizations. One was that I hadn’t yet healed. The simple act of rereading made me cry and put me in a funk for a couple days. That was a sign that I was still holding on to the trauma.

Another realization was that Kevin had undiagnosed seizure disorder. What wasn’t apparent then, was obvious now on the reread. I shared the story with Caren Haines who wrote the book Silently Seizing. She also believes that the behavior Kevin exhibited in the story, even the psychotic episode, was due to seizures. I plan in the future to couple the story with a review of Caren Haines book.

Neuroscience tells us that memory is plastic and dynamic. When memories are reactivated we are presented with an opportunity to integrate the experience and thus heal it.

Below I’ve outline the process of creating a story and how each of the steps is healing.

The first step is journaling. Journaling is free-flow writing that serves as a creative catharsis to let go of emotions and experiences. When I journal I write about dreams, feelings, and emotions. The simple act of writing unleashes creativity and starts the healing process.

We’ve always encouraged Kevin to journal as well. When he was in the second grade he wrote about a boxing toy that he was enamored of “Bouncer.” We found that Bouncer caused Kevin to act aggressively so we popped the blow-up toy. Kevin had a hard time with that, so we had him write a story called “Bouncer’s Gone.” In the story he works through his sadness and at the end says, “Maybe the Easter Bunny will bring me a new toy.” Kevin still journals to process emotions and situations he doesn’t see as fair. The other day he wrote a letter to a Congressman outlining why he thinks a law that is unfair should be changed.

Beyond journaling is composing a story, reading aloud, listening to constructive criticism, and rewriting. I find the process of rewriting to produce the greatest benefits. Neuroscience says that we remember the last version of any story. When we rewrite our stories we can move out of the role of helpless victim to empowered hero. Taking chaotic events of our lives and giving them some type of structure and meaning is essential in reconnecting the emotional and cognitive aspects that have become disassociated.

Receiving constructive criticism about our writing is also helpful. A classmate who is also a therapist cried when she read her story of being raped at a young age. I think many in the class felt that to critique her writing may be unsympathetic to her story. Maybe it was good enough that she was now writing about this traumatic event after 40 years. I think the critique actually helps one distance themselves from the event. Looking at your story from the frontal cortex and left brain helps you detach and move into the role of “the witness.”

In the class sometimes people will ask for clarification about a part of their story. When the storyteller responds “I don’t want to go there,” it means they may not be willing to heal. One of my writing teachers told me that what you hide in your stories is what you most need to bring out and explore. That is because what we hide is our shadow. It is healthy to face our demons and become conscious of our deep-rooted fears and beliefs that may no longer serve us.

I’ve probably rewritten the piece about Kevin at least a dozen times. When I rewrite, I become less and less engaged in the story and more focused on the craft of storytelling – setting up a scene, showing not telling, the plot, and constructing meaningful dialogue. I believe the act of rewriting has healed this time of my life.

A few weeks ago Kurt shared his memoirs at a family reunion. Kurt needed a segment of his life to be healed. For over thirty years, he held on to resentment of when his sister had turned him away in his twenties when he was hungry. He cried as he read his story to his sister. His sister shared that she’s never been hungry in her life, and had no idea how that felt. Kurt talked about his sharing as a wonderful healing experience between the two of them. To release the resentment and share his story was powerful.

We all experience hardships and traumas in our life. The question is what are we going to do with those experiences. Are we going to sweep them under the carpet and pretend they never existed? Are we going to act as a victim and let the experience define us? Or can we transform the experience to help heal ourselves and others?

I used to say “we are not our stories.” I’ve changed my mind over the years. Our stories define us but they shouldn’t limit us. The limits set by the boundaries of our stories need to be infused in the world so we can grow and become whole. Those of us who have had many hard times in our lives have had the opportunity to build character and resilience. I’ve always found it healthy to hook up with people who have similar stories when going through a difficult time. When we share our stories, we can inform, inspire, and help create a more compassionate world.

4 Comments

  • Karen Howard says:

    Beautifully shared, Debra ~ such vulnerability allows the Light to enter, as you pointed out with that amazing quote by Rumi. May we all be brave enough to bare our wounds, absorb the Light, and heal.

  • Elaine Hall says:

    Thank you, Debra for your most honest, powerful piece. Yes, “Our stories define us but they shouldn’t limit us. ” Thank you and Kevin for inspiring our community that there are no limits and that together we can change the way the world perceives disability.
    Many blessings and may you go from strength to strength.

    Elaine Hall
    Founder of The Miracle Project
    Author, Now I See the Moon

  • Fatima says:

    Dear Debra,
    So much rang out as I read this powerful piece. Those lines “One of my writing teachers told me that what you hide in your stories is what you most need to bring out and explore. That is because what we hide is our shadow. It is healthy to face our demons and become conscious of our deep-rooted fears and beliefs that may no longer serve us.”……….. have been so much a part of my own process these many years on the Path. Not everyone is willing to go there (many times our circumstances take us there), but I have found the treasure reclaimed so profound and so lifegiving.

    I do believe that we are our stories, in that the stories we keep telling ourselves (about our relationships, ability, $, health, life) can uplift or sabotage……..and all in between.

    I’ve really come to that point where I am honouring my stories as my own creations, then diving into where I want to take them. I love how changing one way of telling a story, or changing how I perceive……can change everything about it and what shows up. It is a dance and ever-mysterious and rich.

    Many many blessings, Fatima x

  • Rachel says:

    Thank you Debra for sharing this story again. I found it very insightful and touching. You have inspired me to start writing again. I would like to share one thing. For me, and I realize we are all different, when I relive my trauma I relive it in full color, Dolby surround sound, high definition film. It feels just as real as the first time I experienced it. I have been “sweeping it all under the rug” because I didn’t want to go through it all again. But now you have shown me the value of writing it all down. I appreciate your honesty because you have inspired me. I’m sure I am not the only one!

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