*Trigger warning: trauma and abuse.*
I didn't mean to go AWOL for the last few days. To make a very long story short, I'm still very much in recovery from being emotionally abused as a child and teenager. The end of last week was particularly rough, making it difficult to come up with anything useful to put in these emails. My doctor and I will be adjusting my medication soon, so hopefully that'll help.
Personal matters aside, this does bring up an important point for our writing. Remember how we discussed the shard of glass last week? Many stories seem to have characters with some whopper shards (i.e., major trauma) who somehow bounce back by the end of the story as if nothing had happened. Granted, some people are incredibly resilient, and having a good support system can significantly mitigate the effects of trauma. However, as I've had to learn on my own journey, twenty-five (or however many) years' worth of pain doesn't go away overnight—or even in one book.
Through books and conversations with therapists, I've learned that trauma can be caused by one-time events (such as a car crash) or ongoing experiences (such as abuse). Either way, a person's brain reacts as if their life is in imminent, mortal danger, even if that's not actually the case. As a result, many trauma survivors—especially young children—essentially get stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Because they can't predict when danger will strike, their defenses are always up, which takes a ton of energy and leaves these people with few resources to devote to learning, relationships, work, and other normal activities. The longer the real or perceived threat lasts and the less support a person has while going through it (such as if a child is abused by a parent or other trusted figure), the worse the effects. And those effects spill over into areas you might not expect.
As a relatively minor example, I don't do well with long silences. That's because when I was growing up, silence from an adult often preceded harsh words or yelling. Now, even though I know cognitively that silence =/= I'm about to get yelled at, I have trouble letting a pause last for more than a few seconds before I jump in with deescalating words. It's a habit I'm still working to change.
And that's the other thing about trauma: People aren't simply stuck with it. They can overcome it if they're willing to do the necessary work. Granted, the process isn't anywhere near as simple as it's sometimes made out to be. It's not something that love or time alone can fix, though those things can help. Therapy, medication, cutting off toxic relationships and forming supportive ones, breaking unhelpful habits and starting better ones, making mistakes, celebrating small victories, and more might all be part of the healing process. The person probably won't ever forget their terrible experiences but will eventually be able to think and talk about them without feeling the overwhelming pain.
So if you're writing a character who's overcoming a traumatic past, please don't make it happen all at once. That insults readers who are struggling through similar experiences. Instead, show readers the gradual steps the character makes toward recovery. Here are some examples:
A boy who's been bullied by past teachers probably won't regain his confidence just by moving to a new school. He may not say anything in class for weeks, but as he gains trust in his new teachers, he might be willing to help pass out papers, then answer a simple question during class, and so on.
A woman who was dumped by her fiancé will probably not be willing to go on a date anytime soon. She might hang out with only female friends for a while, then start attending mixed-gender gatherings again, etc.
Trauma is a touchy subject. Believe me, I know! That's why it's so important for us to treat it accurately and sensitively in our work. After all, one of the noblest uses of writing is to give people hope. If a protagonist goes through something life-shattering, struggles to go on, and eventually finds peace, then—just maybe—we readers can do the same.
(Thanks to Toa Heftiba for sharing their work on Unsplash.)