Trauma can harm us in two ways. First, it can live on in memory, exploding into consciousness and flooding us with powerful, painful emotions. Second, it is a change agent that can transform us in seriously unfortunate ways, turning us into a weaker, sadder, more anxious version of ourselves.
Because it can harm us in these two ways, we may have no concrete memory of the trauma and no consequences of the sort typically associated with bad memories—consequences like flashbacks and nightmares—while still living a trauma-informed life. That we don’t remember something doesn’t mean that something didn’t happen. If, when we look in the mirror, we can see the harm, we ought to suppose that we were harmed.
Picture a youngster who loves to draw who is routinely smacked every time he tries to draw, those smacks accompanied by reasons for the smacking like “Stop making a mess!” or “You’re wasting paper!” He then goes on to be a painter. Will he remember the smacks, have nightmares about them or flashback memories? Maybe yes, maybe no. But he will surely have been harmed by them, even if he has no concrete memory of them.
What might those consequences look like? High anxiety every time he tries to paint. Lifelong despair. Little permission to advocate for the paintings that he does manage to complete. An abiding sense of doom and failure. He may have no concrete memories of those slaps and, if questioned about them, he might even shake his head and reply, “Never happened.” But you can read those slaps in the way he is living.
Some traumas are remembered and some traumas are not. Some traumas we can’t help but acknowledge, because the memory of them floods our being. Other traumas we wall off and only half-remember or don’t remember at all. Whether remembered or forgotten, whether flooding our system or walled off somewhere out conscious awareness, the trauma is known by the damage it has produced.
What do these consequences look like in the real lives of creative people? Here is Stephanie’s story:
I have been severely blocked during my career as an academic writer, regularly unable to produce final products although I do engage in a lot of research and I do write a lot of drafts.
For me, trauma stems from childhood, living with a mentally ill parent. After years of therapy, I seem to have identified a kind of inner demon, who comes into my consciousness and does not want me to be productive or successful.
I think living with mentally ill people is traumatic and I also believe in the idea that inter-generational trauma is passed on. My mother was a visual artist, and she definitely passed along her trauma about life not being safe to her two children.
In our case, it was continual anxiety and catastrophizing that shaped our brains in a particular way to look for negativity. And to fear success. Success only happened to somebody else out there, somebody who was normal.
The long-term effects work like this. Creativity starts to flow and then anxiety floods in. You tear up your work, you tear yourself down, and then you abandon the project as no good. In this way, I’m not able to move toward to the successful completion of a creative project. There’s also flooding with feelings of intense dread and fear in the middle of the night. During the day, I’m always finding ways to avoid entering that creative space.
Every time I hear an academic talk about their latest book or article, or watch them perform beautifully at a conference where they share their ideas and manifest their intellectual and creative value, that contributes to my inner difficulties. Those experiences just map onto an already existing damaged force field within, one that you cannot share with other people. Most people would have no experience of what it feels like or what you were talking about. It is a dark, trance-like inner blackness or darkness.
These demons have made it harder for me to keep meaning afloat in my life, they’d made it harder for me to keep despair at bay, they’ve made it harder for me to live my life purposes, and they have contributed to my anxiety and depression diagnoses.
I feel that I have come a certain distance but I am still searching for answers. I have now reached age 65, and even though it is too late to claim the creativity that might have helped me achieve a great career that I am capable of – I will still work on it until I pass away. It is that important to me, to conquer this lost state of innocent creativity that is everyone’s birthright.
At this stage, I have gone past the point of being at risk in ‘normal situations.’ But I have worked for sixty-five years on identifying the skills that I would need to survive a trauma attack. I journal every day and I am continually searching for solutions. And if something traumatic does happen, as it can from any quarter, I immediately seek out new voices to find answers to what the trauma has brought up.
Just engaging in the search feels empowering and builds resilience. Also, I think the journaling every day is an amazing tool. That makes me a writer, but it’s all about the journey and the search. That process of writing is my success story, I guess, even though no socially distinguished product can come out of it. So, maybe it is just about ego comfort. My soul is happy and feels successful, even if the world doesn’t value what I create.
There are so many things to think about around creativity, success, and meaning systems. I guess I live and work in a university system that only validates a narrow kind of creative output. It definitely sees teaching and the creative processes that unfold between people as secondary in value. So much of its focus is on the lone individual who makes a stunning contribution to the world. There are all sorts of ways to be creative!
Childhood trauma might alter the original gift but serendipity takes pain and creates different gifts and accomplishments. I am not a successful author but I am a writer, fabulous mentor to my students, and somebody who understands creative pain, turmoil, and difficulty – whereas my colleagues do not have a clue about how being creative can feel like slaying a million dragons.
I think that the bottom line for me is that the demon just won’t budge, because it is about core safety. Therefore, I must celebrate lesser forms of creativity where the emotional stakes and pressures are low. I haven’t found the ways to conquer the demons of darkness but I continue to work on the block through inner demon work. I am a creative warrior, a resilient creative, and I haven’t given up on the quest or at tilting at the problem.
More next week.