The following report is contributed by the French writer and visual artist Michael:
I was sexually abused as a child at age eleven by my uncle and I also suffered prolonged emotional, psychological and physical abuse while growing up, in particular from my father. The sexual abuse I experienced from my uncle I think anyone would have experienced as abusive but the situation in my family was a situation that evolved over time and became increasingly impossible for me to deal with.
For example, a situation that comes to mind is of being suddenly slapped in the face while my father was struggling with getting ice cubes from a tray. I don’t think everyone would have experienced it as traumatic as a standalone instance but for me it was the accumulation of experiences that rendered me increasingly sensitive and vulnerable to such acts.
The randomness of the event was typical. I remember that it was yet another example of an experience, of which there were many different sorts and occurred on most days, that worked to create a deep lack of safety and the sense that life and people were unreliable and dangerous. It created a hypervigilance in myself because I could never tell when or how ‘lightening’ would strike.
A major consequence was my problems establishing intimacy and feeling at ease with my sexuality. I was totally blocked and frozen and was finally able to marry (luckily) in my late thirties. It wasn’t hard to meet people but it was hard to be close to people. I was terrified that others could see this inability and so I tightly controlled my interactions with others, which of course created exactly that situation of which I wanted hidden. Indeed, I became so controlling and withdrawn and stuck in this space that I became at times near psychotic, especially as the memories of the sexual abuse by my uncle became increasingly accessible to my conscious mind.
Consequently, I also have PTSD (although that is much milder now). This includes flashbacks, hypervigilance, nightmares, and dissociation and of course this also has been accompanied by long-term ‘mild’ depression, chronic anxiety and long-term despair with suicidal thoughts. It is somewhat better now but more because I have learnt how to manage things rather than having been ‘cured’ of them. Long-term talk therapy has been incredibly useful in dealing with all this.
I’ve found that the symptoms of PTSD are more easily managed than consequences like depression and anxiety. Long-term counselling has helped, as well as a range of other activities like exercise, meditation, and good diet. But the periodic and regular collapse into major despair or the regular susceptibility to fear, worry and anxiety are things I still deal with.
Likewise, meaning has been very hard to keep afloat. A connection with meaning is something that I have to work on establishing, as well as revising my understanding of what might constitute meaning and significance for me now. In my early adult life, I had to renew this connection with meaning every day … every morning it was like the slate had been wiped clean and I had to begin anew. I could never remember who ‘I’ was or where I was in terms of previously established connections or meanings.
Certain feelings, usually triggered by outside events or the like, lead to despair and to suicidal thoughts. It is not so much that I want to kill myself but suicidal thoughts seem to accompany the feelings. It is as though as a child I understood that I was so unworthy that the only solution was self-obliteration. As to my life purposes, I am always losing contact with them and I often don’t feel entitled to them or worthy of living them. I have to fight for this but I can do that and for a period at least stay there. But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t or hasn’t been a regular battle to achieve this. And I think the chronic digestion issues I have, created by the anxiety and worry I often feel, is also connected to those early traumas.
I was identified as experiencing anxiety by a psychiatrist and given medication for it. I went to them for what I thought was depression but it was identified instead as anxiety. I believe this was connected to the trauma because whenever I tried to write about my experiences this ‘white noise’ would start up, making it very hard to ‘hear’ what it was I needed to write. Medication was very useful in the beginning to deal with this. It quieted that inner noise enough so I could actually think through what it was I needed to think through. Finally, I could write.
Medication helped with symptoms of anxiety but (unfortunately) didn’t prove useful over the longer term. The effects of the medication would wear off and I would have to slowly increase the dosage; this worried me and I realised that medication had a limited time-span.
There have been a range of other things I’ve tried as well. All helped a bit, none was a complete answer in itself. These included:
• Meditation (again over a very long time, in excess of 10 years or more) helped a bit.
• Cognitive behavioural therapy helped a bit.
• Men’s groups and workshops on sexual abuse have helped.
• Physical exercise like intensive yoga or heavy weights have helped a bit.
• Engaging in a long term talking therapy has helped.
• Writing – creative and journaling – has helped.
• Traditional Chinese medicine and qigong has helped
Lots of things have helped a bit, but more importantly all of them together have helped a lot. I am finding long-term benefit in writing, especially intensive, serious and questioning journaling that does much more than simply describe my day. This has helped me rediscover and nurture my voice and I feel more connected to myself because of this. It feels related to the long-term therapy I have had; it is as if I have been able to introject dialogic care and self-nurturing. My aim is to extend this beyond the written page into my active life.
I think that trauma has generally been negative to my experience of my creativity. It has made it hard to surrender to my creativity and establish meaning in my creating because of fear and anxiety and despair. That said, maybe trauma is what is lead me to creativity … the space to focus on and give material and written form to thoughts and feeling and ideas. it seemed to be a way to deal with the difference and isolation I felt from other people.
The trauma has affected my subject matter choices because of my relationship to memory, triggered feelings and my mental fragilities. Consequently, I have been drawn to poetry by holocaust survivors like Paul Celan or the writing of people like Sebald and Kafka, that is, writing where dissociation with language and as a subject matter has been primary. Within my own writing work, I tend to focus on internal feeling states in my work, particularly those of rupture and disconnection and allow language to shape shift as necessary.
In painting, I focus on an ‘organic’ evolving abstraction where gestures and forms appear to both come together and move apart, evoking for me feelings of separation, privation and enigma. I am open about what other people ‘see’ or ‘read’ in my work. Whether this is positive or negative I don’t know if I can say, as I don’t really have any other experience.
I feel overall that trauma has made my creative life much harder. The anxiety and loss of ‘self’ I feel each time I begin work or the despair I feel while working has required a significant effort to work through. I know this is true of many creatives but I think it is the intensity and extremity of what I have felt that makes it especially hard. It has even, at times, felt deranging. At no time did I feel this improves the work, rather it is something I have to work through, time and time and time again.
This has also strongly impacted my capacity to develop a career. While I have had many exhibitions and even have museum and public collection representation I have found it a very difficult road to negotiate. I find other people and institutions hard to deal with. I can be too compliant or too avoidant. Openings or public events are nightmares for me. This I find is less than useful for a career in art.
I don’t believe that creating has really healed any trauma; that has felt like a separate task. That said, this is not an easy question as it can be a bit chicken and egg, which came first? I have felt some relief in my creative-making when I manage to complete a body of work, but I can’t say that was necessarily healing. Indeed, some of my worst times have been when working well, but nothing is consistent, there is no easily discernible pattern for me.
If I hadn’t been traumatized, I think I would probably be the same kind of creative person but hopefully with not quite the same disintegrating pain interfering time and again with my art-making. I don’t think the traumas created my ‘core’ personality but rather added instability to it. I do think, though, that trauma has increased my sensitivity to the fragility of what we call reality and what we call the psyche. This sensitivity has informed my understanding of the delicacy and tenuousness of the words used to describe and map and of the paint used to represent and be. It has also, maybe, facilitated and extended my capacity for compassion and empathy.
The healing I have managed to do has meant that I have been able to stay longer with the work, enjoy it more and value the result. Consequently, my deeper, functional ‘self-coherence’ is not set up for obliteration each time I begin new work or carry on with existing work. I strongly believe in healing and differentiate between healing and cure. My output hasn’t increased but I am less driven and maniacal in producing. I savour the experience more and allow myself to enjoy the journey of its unfolding much more.
Maybe I would have found my way to my various subject matters and fascinations without trauma, but it might have taken longer. Trauma does seem to have exposed the tenuous artifice with which we hold our lives together, because I have understood the fragility of the self-construct and of our societal norms for containing and validating that construct from the word go. There is nothing to glorify about trauma—it’s just hard work to deal with and makes creating that much harder.
Does trauma help or hinder the development of craft? I can see how it can do both. It can help because one is desperate for some occupying or distracting task and some ‘certainty’ to cling to. It can hinder because one can keep falling apart, making it hard to concentrate and focus and believe in what one is doing. On balance, I wish I had not been traumatized—it is not really something to wish on people, even if it creates some extra impulse to create. I don’t think that extra impulse is worth the pain.
[Note from Eric Maisel: If this subject interests you and if you would like to add to my research, please take my trauma questionnaire, which you can find here.]