Writing Through Trauma: What is Trauma?

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Note: This blog post is a raw, unedited chapter from my current work in progress, Writing Through Trauma. Part memoir and part inspiring instruction, Writing Through Trauma aims to help you write your way through difficult events in your life. Click here to join my email list to get notified when I post new chapters.


Up until November 2015, I had no idea that the events I’d experienced were considered traumas. In fact, I was so determined to believe that they were no big deal, I’d repressed them almost completely. Any time you bottle something up, though, it almost always explodes on you.

And explode it did.

It wasn’t until I started seeing Dina*—a trauma-certified therapist—in November 2015 that I realized the things I’d experienced were not only traumatic, but also the root of the depression and anxiety that I’d been fighting for the past 15 years.

Trauma is any event that shatters your sense of safety and what you thought you knew about the world. Trauma is subjective, meaning that what might be traumatic for me may not affect you the same way, and vice versa. Examples of trauma include:

  • being bullied as a child
  • becoming sick with chronic illness and/or pain
  • getting into a car accident
  • having your area hit by a severe storm
  • being sexually or physically assaulted
  • serving in a war
  • having a miscarriage
  • the death of a loved one
  • and more

None of these examples are more or less traumatic. Everyone responds to stress in different ways.

Trauma develops into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when a person who has experienced one or multiple traumatic events becomes stuck in the brain’s natural fight/flight/freeze response. Most of us react in some way when something bad happens, but are able to calm down—especially once you realize that you’re safe.

For example, if you’re driving during a snowstorm and slide on ice, doing a complete 360° turn and nearly hitting a wall, you feel afraid. Your hands shake, your breathing and heart rate speed up, and your brain kickstarts the fight/flight/freeze response to help you get through the incident.

If you’re able to process the event—driving, snowstorm, icy roads under snow, spun, stopped before hitting the wall—you’ll realize you’re safe and your brain will shut off the fight/flight/freeze response.

If you’re not able to process our example event, though, you may start having nightmares about the incident (re-experiencing symptoms, or flashbacks). You refrain from driving yourself anywhere whenever it snows (avoidance symptoms). You snap at the people around you for seemingly no reason and have a hard time sleeping (arousal and reactivity symptoms). You may even completely forget that you nearly hit a wall while driving in the snow, but still believe that you’re a terrible driver when it snows (cognition and mood symptoms).

For years, all of these things were happening to me, and I had no idea why. I experienced recurring episodes of severe depression and anxiety. I saw nearly a dozen mental health professionals, who repeatedly misdiagnosed me. Many of them asked questions about my past, such as “Have you ever been raped?” But none of them ever mentioned that my past traumas could be causing my present symptoms.

I tried medication after medication—all of which affected me adversely, either intensifying my depression and anxiety or causing unusual side effects. One antidepressant, Viibryd, caused waking dreams, extremely vivid nightmares, and severe anxiety and depression. Still neither my therapist at the time nor the APRN who was prescribing me the medication ever realized that my problem was not chemical, which explained why antidepressants were not helping.

I hit my lowest point in October 2015 when, against my will, I was hospitalized under a physician’s certificate.

My APRN had recently taken me off one of my antidepressants, Wellbutrin, without weaning me, and I had a really hard time coming off them due to rapid withdrawal. Within days, I become barely recognizable.

I’d walk into a room and, unable to move, burst into uncontrollable tears.

I couldn’t do anything I loved—like writing my rockstar romance, the South of Forever series.

I kept having weird thoughts that were not my own, like “I wonder what would happen if I filled the tub, got in, and then threw a toaster in with me? Wait. Where the hell did that come from?!” The thoughts freaked me out, because I did not want to die.

I wasn’t able to eat, sleep, or shower and I spent every day on the couch watching TV shows and movies that I later wouldn’t remember.

It was absolutely terrifying, because I knew this wasn’t like my usual depression and anxiety.

I told Grace* (the therapist I was seeing at the time), and she told me there was nothing more she could do for me. I also told the APRN who prescribed the medication, and he decided I should also come off Abilify, the other antidepressant I was taking. When I asked if I should wean off, he insisted that I should be fine.

I wasn’t.


Note: This blog post is a raw, unedited chapter from my current work in progress, Writing Through Trauma. Part memoir and part inspiring instruction, Writing Through Trauma aims to help you write your way through difficult events in your life. Click here to join my email list to get notified when I post new chapters.


*Names have been changed for privacy.

5 Last-Minute Tips for Your #NaNoWriMo Novel

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National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) starts tomorrow, and whether you’re a procrastinator at heart, joining at the last minute, or just coming off another project, you’re totally scrambling. Have no fear! I’ve done a few NaNos—my debut novel was one of my past projects—and as of the 18th I’ll have 10 published novels under my belt, so I’ve got some quick and easy tips for you to make a comeback.

Don’t know what to write about?

Sometimes just coming up with a plot feels impossible. Or maybe you’ve got too many ideas. Try the method I used to write my next release, Just One More Minute.

  • Pull up Google and search for tropes in your favorite genre. (I typed in “romance fiction tropes” and found Mindy Klasky’s super detailed list.)
  • Look through as many lists as possible. Grab a piece of paper and jot down the ones that sound intriguing to you. (I really liked the “enemies to lovers” and “office romance” tropes.)
  • Go through your list. Are there any two or three tropes that might fit together? Do they work with any ideas you might already have?
  • Write up a quick synopsis in one to three sentences using the tropes you’ve chosen.

Bam! You’ve got a novel.

(Need a little more guidance? See this post.)

Need a super simple plot structure?

When I first started writing longer fiction, I booed anything remotely resembling an outline. Too many years having roman numerals driven into my head, I guess. I wrote by the seat of my pants, which was a lot of fun, but I had trouble finishing anything longer than 10,000 words. It wasn’t until I combined plotting and pantsing that I created a process that works best for me.

One thing I’ve found really useful is the classic three-act plot structure. Harlequin has a fantastic breakdown of this, along with a dissection of the movie Mean Girls as an example. There are all kinds of plot structures, but I’ve found the three-act one to work best for me; that way, I don’t try to cram too much into one novel (though I do often have one or more subplots running, and usually have to do some wiggling to work them into the three-act structure).

I especially love how Harlequin explains each section, and I found analyzing Mean Girls really helped clarify things.

Bonus points if you can sneak in a try/fail cycle into your Act II!

Running out of character names?

I have one rule of thumb when it comes to naming my characters: don’t name two characters with the same first letter. I’m a speed reader, so when I’m in the zone, I get really thrown off if there are three characters whose names start with the letter S and five whose names all start with J. I heard somewhere that this isn’t good practice, as most readers get confused. Of course, even if the first few character names come easily, it gets harder and harder to find fitting names.

That’s when I turn to Google and start looking for “popular girls names 2016,” “girls names that start with a c,” or even just “girls names.” I especially like Nameberry and BabyCenter, since their sites are well organized. I just scroll through until I land on something that screams my character to me.

For last names, I tend to jack them from real people I know or have met. I think real last names are more interesting than any you could look up online. (Skimming through “common Puerto Rican surnames,” for example, can get repetitive, but running through my Puerto Rican friends on Facebook gets me some really strong and unique last names.)

Worried you won’t finish?

Find someone who will hold you accountable. Whether it’s a friend, your blog readers, or another writer, tell them what you’re doing, your goal for the month, and how many words you want to write every day. Ask them to check in with you (or, my personal favorite, share your progress with your Twitter followers every evening).

In the past, I’ve even posted chapters on my blog or Wattpad as I’ve written. Having someone cheer you on is extremely helpful.

You can find local NaNoers by choosing a region in your account settings, then visiting the forums and checking the write-in schedule. Even if you never physically make it to an event, you can chat with other writers in your area right in the forums.

You can also add me on NaNoWriMo and follow me on Twitter. 😉

Don’t know how to start?

Sometimes that first sentence can be the most intimidating. Seasoned authors will tell you to “just start,” but it’s often easier said than done. If you’re staring at a blank page and that little blinking cursor is taunting you, try this.

Good novels are born from conflict; it keeps the writer churning out words and the reader turning pages. Instead of starting your book off by laying out the scene, throw your main character and another character right into it. Maybe there’s an argument, or something happens to throw off your protagonist’s entire day before they’ve even left the house. Keep throwing wrench after wrench into their plans, until you’re ready to introduce the main problem.

(Which, by the way, should be done in the first or second chapter.)

If your main character is busy putting out fires, you’ll never be stuck, and you’ll have plenty to work with.

Happy NaNoing!

XOXO,
Elizabeth Barone

Were these tips helpful? Do you have any last-minute NaNo tips? Let me know in the comments below!