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.

Hello, 2017

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If you’ve been around for any period of time, you know I’m all about goals rather than resolutions. Setting actionable, achievable, and accountable goals is far more productive than making promises.

Usually, I keep my goals for the year down to a short list. Recently I heard about Level 10 Life, which is basically just your life, broken down into 10 areas. You’re supposed to set 10 goals for each area—100 in total—with the objective of eventually fulfilling all areas of your life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s possible to ever reach 100% fulfillment; there’s no such thing as perfection. Plus, I think 100 goals is a bit overwhelming.

Goals are supposed to be challenging yet within reach. If you set the bar too high, you’ll set yourself up for failure.

A few weeks ago, I found a wheel of life pin that I loved. It focused on eight areas of life rather than 10, with one goal in each area. The objective is to achieve more balance in your life; once you reach a certain goal, you set a new one in that area.

I tried making the wheel of life and failed epically. After several attempts, I realized I didn’t need a Pinterest-worthy craft to help me set goals for 2017. I sat down with my white board and several dry erase markers, and got busy. This list is the result.

My Goals for 2017

Home

Get curtains for all windows. Though it has its quirks, I love our little country apartment, and hope to stay here until we’re ready to start a family. (That’s a whole other blog post, so stay tuned.) To make our place look even more home-y, I’d like to get curtains for each window. Fortunately—in this case, anyway—there aren’t many windows; our apartment was an attic in a former life. I’m starting with the kitchen, with the front door (which naturally has the oddest measurements ever, and I can’t seem to find anything). Challenge accepted!

Me

Get arrow, hummingbird, and spade tattoos. 2013 was the year I got married, and probably one of the best years of my life. But 2014 and 2015 were easily two of the worst years of my life. I lost one of my best friends in 2014 and in 2015, I lost myself. PTSD finally caught up with me and I completely bottomed out. But in 2016, I got better.

There’s a quote that really spoke to me in 2015-2016:

An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. So when life is dragging you back with difficulties, it means that it’s going to launch you into something great.

I don’t know where it originated, but it really resonated with me—especially regarding my PTSD. I truly cannot explain how strong I feel. I’ve got my voice and my magic back, and I feel more me than I’ve ever felt. This is why I want to get an arrow on my ribs, on my right side—to remind me of how I shot forward in 2016. Something simple and delicate (my ribs do swell, after all, so tattooing that area might be a bit… challenging). Something like this, in this same spot:

I think this design is the one I’ll go with.

I’ve long wanted to get twin hummingbirds on my collarbones, for my Popi. He loved watching the birds at the lake, and the “hummers” were his favorites—especially the ruby throated hummingbird. Growing up, I always felt enveloped by magic whenever I could look fast enough to see them. Popi had hawk eyes and saw everything; he was the magic.

I like the general placement of the hummingbirds in the above pin, but I don’t love the design. My plan is to have Jay—the artist who did my hydrangeas and tiger lilies—design and tattoo my hummingbirds. I love his style and I know he’ll help me come up with something I love.

Finally, I want to get a spade in memory of one of my best friends, Sean. He loved spades—I’m pretty sure it was an old nickname, though I have to check with his girlfriend to make 100% sure—and had one tattooed on his forearm. I’ve been racking my brain, trying to figure out the perfect tattoo to remember him by. It suddenly dawned on me the other day that I should get a spade. I’ll probably add it to the sleeve I’m working on, on my left arm.

I’d like to get something for my Biz Noni, too, but for one, I’ll be lucky if I can afford three tattoos in one year. Plus, I kind of already got something for her: my hydrangeas around my Fievel. She was still alive back then, but my dad was talking about transplanting her hydrangeas in the yard. I thought about how amazing it was, that those hydrangeas stubbornly continued to bloom year after year after year—even though she couldn’t physically get outside to nurture them anymore. It reminded me of her; she was “up there” in age, but remembered everything and had survived much. I got the hydrangeas tattooed as a reminder that I can survive, too, even in the toughest of circumstances.

Money

Pay off all debt and past due bills. I won’t bore you with the details, but between my student loan, some credit cards that I opened to help us out, our bills, and my creative team from Booktrope, I’ve racked up a teensy bit of debt. I say “teensy” because I was panicking but when I added it all up, I realized it’s really not that bad. Some people are thousands of dollars in debt; I’m only about $5K in. Still, I’d really like to make it go away—especially the damned student loan that’s been hanging over my head for years.

Long story short, that student loan is from a half semester that I had to withdraw from due to health issues. It was too late to withdraw without penalty, so I got stuck with the bill. I’ve been trying to pay that thing off for almost 10 years now.

My accumulated debt grew to a ginormous monster in my head. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, terrified I’d go to jail for delinquency. That’s totally not the case, but anxiety lies. When I actually broke it down on paper, though, it suddenly became a teeny baby monster. Now that I’m writing for Textbroker and regaining momentum in my career, it doesn’t seem completely impossible to overcome, either.

They say the best way to pay off debt is to make regular payments on everything while going really hard at one particular bill. I haven’t quite decided which one to tackle first, though.

Career

Finish all currently open series. 2016 was all about regaining some lost momentum; 2017 is going to be all about closing boxes.

Right now, I have three unfinished series: the Comes in Threes, Not Just Any Love, and South of Forever series. While the Not Just Any Love series is actually just two companion standalones (Just One More Minute and the forthcoming Char/Amarie novel), the Comes in Threes series has been in limbo for almost four years.

I’ll be releasing the final South of Forever book soon, and then my plan is to get back to Quinn, Tara, and everyone else from Crazy Comes in Threes. I’ll be rewriting CCIT; I won’t be changing anything about the story, but I’ll be making some structural changes—that way I can pull off my master scheme. I’m super excited about what I have in store. More news on that soon!

Marriage

Go on one date every month. Thanks to the holidays, health issues, and financial stress, Mike and I haven’t been able to spend much time together lately. Our hot dates have recently consisted of doctors’ appointments and him helping me put pants on. So romantic. 🙄 Not!

Money is beyond tight, but I’d really like to do something every month—even if it’s just a movie night in. We’re both always busy, but I make sure we eat dinner together (unless he’s working), with no tech at the table so we’re really focusing on each other. Still, I’d like to do actual dates.

Last month, my Noni got us a gift certificate to our favorite sushi place, so we went to lunch after my rheumatology appointment. (Note to self: blog about that ASAP.) It was nice to get out and spend time together, and we have enough left on the gift certificate to do it again. Little things like that keep our relationship strong.

Family

Host at least one family dinner. Due to my arthritis, it’s really hard for me to pull off gatherings at our place. Not only is it physically difficult, but it also takes a major toll on my energy. The last time we hosted anything was Mike’s birthday party—in October. It was so nice to have both sides of our family all together, but I paid for it dearly in the days after. I always do.

Originally, we really wanted to host weekly Sunday dinners, but that’s just not possible. I’m slowly adjusting to my limitations, which means not pushing myself and accepting things for what they are. Still, I’d like to have at least one Sunday dinner this year; they were a huge part of Mike’s family when he was growing up, and it’s really important to him that the tradition continues.

My plan is to give Plaquenil and Prednisone some more time and, when the weather gets warmer, set a date.

Health

Find a treatment that brings pain down to a 4/10. I’m hoping Plaquenil is The One. I’ve accepted that I’ll probably never have a zero pain level again, but if my new normal could be a 4/10, that would be great. At that level, the pain is tolerable; once it gets to five or even six, it’s debilitating. Honestly, I’ll even take a five at this point; last Sunday, it got all the way down to a five, and I felt amazing. It’s been an eight lately, which is still better than a nine or 10.

But four is about my normal level when I’m not in a flareup. If Plaquenil can decrease the flareups and their severity, I’ll be happy.

I’d also really like a diagnosis more definitive than “it might be Lupus” or “it’s definitely enthesitis-related arthritis.” Right now, my chart has Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease (UCTD) as my diagnosis, which translates to “undiagnosed autoimmune disease.” It means there’s definitely something inflammatory and autoimmune going on, but my labs are inconclusive. There are two camps in rheumatology: one that relies more on symptoms to diagnose, and the other that relies more on labs. My rheumatologist falls into the latter, and so did my former rheumatologist. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for my own closure, I’d really like to know the name of the disease that has completely and irrevocably changed my life.

I may never get that. I may have to practice accepting that. Time will tell.

Passion

Write “writing through trauma” book as a blog series. I’d like to tell my story—and help others write through theirs. Writing has long been a huge part of my life. I’ve written my way through every major event, be it in a journal or weaving my pain into a novel. The most important writing I’ve ever done, though, were my trauma stories.

I’d like to teach others how to write through their pain. Eventually, I’d even like to lead workshops for local organizations who help sexual assault survivors, but I’ve got to start small. That, for me, means writing a how to book.

I’ve started several times. I keep getting stuck because I’m not sure how much of my personal story I should share; I don’t want to take away from the advice I’m giving, but I’d also like to show how writing through my own trauma helped me. I’ve decided to take my outline and the roughly 10K words I’ve written, and turn it into a blog series that can be later converted into a book. This way, I can get some reader feedback on it while I’m putting it together.

Stay tuned, because that will be starting very soon.


What are your goals for 2017? Let me know in the comments!

10 Kick-Ass Books I Read in 2016

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One thing I was determined to do in 2016 was read more. I often get caught up in the “should”s, as in I should be _____ instead of reading. (Really, you can replace “reading” with anything. I so need to stop “should”ing on myself!) My goal was to read 25 books; I read 31—or at least, that’s what Goodreads says. I didn’t track all of my reads, so I’m sure this number is a bit off.

The following 10 are my favorite reads from this year, in no particular order. Check them out, and load up your Kindle!


F*ck Love, by Tarryn Fisher

F*ck Love would, gun to head, be my favorite book of 2016. I read it during a weekend while Mike was away at an art show, and I couldn’t put it down. Helena and Kit’s story was absolutely insane, in the best way possible. Months later, I still can’t stop thinking about it. This dark and gritty romance is exactly the tone of book I hope to write someday.

Buy Now on Amazon


Lex Talionis, by S.A. Huchton

What’s better than a revenge story? A best friend’s revenge story! Lex Talionis also joined F*ck Love in my list of all-time favorites. This was another one that I couldn’t put down. It’s also got a romantic element that had me rooting hard, plus an ending that is super rewarding.

Buy Now on Amazon


Luther: The Calling, by Neil Cross

My mom kept recommending I watch Luther, the show on BBC about a detective who might be just as crazy as the killers he chases. I borrowed this from her and had to seriously reign myself in from reading it in one sitting. I then proceeded to binge half of the series; it’s going to be a while until the next season comes out, so I’ve slowed down quite a bit to savor it. Complex, mysterious, and smart, Luther is one of my all-time favorite characters. It doesn’t hurt that Idris Elba is so damn sexy.

Buy Now on Amazon


If I Stay and Where She Went, by Gayle Forman

These books are a back-to-back must. I can’t imagine having to wait for the sequel. I borrowed If I Stay from the library and basically cried my way through it. It was so poignant and heartwrenching. Where She Went was just beautiful, and worth running back to the library for.

Buy Now on Amazon


Collateral, by J.C. Hannigan

The final book in the Collide series, Collateral was quite the grand finale. I’ve loved Harlow from the moment J.C. told me about her, and it’s been such a great experience watching her grow and come into her own. A suspenseful romance, Collateral is raw and real. And don’t even get me started on how freakin’ hot Jax is. He’s seriously the perfect boyfriend—and my all-time favorite book boyfriend!

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The Year We Fell Down, by Sarina Bowen

This was the first book—that I can remember reading—with a disabled heroine that fully captures what it’s like to live in a limited body. I devoured it in one sitting because I loved Corey and I absolutely had to know whether she and Adam would be together. Though Adam is only temporarily injured, he’s the epitome of the perfect partner. I haven’t read the rest of the series yet, but I really need to get on that!

Buy Now on Amazon


I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai

My sister brought this over one day, urging me to read it. I’d been wanting to, so no argument there! Malala tells the story of how she defied the Taliban and fought for girls’ education alongside her supportive father. It was such an inspiring and enlightening read. I was 13 on 9/11, so I remember it well but there was still a lot that I didn’t know; it was fascinating to read about the global effects of the so-called “War on Terror.” More importantly, Malala’s bravery was so empowering and uplifting.

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Pretty Pink Ribbons, by K.L. Grayson

Going in, I didn’t know that this was a breast cancer book, but I figured it out pretty quickly, as I have several loved ones who have fought breast cancer. Though it’s in a series, Pretty Pink Ribbons is a complete standalone. It’s quite the rollercoaster, emotionally speaking, but the ending is so worth every second of heartache.

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Kaleidoscope Hearts, by Claire Contreras

This was another one that I devoured. Contreras writes so beautifully, and I fell deeply in love with Estelle and Oliver. I related to a lot of their problems, and I got really attached to their friends and family members. I picked up the complete series box set, so I’m still making my way through the rest of the books. Kaleidoscope Hearts was just lovely.

Buy Now on Amazon


Let’s Get Digital, by David Gaughran

And now for something completely different! If you’re new to self-publishing or have been at it for a while and looking for a refreshing book with some publishing and marketing tips, Let’s Get Digital is an insightful, quick read. I promptly grabbed Let’s Get Visible to widen my education, and have already learned a lot.

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There were some books that I started but didn’t finish because I just didn’t get into them, and there were others that were re-reads of old favorites. Honestly, I’ve been watching a lot of TV; by the end of the day, I’ve got too much brain fog to focus on reading. Still, I’m really happy with my reads for 2016.

What were your favorite books this year? Let me know in the comments below!