PTSD Survivors Speak: The Secret Storm in the Soul

Since there’s no simple, prescribed plan for overcoming PTSD it’s up to each of us to find our own path. As so many of us do, GG Vandagriff finds her way by incorporating writing. Today, she explains how it helps.

PTSD: The Secret Storm in the SoulPTSD, survivors speak,

I am a writer.  I knew this long before I knew that I was a PTSD survivor.  When I began writing the book Pieces of Paris, I was in the process of learning to write “from my bones.”  Until that time, many events in my life were hidden behind a virtual lead shield.  My conscious mind sent them into some dark spot inside me that I did not visit.

However, good writers are required to be emotionally honest.  I had cultivated a cheerful, passive disposition, but when I began to write this book, I found myself telling a story about a deeply concealed trauma in my own life—the death of my fiancé in Vietnam.  For twenty years, I had been having frequent nightmares and waking flashbacks as my nervous system mourned this heartrending loss in its own way.

As I endeavored faithfully to follow my characters through imaginary days so interwoven with my own, I had a life-changing experience.  As I sat down at the computer on what I thought was an ordinary day, I was shocked at what spewed forth from some hidden well inside me.  Anger!  An anger I had never felt in my life.  I was writing a scene where the young man, drafted to serve in Vietnam, turns suddenly vitriolic, venting his real fears and rage on his hapless fiancée.  He tells her that he is going to die—that she must get away from him, not wait for him as they had planned, and that he is unilaterally severing their bond.  He warns that if she does not leave him that instant, she will have to watch him drown himself in the river.  I wrote with tears pouring down my cheeks.  Tears I had never cried for my lost love who, turning into a brutal stranger before my eyes, claimed, exactly like my character, that he would die in Vietnam.

It didn’t happen exactly like that.  My ex-fiance would endure a three-year coma, during which time I held him like a child in my arms and rained kisses and tears upon him.  We cried together, his face contorted in sorrow.  By the time he died, I had been married only a matter of months.  Fearing disloyalty to my husband, I had never allowed myself to grieve.

I knew nothing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I had no idea that I was a ticking time bomb.  From those moments of anger in front of the computer, my rage grew alarmingly. Too late, I became a Vietnam war protester, writing a livid novel that worked all those buried feelings out into the open.  My natural grieving process had been stalled on the denial setting for twenty years.  Now I experienced rage followed by soul-ripping anguish and despair.  As happens to my heroine, Annalisse, my one-time fiancé stalked me.  I could feel his presence.  I could feel him watching everything I did.  I came to believe, like Annalisse, that I was living life for the two of us.

Gradually, my feelings leveled out into normal sadness that continues to this day.  It wasn’t for another ten years that I learned that in writing that novel (which I decided I could not publish) I had experienced what was called “PTSD.”

But that was not to be the end.  In my fifties, a bigger land mine inside me exploded with crying jags that seemed to have no trigger.  They went on for months and would begin any time, any place for no discernible reason.  Eventually, pain that had hidden under my lead shield from the time I was a child descended upon me with a ferocity that felt like  crawling naked through broken glass.  The full weight of every buried horror from childhood through adolescence visited me all at once.  I held onto life by only a sliver of will.  For twenty years, I had been living in a depressed state, but nothing like this had ever happened.

I know now that there were angels in attendance who saved me.  Living friends held me while I wept and people from the other side of the veil of mortality intervened, carrying me along, sheltering me from self-harm until finally my rage and my pain were spent.

I said at the beginning that I was a survivor.  But, I am more than that.  I am victorious! Step by step, I felt my way to forgiveness of those who had caused my long-buried pain.  I could not have done this without the understanding of a Savior (or as many would say, “a higher power”) who stood as a perfect protector, friend, advocate, and mediator.  As I became more devout in my understanding of Him and His plan, I began to make rational sense out of the world around me.  My shield finally dropped away, and I learned for the first time to trust and to truly love.  That shield that had kept pain in for so long had also kept love out.

Once I felt that love and its honey-sweet healing power–from my Savior, my husband, my family, my dear friends–all I wanted to do was share it with the world.  I had no desire so great as to heal people of the pain I had experienced.  My tool was my pen (or my computer, to be more accurate).

Like I said, I am a writer.  Tolstoy said that the task of real art is to carry the reader inside the author’s characters to such depth, that the reader will virtually experience everything the characters do.  Recently, I realized that all ten novels I have written are related to recovery from some form of PTSD.  For example, my series of mysteries chronicles the recovery of a woman who was rejected by her parents and then lost her husband in a terrorist attack.  The Last Waltz: A Novel of Love and War, is a story of another heroine’s progress from a starry eyed debutante in the Vienna of 1913 through the hell of World War One and its aftermath.  Although she had no control over history, she had control over her reaction to it.  Changing from the inside out, she came to know and to express the deepest reaches of that love that redeems.

Then it was time to do something about my ancient manuscript about the Vietnam War.  Vietnam was old news by now.  In the rewriting of my story, to bring it into the present day with a more timely trauma, I found deeper meaning in the journey of my characters.  I realized that my opening paragraph, written long before I understood it, characterized PTSD perfectly:

It was the simple things that undid her, Annalisse had discovered.  Something as ordinary as the scent of lilacs when the air was heavy, a brief measure of Tchaicovksy, or a dream.  A dream like the one she’d awakened from last night—so real she could smell the Paris Metro in it.  Any of these things could revive in a moment the memories she’d spent the last six years burying.  They crept under the leaden shield around her heart and found the small, secret place where she still had feeling.

In Pieces of Paris, Annalisse and Dennis’s trial of their marriage became, with my added understanding, an epic similar to the first chapters of Genesis.  They learned, as we all must, that there is no Eden in this life.  When Dennis decides to put such notions of perfectionism behind him, he chooses honest love, just as we all must if we are to find the joy mortality has to offer.  Love redeems, love purifies, and love makes us fit for heaven.

And, after all that’s said and done, life’s very purpose is to shape us, using pain as a one of the tools to enlarge our souls so we can serve as we are served and love as we are loved.

From my own experience, I would advise anyone who is tempted never to put your life’s journey on hold, or cut it short.  The best times occur along the way, as you come to know the higher power and how magnificent and all-changing that power can be.  As you take it into your lives and do your best to emulate it, you will enter a sphere of peace in this troubled world.

I think T.S. Eliot said it better than I ever could: In order to get from  where you are to where you are not, you must go through the way in which you are not. (The Four Quartets)

Courage.  You are not alone.

For fifteen years, G.G. had been the victim of bi-polar disorder (a common ailment among writers) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and after publishing three books, she became too ill to write. During that long struggle to survive, she learned enough about overcoming pain and about the true nature of  love to be able to complete her Austrian project. That became The Last Waltz, which won the prestigious Whitney Award as the Best Historical Novel of 2009. After completing her mystery series,  she was able to concentrate on digging deeper into Pieces of Paris and finally complete the delicately crafted story of a marriage where PTSD plays a disruptive role.

Though she was “born to write,” her apprenticeship has been long. G.G. says, “Any suffering or learning process that enables us to further understand ourselves, our world, and our loved ones is never wasted.”

The ideas contained in this post solely represent the perspective of the author. To contribute to ‘Survivors Speak’ contact Michele.


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