On Writing About Trauma

Trauma survival plays a part in some of my writing. That can be a difficult issue to tackle.

My main character in To the Left of Death struggles with post-traumatic stress after being unwittingly involved in murder. The novel is written in the first-person, which lets you step inside her mind and (hopefully) experience some of her feelings.

As a writer, it’s a little scary to present that kind of story—because Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an important, yet extremely sensitive issue.

When describing life with PTSD, I want to get it right. I want trauma survivors who read this book to feel like they are not alone, but I don’t want to write in a way that will be too upsetting or triggering. That’s a fine line.

Creating a realistic portrayal is also challenging because PTSD comes in many forms. One trauma survivor’s experiences may be very different than another’s, and both are equally valid.

It’s important to note that PTSD can be a result of any form of trauma. While we often association PTSD with war veterans, it can come from other experiences as well, such as physical/sexual assault, an accident, a natural disaster, or the death of a loved one.

There is no specific type of trauma, or level of trauma, that leads to developing PTSD, and PTSD is not a sign of “weakness.” Surviving trauma takes strength, and so does reaching out for help (more on that below).

In my opinion, some fictional portrayals of trauma and recovery are excellent, while others tend to sensationalize its trickier symptoms like dissociation and depersonalization.

Living with PTSD can include some scary experiences, including memory loss or “losing time.” You may have altered perceptions, where things around you feel louder, softer, brighter, dimmer, closer, farther, etc. You may feel disconnected. You may have flashbacks—images, sounds, or smells—that show up suddenly or play on a loop. You may feel emotions that seem to be out-of-context with where you are or or what you are doing.

When living with these symptoms, you may worry that you are “crazy” or “going crazy.” You’re not. Millions of people learn to live with post-traumatic symptoms while still maintaining normal, fulfilling lives.

If symptoms of trauma are affecting your life, talk to a trained professional. There are treatments that can help.

You can learn more through the PTDS Alliance (ptsdalliance.org) and the National Center for PTSD (ptsd.va.gov).

As a writer, I try to create stories that help us imagine life from another person’s point of view. In To the Left of Death, I hope I’ve been able to capture trauma survival in a helpful, compassionate light.

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