Survivors of trauma go through life with a story of how they experienced–and conquered–trauma. Every story is different, and even in the same event, each survivor has a different experience. They all shape a new life afterward (because one cannot return to the exact same place they were prior). And all have to make sense of not only what happened but also who they are now. However, not every survivor wants to tell his or her story to others.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Anne Lamott
Some people want to put trauma behind them, to simply acknowledge it as part of the past, not necessary for the future. Others are not comfortable explaining their feelings or their fears and reactions during this unimaginable experience, to an audience, no matter how close or how small. Perhaps they’re afraid of reliving the incident. Or they fear the responses of those around them (especially in the case of domestic violence). They may wish to truly forget what happened.
Others hear about the perceived benefits of telling their story and how liberating it can be to share their story. To get the chance to explain to others why they make some of the choices they do and some of the comments they make in conversation. Or to describe why some situations are too much for them to tackle.
I’m someone who has chosen to share my story. I did this specifically to counter the invisibility I experienced after surviving a bombing and developing PTSD. In a community that focused almost exclusively on those with physical injuries from the event. For me, telling my story to others, in writing, on stage and podcasts, is a key part of who I am now. This is the new me, post trauma. There are downsides, for sure, of being open about a difficult part of my life. Though most people do, not everyone responds with compassion and understanding. And times when I’m feeling more vulnerable telling my story can end up with me crying in the hotel room or on the plane afterwards. And I’m still not sorry I to share my story. If I can help even one person with my story, it is worth it.
The two sides of storytelling
Benefits of telling
- When you expose pain and abuse, it loses its power over you
- Educating others about the event or abuse
- Know you are helping to heal others, hearing your story lets them know they aren’t alone or lets them know it’s ok to seek help
- Increase awareness of how trauma can cause mental health conditions
- Provide a true face of mental illness/trauma
- Put the event/abuse behind you
- Inspire others
- Freedom—from those feelings, from the abuse, from feeling like something happened to you to recognizing who you are beyond the abuse or trauma
- Exposing the full impact of the event or abuse makes the world a healthier place
Costs of telling
My experience is that silence is the norm, not the exception. Debra Graugnard
- Telling your story can hurt, as you relive it over and over again
- It can be painful when your story doesn’t fit the larger public narrative or media coverage of an event or situation
- It brings up memories you want to keep in the past
- Don’t want to research and learn about others’ stories (triggers)
- Maintain the status quo
- Anger or alienate people who don’t want to face that it happens (yours or the type of trauma in general)
There are times when someone else owns the larger story. This is true in mass violence or a natural disaster, for example, where the community response and the media largely shape the story for the public. But you still have your own story. And your own story still matters, amidst the larger history. Not everyone wants to have a big voice, put their name to a painful story. But if you do, if you feel it’s important to share your story, know this: Someone needs to hear it, even if you never find out who those people are.
Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.