Beanery Online Literary Magazine

January 8, 2010

Memoir Writing Can Elicit Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome





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Carolyn C. Holland

     When you present someone with the harsh information on child abuse and domestic violence, whether in groups, educational settings, or individually, there is a risk: the information can trigger emotions from the hearer’s past. Occasionally someone will have a melt-down. It comes with the territory. It is to be expected.

     Many people who know me are aware that I have a background working with adults who were abused as children. This was particularly manifested in the 1992 Children’s Trust Fund Grant that I wrote, received, and administered during my sojourn in one community. The summary of that grant read: The mission of the Family Support Program is to heal adults from the trauma of their childhood history of abuse so that they can develop a healthy style of parenting, thereby breaking the chain of abuse.

     To publicize the program, and to take its message to the community, I spoke at meetings, developed workshops, and trained community residents how to be the first responders to abusive situations. Attendees at the workshops and trainings usually included professionals who needed to bolster their work with knowledge. I also spent time counseling adults in groups, as couples, or individually.

     Thus, when I saw the online article, Post Traumatic Memoir Disorder, it caught my eye. It brought back some intense training and counseling situations where the information presented did result in traumatic reactions.

     Most of the persons I was involved with ultimately wanted to share their story with others, with the hope that in its telling others will be reached and encouraged to make the changes necessary to protect themselves from further abuse. These persons viewed the written word as a major means of sharing their stories.

     Whether they had me write their story, or whether they attempted to do it themselves, there were traumatic elements. Memories they wanted to record brought back the hurts, the emotions. Flashbacks were common. Yet, these persons HAD to get their story out (it wasn’t always writing—sometimes it was art). It was cathartic. It was healing.

     Having written this, I read the article.

     “…there are secrets; dark secrets which might have impacted our lives forever. Secrets that our loved ones might not know exist.” Might I add, secrets that might not even be believed by the very loved ones who will read the story. Secrets that might rip asunder family and friend relationships.

     Thus, the writing of a memoir must be done cautiously, heeding the warning that the writer must relive his/her particular trauma or secret. “Because that’s what you’ll be doing–more than once. After all, there’s the first draft, second, third, and editing. Readings. Questions at book signings. If you were sexually abused as a child you won’t be putting in minute details, but even generalized details can bring back past pain.”

     My work brought me in contact with persons whose Post Traumatic Stress Disorder laid latent for decades. Often, they were too busy living to deal with the issues. Many—especially those in the older generations—were told to “Get over it.”Most were powerless to deal with the issues—they lacked the correct tools.

     And, usually, they hadn’t recognized the effects it had on them, how it hindered their ability to live a healthy lifestyle.

     The article’s author, Karen Carver, noted that “Reopening old wounds has unfortunately been diagnosed as Latent PTSD (or what I think of as Post Traumatic Memoir Disorder). For weeks at a time–sometimes months–I am forced to stop working on the memoir so I can breathe and reassess; complete the healing process once and for all.”

     Neither Carver nor I advocate that the dark times shouldn’t be written about. “But you do need to be aware that feeling ‘cathartic’ might not happen until the end–if ever,” Carver noted.

     Dmitri, a Beanery Writers Group, noted this about journalism: If it bleeds. leads Carver concurs, warning that although “Traumas and secrets pull in interested readers” they are “at times a living hell for the writer. So if you decide it’s important to write it all, go into it with eyes wide open about possible emotional consequences not only for you but your loved ones if it’s new information to them.”

     And, I might add, these writers need to have emotional back-up from a person who has an understanding of what you are experiencing—a friend, relative, or counselor.

     For a writer, I would recommend letting your memoir “rest” at times. Have other writing projects to work on while your memoir is resting.

     Ultimately, if you have experienced traumatic events in your history, don’t abandon writing your memoir. It can be cathartic, healing, jarring. Simply approach it with caution, using built-in protections when recording or discussing the rough times. People need to hear your story. It offers them encouragement, and gives them hope that they too might escape the hell they are living.

SOURCE: PTMD or Post Traumatic Memoir Disorder By Karen Carver



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  1. Dear Carolyn,

    Thanks ever so much for writing on the topic of “Memoir writing and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.’ Since I began writing in 2004, I myself have uncovered unwanted flash backs, untold ‘secrets,’ and a host of not so pleasureable events, most of which I wish would have been left buried within my subconscious, but, after four years of writing, I’ve found writing through the memories has helped me in many ways. I’m only now beginning to write a little more freely and finding that much of the not-so-good memories were stealing much of my joy! Similar to packing about a 100 lb. bowling ball, my bad memories were weighing me down. Something I would like to say to anyone who is writing memoir is, if you find yourself suddenly engulfed with rage, tears, shock, or possibly overwhelmed when a ‘bad’ flashback or memory suddenly surfaces, stop writing and give yourself as much time as you need to process and/or grieve, cry, comfort yourself either with a trusted other or counselor. Please be kind to yourself and know you are not alone.

    Many thanks,


    Comment by Regina — May 12, 2010 @ 9:09 pm | Reply

  2. Regina, Thank you for your insightful and considered comments. They add an element of substance to this post. Carolyn

    Comment by beanerywriters — May 17, 2010 @ 11:12 pm | Reply

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