Coming Unlocked in Lockdown
September 3, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Hannah Storm
At the end of last year, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of multiple traumas in my personal and professional life. I’d had symptoms for several years but held off seeking help because of the legacy of an abusive relationship in which I was frequently accused of being mentally ill and unable to cope. I know now this is a tactic used by abusers and the damaging effect domestic abuse can have on mental health. I was also conscious of the taboos that still exist in my industry, where journalists rarely admit vulnerability. Shame is a common symptom of PTSD. Writing helped me erase that shame.
As England went into lockdown in mid-March, I started seeing a new therapist. I was anxious about sessions via video from within the thin walls of my house. PTSD means some of my memories were wrongly stored, some of them buried so deep I could not immediately remember aspects of some things that had happened to me. To get better, I needed to process them, but I resisted my therapist’s attempts to have me relive the most traumatic experiences through the computer, and I suggested writing about them instead. He agreed.
Every week, words poured onto the page, surfacing memories buried for years, bringing technicolor to my traumas. This brought its own risks, and my therapist warned I might feel worse before I felt better. He was right. At times I was almost overwhelmed by grief or exhaustion. I kept writing, motivated by my desire to fill in the memories of my past so my brain could better process my trauma. I also tried to free-write most mornings for 15 minutes, often returning to the boxes opened in my brain. I checked back in with my therapist, told him how I was, what I was writing. I started to feel a little more in control of my memories, a little more compassion for myself.
Although my world had become so much smaller in many ways because of being locked down, it allowed my writing world to grow. Somehow, lockdown has unlocked something else through my writing.
I finally broke my silence about my PTSD in an article for the journalism website Poynter.org.
But my writing was more than a public acknowledgment of my pain. It helped me recall more clearly an evening in the Dominican Republic when I was sexually assaulted, just hours before my first visit to Haiti in 2004. I understood what had motivated damaging decisions I made later, including my descent into the long-lasting abusive relationship, and how often others had effectively coerced me into these choices.
I wrote and rewrote, lived and relived. I covered 15 years of memories, as many countries, and 30,000 words to date of what I hope will one day be a memoir, though this was far from the original motivation.
Much of my writing focuses on Haiti. Through writing I recognised how my second visit there, just months after my first, had been an attempt to make sense of the earlier sexual assault. During that second trip, I met young women and girls who had been raped, for whom there would never be justice in a place where rape was just another weapon of war. I wrote about my guilt that I had abandoned them after leaving Haiti because my freelance salary would not cover the security measures I needed to avoid being kidnapped or killed myself. I made my peace with that guilt though I will never forget those young women.
I went on to write about how I was raped a year later by someone connected with the man who assaulted me in the Dominican Republic. By reliving my memories on the page, I gained clarity about the physical and psychological backdrop to that later incident in Brazil.
I wrote about my last visit to Haiti as journalist in 2010, days after the country was devastated by a massive earthquake. I wrote about the people I met, who had endured so much. I realised why certain smells and sudden loud sounds still affect me, and I started to see themes in my writing, like how I felt often as if I was standing on unstable ground, the familiar fabric of my existence pulled from beneath my feet, or the idea of aftershocks as a series of linked traumas.
My writing also helped me remember happier times – travels through Latin America and the Caribbean: bonds forged with people and places who taught me about beauty rather than brutality. I wrote about some of my achievements too, erased by my abusers who had invoked my silence.
A couple of weeks ago, we found a buyer for our house, and I started to sort through some things stored in the loft. From a bag, I pulled out my old Brownie Guide uniform, sleeve full of badges, worn by a little girl with big dreams. Beneath it was a blue polo shirt and cream cargo pants last used in Haiti. I lifted them to my nose, knowing they could not hold the smell of death. And finally, I discovered a box of papers from family court, charting times I was forced to fight to be free. I shredded the papers, washed the clothes and my husband took them to charity. I kept the uniform to show my kids. Then I started unlocking these words.
Hannah Storm writes creative nonfiction and flash as a way of paying tribute to the people she has met and processing her experiences of travelling the world during two decades as a journalist. Her work has been published widely online and in anthologies and she has been shortlisted and placed in several awards. She lives in the UK, works as a media consultant and runs marathons, also as an antidote to trauma. She is working on a memoir as a result of the writing she has achieved during lockdown.