Refining Our Stories on the Page as a Path to Recovery: The healing power of writing

Some traumas have straightforward recoveries attainable with simple goals and actions, such as cleaning and dressing a minor wound. Others cut more deeply and take enormous strength to overcome. Here is my process of healing: write, release, recover.

TW: sexual assault, disordered eating

The Battle for Control in Response to Trauma

When I was 13, I was sexually assaulted by one man, had it attempted by another, my boyfriend was coerced to dump me by the man who attacked me, I was overweight due to an injury, and my family life offered little solace. My response to these traumas was to starve myself.

I lost about 35 lbs in a very short amount of time. I was lucky. I had a handful of friends who were paying attention, and one who refused to let me disappear.

Disappearing was my ultimate plan. I didn’t want to be seen because I was ashamed of myself. If people were going to see me, I wanted it to be on my terms. I wanted to be in control of my body, in control of my image, in control of myself. And I was taking action to make that my reality by controlling eating and exercise.

But here’s the thing. I was always in control.

I was telling myself this story.

Owning My Story

As an adult, I’ve learned a safe and healthy way to control my story. I use words to write, release and recover.

When it comes to trauma, that initial writing session is a torrent of energetic scribbling or typing. By committing my story to the page (even if I destroy it later), I am taking ownership of my experience. In other words, I am practicing acceptance. Once I have accepted my story, I can release it. This means I am not returning to it in my head over and over, and it safely sets the stage for recovery where I might more deeply process a portion of my story or come directly to peace with my experience.

If you want to know more about writing to release, I have written about why you can do it, how you can do it, and establishing your own safe writing practice to support emotional release.

What I want to talk about right now is that third piece of my writing process: recovery.

Writing to Recover

In the digital age, it is easy to purge our experiences journal-style and hit publish on a blog. We can receive immediate feedback from external sources who may validate our experiences. But others may challenge them, and that can harm us. We are especially susceptible to harm from commenters, friends, family and anyone else who comes across our stories when we haven’t fully released them.

Writing to recover happens when I’ve begun releasing my story and is often my method of fully releasing my story. It is when I reenter my writing/experience with an eye for detail and sensitivity to myself and others in my story.

Recovery happens through a refining process. On the basic level, I look for negative statements about myself and restate them with conscious positivity. Instead of “I was fat and ugly, the kind of girl boys turned away from,” I might say, “I was unable to see my own beauty, perceiving myself as fat and ugly, and imagined the boys turned away in revulsion.”

Bringing Compassion into My Story

With this adjustment, I have reclaimed my beauty at that age, and I have recognized that no matter how much I believed I was worthless at the time, I still had value.

I cannot tell you how often I work with rape survivors who include self-judgments that they deserved or asked for sexual assault when they tell their stories on the page for the first time. Survivors will apologize, defend and express guilt because they haven’t accepted that they are not to blame for being assaulted. In fact, this is the main reason why I began working with trauma writers–it gives survivors a chance to look at their story, hold it in their hands, and see that it is not their fault they were hurt.

Writing our stories, releasing them and refining them allows us to bring compassion for ourselves into our hardest, darkest experiences. It is a form of positive self-talk, an exercise in extending ourselves compassion. That compassion is the key unlocking recovery.

Really. Show yourself some love. You are worth it!

Write to Release

I recently had an experience with a friend that threw me backward into a pattern it took me weeks to uncover. In fact, it threw me so far back I stopped eating and found myself in my doctor’s office with related complications. It wasn’t until I sat on the crinkly paper and the doctor put his stethoscope to my heart that I connected the dots between past and present grief.

Once I recognized the parallels, I was able to take action to break out of the pattern. My first step was writing out every way I was sad or angry or scared by a broken trust. I let it all out. I did not share this with anyone. It was raw and real and zinged with pain throughout every nerve of my body.

I found I was able to eat again without having someone sit with me to hold me accountable (a precaution I took because even though I wanted control, I recognize the path I was on was unhealthy).

Release to Recover

The release was in-progress. So, I returned to my story on the page, picked the most beautiful aspect and began writing the first time I slid into anorexia with love for myself and the friend who refused to give up on me. Even though I felt fat. Even though I thought myself bad/wrong/guilty/worthless. Even though I could not see my own beauty. He saw it. Because of him, I am alive to witness it and love myself.

Writing the story created a break in the pattern. I exited it and began practicing gratitude in place of fear, self-love in place of judgment.

I was able to accept that I felt guilty because I hadn’t been able to do enough to stop myself from losing trust and prevent hurting someone who had hurt me. The truth was, I did everything I thought to be safely possible to retain and rebuild trust, but it was already broken, and holding onto that relationship was creating more harm for all parties. It can be hard to accept that we have to care for ourselves first to protect our love of others, but I eventually did so and I hope they did as well.

When You Can’t Find the Silver Lining

There have been times a story is too new or too dark for me to pull out those positive threads. When this happens, I do what I instruct students and coaching clients; I write what should have happened.

This takes me from writing fact to fiction, but that’s perfectly okay. Just like I go to my happy place in my head when I’m pushing myself in the gym, I go to a happy place in my writing. It’s a protection, and one I deserve. By writing what should have happened, I am still acknowledging my experience and addressing my pain. I am choosing to validate myself by giving myself a healing story.

The process can be messy, but it is absolutely worthwhile.

Hitting Go

When we talk about next steps with our stories, here’s the thing: Writing allows us to carefully curate what information we want to share and how. I have no desire to hurt people with my words or actions, but telling my stories is like breathing for me. It opens up my chest and allows me to expand, fully occupy my space and to push myself outside that one awful moment I’m stuck in. I write to heal, and it works.

I also write to share, and those are often very separate things in the beginning stages. Why?

Publishing my raw rage and pain can drum up all sorts of sympathy from readers, but I don’t want just knee-jerk reaction. I want understanding. And I want it to be beautiful.

I want to note here that there is a plethora of beautiful, raw, uncensored work out there. I have published my share of unfiltered thoughts. I think that can be a wonderful action, especially in that it can encourage others to get their own thoughts out of their heads and on the page. That type of writing is important but, as I said earlier, it creates vulnerability if we hit go prior to coming to terms with the experience(s) we are writing about.

Publishing Our Painful Pasts (with regard to the present)

So, when I say I want it to be beautiful, what I am actually talking about is my response to others reading my work. I want to feel safe and good about what I am sharing, confident that I have done my best to write with consideration for the others who are present in my story, and to be absolutely certain that I am feeding my personal, positive growth rather than negative thoughts with my work.

I am grateful to a friend for her well-timed share of this statement by Glennon Doyle Melton, philanthropist and Love Warrior, who puts it very beautifully:

(and with regard for ourselves)

More specifically, I want to be able to handle any response I receive without becoming reactive, even if the response is reactive.

Drama is a rabbit-hole, and when we claim our own stories with confidence and grace, those who feel sidelined will do whatever they can to bring us down. Online bullying, smear campaigns, comment spam . . . I’ve seen plenty of incendiary responses to writing with carefully curated content because when we take ownership of our stories and grant ourselves the compassion we should have received in the first place, we take power away from those who hurt us. 

I want any response I have right now to be one that reaffirms the healing I have achieved through the telling of my story.

Because this is who you REALLY are.

You Get to Choose Your Ending

Here’s the long and short of it:

  1. When it hurts, write it out. Don’t worry about shape or style or words, or anything beyond right now. Just get it out. That’s expressive writing in a nutshell.
  2. Once it’s out, re-approach your story with an eye for details. Where can you reframe statements to include positivity?
  3. Write the heart of your story with consideration for your heart. Love yourself in the writing as a protection now and later. Even if you have to switch from fact to fiction.
  4. Publish when you feel safe and ready. Refining your work can be a way to recover and achieve the level of safety you need for public expression.

These steps allow you to choose the way this story ends. You deserve a joyful ending.

Are you interested in releasing a story? I specialize in supporting writers at every level in writing for release and recovery and offer budget friendly coaching options. Contact me about the ways you can work with me one-on-one using the form below.



4 Discussion to this post

  1. Stacia says:

    This is just gorgeous–well-organized with a healthy balance of personal and universal, and advice or guidance for both writing and personal healing. I think you have a great framework here for guiding others to the balm the page can be. Stunning work. <3

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  2. Thanks for this wonderful post. #2 is important! I am going back and adding more of the beauty and humor into with my work. I’ve also learned recently that I have physical limits. My body is not a machine, and I can’t keep working and looking at painful parts of my memoir in progress for long periods of time. I had a stress induced illness arrive, and this has taught me that it takes a lot of self-care sometimes to revise these stories. I put extra stress on myself to say something of importance for all survivors, but now I am realizing that telling my story in the most honest and heartfelt way might be the best I can do in few chapters. You give great advice, and this is an inspired post! Gratitude is something we should all practice more often.

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    • Shawna Ayoub Ainslie says:

      Yes, Tricia, I’m so glad you mention how dwelling on the pain can create more pain. It’s incredibly important to recognize boundaries in writing. I have a piece planned that talks about the writer’s drawer (setting work aside until you can look back with a fresh perspective) and how that is invaluable to writers working through trauma. Release doesn’t always happen quickly, and it’s okay to focus elsewhere. In fact, I have a post on side projects that talks about how I usually have at least three things in progress at once so I can switch gears and keep myself safe. Do you ever work that way? I’ll see if I can remember the title and grab that link. 🙂

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