Continuing our A-Z of Creative Intelligence, W is for wounds. The psychic ones, cut in childhood, which seep into all the others.
This is a long post, so you may want to get a cup of coffee and relax over reading it. I know, I know: you’re very busy. Nothing like the word ‘wound’ to get us remembering all the things we have to do… Or that we need a drink… Or a visit to the fridge or the online casino.
But anyone who is consciously engaged in creating anything needs an understanding of psychological and emotional wounds. For a start, they are so often the material of creative expression. From cave paintings to the searing sounds of Amy Winehouse , artists are always turning their pain into art.
This has mistakenly led some to think they need to be in pain in order to create. On the death of WB Yeats, his fellow poet WH Auden, wrote a eulogy which contained the line: ‘You were silly, like us’. Part of that silliness was Yeats’s sexual shennanigans, which became more noticeable and less acceptable as he aged – affairs with ever younger women, a growing interest in bawdy art and blue jokes and having the Steinach operation’, alleged to offer sexual rejuvenation, at the age of 69.
‘It [also] revived my creative power,’ he said of the operation, which we now know was nothing but a vasectomy, completely unlinked to either concupiscence or creativity. But Yeats had always psychologically linked love and sex and poetry, a link that caused him great mental and emotional anguish.
Despite a lifetime’s thinking, seeking and writing about these connections, Yeats brought little self-awareness to them. That in his love affairs he was re-enacting a pain learned early in life is convincingly argued by biographer Brenda Maddox, in her book about him and his wife George (published as George’s Ghosts in the UK and Yeats’s Ghosts in the US). What seems inexplicable – the poet’s refusal of Maud Gonne after years of declaring his unrequited love for her, his proposal of marriage to her daughter, his hasty and adulterous marriage – becomes understandable when we think about how he was treated as a boy by his depressive mother and his charming, but domineering and selfish, father.
Yeats was great seeker and teller of truth. He prided himself on it. This is a man who wrote of his first masturbation in his memoirs, so another young man might not suffer in believing as he had, that it was his unique degeneracy. Yet he never fully admitted to the pain and cruelty of his upbringing. Like many artists, he sought the truth – painfully, compulsively, strangely – all his life while at the same time repressing it.
It fed the early haunting lyrics of escape into the mystic (‘Come away o human child/to the waters and the wild/with a fairy hand in hand/for the world’s more full of weeping/than you can understand‘) and the late, rigorous poems of escape into the perfection of art (‘I have sailed the seas and come/to the holy city of Byzantium‘).
Meanwhile, the repression brewed a concoction of physical symptoms in his body. All his life Yeats suffered from illnesses like migraine, physical weakness, colds and nervous collapse, conditions that steadily worsened as he aged into the repeated heart attacks (what else?) that debilitated, and finally finished, his life at the age of 73.
The Body Never Lies.
In the summer of 2008, I was in a bookshop, looking for a book about the connections between diet and cancer. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and wanted to take whatever steps towards I could to supplement my treatment and healing. Scanning the titles before me, my attention was snagged by a stand of books over by the wall.
It was like a scene in a movie. The title of one book on the stand, which I could barely read from where I was, seemed to expand to ten times its size, to jump up and down and emit a siren call across the space that separated us: ‘Look at me, look at me! Buy me, buy me!’
I took a step towards it and immediately felt inside myself a shrinking back, but took another step and another, conscious in the slowed-down time I was suddenly inhabiting of two contrary movements inside me, one urging me to turn around and leave the store, the other impelling me forward. On I walked, eyes fastened now on the title: The Body Never Lies.
I reached it, noticing, as if from a long distance, as I picked it up that my hands were trembling. I turned it over and read: ‘a child’s emotional traumas, repressed humiliation, and bottled rage can later manifest themselves as serious adult health problems’. A sentence that made me, there and then in the bookshop, begin to cry. Tears of pain, yes, but also of understanding, of relief. I knew that in my hands I held the answer to a question I had always been asking and also, simultaneously, hadn’t really allowed.
The book was by the famous psychotherapist, Alice Miller, who died last month. I was familiar with her work around the ‘wounded child’ that lives on into adulthood. I had even written about it once, knowing it was relevant to me but not until that morning, led by my cancer, really taking in its implications. As I mopped up my tears and moved towards the cashpoint, I knew that the time had come, that the time was long overdue, for me to do something about it.
I’m still following the path that Miller recommended in that book, step by slow, hesitant step, and here I commend it to you. Because if you are interested in creativity, you may well be wounded too. (See also the series: You’re Not Mad, You’re Creative).
And even if you are not (or do not believe that you are), as conscious creatives we need to understand the psychology of suffering — how it arises and what it creates in the world. On this question, Miller’s work is highly illuminating.
Making Sense of Suffering.
For many years, until she realised that he was unqualified, Alice Miller recommended the work of the Swiss psychotherapist J.K. Stettbacher, author of Making Sense of Suffering, as being most effective in connecting and dealing with pain experienced in childhood. While she and others have expressed concerns that the ‘primal method’ Stettbacher recommended is open to abuse by therapists and can result in side effects, all are agreed that there is much merit in the method when used as a useful structure for self-exploration — particularly, I contend, when used in conjunction with a creative expression tool like F-R-E-E-Writing.
Stettbacher, Miller and many other psychotherapists argue that our repressed psychic wounds are physically stored in our body, which is always trying to ‘tell’ us about them, to make us ‘listen’, through symptoms. These symptoms are warnings, urging us towards wellbeing, as they try to cut through the denial we once, as children, put in place to protect ourselves.
For it is the denial, not the events that happened so long ago, that is now dangerous to the adult. The work, in the words of Alice Miller, is ‘to correct our blindness, to resolve the consequences of old injuries, to access the truth and restore the crucial contact with the child in us — so that we can regain those parts of our consciousness that were alienated from us for so long.’
This is not wallowing in the past. This is inviting what exists inside us, here and now, into the light of conscious awareness. Being true to its truth in us is what, paradoxically, allows us to let it go. Or, at a minimum to see what it is creating in our lives.
Here are the four steps:
1. The First Step. Instead of deceiving your body with alcohol, overwork, gambling, porn, compulsive eating, drugs or medications, listen to it. Let its complaints be heard. My dance with cancer since 2008 has pointed up for me a series of close relationships that were draining psychic energy from me in ways I didn’t understand. Let your body be a doorway to your truth.
2. The Second Step. Feel and articulate the pain that was inflicted on you long ago, triggered by what you are feeling/experiencing in your body or mind now. In your imagination, summon the person who caused you to feel anger and fear. In an ‘inner dialogue’ with them, describe to them how you are feeling. F-R-E-E-Writing is the ideal medium for this.
The more you practice, the more you will have to say. If fear blocks you, say so. Write: ‘You make me so afraid I cannot speak’. Stay with the feelings, painful though they are. Capture them, acknowledge them, look deeply at them.
3. The Third Step. Ask how it is that as a grown man or woman, you still feel so threatened and defenseless in even the imaginary presence of this person.
4. The Fourth Step. Tell this person how he or she ought to have behaved towards you. This is the repressed need that you still live with. What you ought to have had then is what you must give yourself now. This is the way out of the confusion and unconsciousness that always accompanies pain.
Another myth about psychic pain and disease is that creativity, in itself, can cure it. That it can’t is obvious when we consider the numbers of artists whose wonderful work could not save them from despair, breakdown and suicide.
Again, Miller writes eloquently of how art operates in the life of an artist who hasn’t told themselves the truth about their own experiences. In her book, The Drama of The Gifted Child, she says: ‘A well-known musician, for instance, can assure an interviewer that he has forgiven his father for his brutal upbringing, because in spite of it – or maybe even because of it – he has become successful. The interviewer is delighted with the musician’s admirable moral position. His fans are delighted, too, and his record business goes well.
‘But all this success, even in combination with religion, doesn’t help him overcome his childhood fears. Otherwise he would not be compelled in his shows to repeat unconsciously the traumas of his childhood; all his gestures and body stances on stage seem to depict scenes in which a child is being frightened by sexual molestation and violence.
‘The musician seems to be trying to unsuccessfully to discharge his fear, using music and body language to display what were quite possibly the actions of a molesting father. But as long as he insists on denying and not feeling the truth, this effort must be undertaken repeatedly. [And]…as long as he believes that his father did him no harm, he is likely to remain in danger of repeating his father’s deeds.’
Miller here points to the real importance of understanding our hurt, pain and woundings if we are to develop creative intelligence in our lives, as well as our work. We are all creating, all the time, both consciously and unconsciously. When we deny our pain, what we create – unintentionally but most emphatically – is chaos. We become ‘crazy-makers’, piling up suffering for ourselves and others, without knowing how or why these things keep happening ‘to’ us.
This unconscious locus within us – what we don’t know we don’t know – is highly creative. And highly destructive.
Our wound is our way.
Important note: for most people, F-R-E-E-writing is a safe therapeutic activity. In writing you work alone and so you cannot take in more than your awareness allows, go too fast, or find yourself vulnerable to an unskilful therapist. For most people, all that is needed is to allow ourselves to experience the emotion, to keep on writing through tears (even sobbing), to ride the wave of pain and feel the peace on the other side.
Occasionally, however, it may be necessary for those writing about past trauma, particularly trauma of an extreme nature, to have skilled, professional support during the writing process or to attend a trustworthy support group.
In her book Transforming Trauma, Anna C. Salter writes about how writing can occasionally trigger a malign circle in those who have been severely traumatised. Putting oneself in danger by writing about the experience can trigger the production of endorphins that successfully self-medicate pain, but when the endorphin rush subsides, the level of pain has increased. We then require more pain relief, in an ever-increasing cycle.
Writing helps us to heal only if we are safe while we write. If you know that you face buried trauma that is likely to surface in F-R-E-E-Writing, you need to make a plan before you begin to write as to how you will protect yourself in the process. Feelings of being violently angry, overwhelmed, out of control or even suicidal when writing mean we must seek professional, qualified help immediately.
A good professional will facilitate an understanding of the emergent feelings unleashed by writing and how to integrate them. They will also advise on how to protect oneself while writing.
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