I was around 19 years old when I lost the ability to daydream. I didn’t notice it at the time. What I did notice was extreme difficulty with writing. I was taking creative writing courses at Simon Fraser University at the time, and couldn’t understand why I was unable to come up with ideas for my story assignments. I attributed it to the inner critic at first. I dug a little deeper and found mounds of accumulated perfectionism in the basement. I growled at it, it growled back, and that was the extent of our relationship.
After university, I moved back home with my family for almost a year. The difficulty continued. I held occasional writing sessions with a good friend, and we named our inner critics in an attempt to be less afraid of them – hers, Bat and mine, Toad. Imagining my inner critic as an entity separate from myself allowed me to loosen my writer’s block a little. Unfortunately, only a trickle of ideas came out. I would start a novel, get three chapters in, and ultimately give up in frustration.
I tried different plotting techniques, writing books, online courses, and asking friends for advice. My discouragement got worse as time went on, and abandoned novels piled up in the darkness. The perfectionism only ate them and grew stronger. My depression deepened, and my anxiety intensified. I would have sudden emotional reactions to everyday things, like a song on my friend’s car stereo, a subtle facial expression, or noise from behind me. These reactions were frightening and confusing. I felt like I had no control over them.
Eventually, I gave up on fiction. I knew that I could still write essays, so I resolved to use what I had learned from fiction writing to writing articles. Words began to slowly drip, dribble, and then flow out of my fingers. I began to write about my experiences with depression and anxiety. Puzzle pieces slowly clicked into place. I discovered the snarled roots of codependency snaking through my thought processes and began the work of digging them out and replacing them with compassion and self-love. Throughout this time, the depression would re-surface, be squished down by a new medication, and then bob up again. There was an aching emptiness in my chest that no hugs or encouraging words could soothe.
Not too long ago, I accidentally came across a video on YouTube that covered Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). My curiosity led to a search for PTSD symptoms, even though I knew that I couldn’t possibly, possibly have PTSD. One-click led to another, and suddenly I had zoomed out to stare at the canvas of my life. I saw the whole picture. And I discovered that I had complex PTSD from repeated childhood trauma that had been locked away, in that basement with the perfectionism. I hadn’t forgotten about it. I just had convinced myself that it was okay.
Trauma doesn’t always affect the imagination in this way. In some people, the imagination can become overwhelmingly negative and intrusive, resulting in nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. If you find yourself in this boat, give yourself a gentle hug for me. You are incredibly strong for having survived those moments in your life. What happened to you was not your fault. The dark moments in your life do not get to say who you are.
If you have experienced a traumatic event and are having thoughts of death or suicide, please reach out to a mental health professional. You are not alone. Click here to see a list of resources.
How does a person recover the imagination when it retreats to unreachable corners of the mind? There might be a temptation to think the answer is “effort.” In reality, the recovery of creativity will look different for every person who heals. I searched tirelessly for the one book, speaker, or resource that would rescue my lost creativity. But what I realize now is that I needed to mourn. My creativity didn’t go anywhere. It’s still part of me. But by pushing down the pain and the intense emotions connected to the trauma, I pushed away all of me. And that included my creativity.
Find a safe person, whether it’s a close friend, a therapist, or a trusted family member. Allow them to hold space for you while you experience the tidal waves of grief and hurt. And only do it when you’re ready. Sometimes things need to fall into place in life before we reach a stage where we’re prepared to handle the pain. We may need to re-learn how to trust people, or re-learn how to trust ourselves.
I was the kind of person who didn’t have time for emotions. Sad songs and angsty lyrics were a waste of time. I decided at a very young age that I wasn’t going to feel bad things. I was going to be happy and cheerful for my family. I kept a stiff upper lip, no matter what. And yet, far into my adult years, whenever I hear someone listening to songs like this, I feel a strange mixture of emotions swirling in the empty space in my chest. Like the faint memory of a bruise, that almost hurts but doesn’t. That is their music, I tell myself. It doesn’t apply to me. I don’t get to feel that.
But, based on everything I’ve learned, I think I need to. I need to allow the music to speak to me. To own the lyrics as if they were the whispers of my soul that I stopped listening to half a lifetime ago. One day I hope to be able to release that pain so that I can be free.
Your creativity belongs to you. It’s part of you. No one can take it away. It may take time to heal, or it may come rushing back all at once. But no matter which path your healing takes, it will be the one that you – unique, beautiful, brilliant you – are meant to walk.
How is your soul calling you to step into the light?
Kati Morton: How to overcome Childhood Emotional Neglect
Kati Morton: COMPLEX PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)
Out of the Storm
Healthline: Understanding Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder