On Finishing: Making a Whole from the Fragments of a Story
I woke up early this morning, too early, with my brain already “writing” as I lay under the covers. I kept trying to go back to sleep, but because I was already composing sentences and phrases in my head, I knew it would be pretty useless for me to relax back into the realms of sleep. Yet I still tried, valiantly, fighting against “what is.”
Get up, Dianne. Time to get things down. To download.
Composing in my head is usually how I begin my writing process. Every day I’ll think of ideas for things I want to write about here, or that I want to journal about, document, explain, tell a story about. The ideas float like a disorganized group of fishing bobbers in my brain, and I sample them one by one as they float by until my brain latches on to a certain idea with more tenaciousness and passion. Then, as I go about my day, I work at it — “virtually,” I guess you could say — writing sentences in my head, turns of phrases, first paragraphs, words that feel true. Until I have accumulated too much prose to remember, and I have to sit at the keyboard and write it all down, see where the lure of the idea takes me.
Typically, though, I don’t start composing at night, or in the early morning while it’s still dark. I’m not really a morning person; it’s not when I do my best writing. Some of my best ruminating, yes. … I suppose my brain was already getting to work, noodling on a decision I made yesterday to begin writing more about everyday stuff, and not just the “big” things, as I realize I am far enough along in telling my story that I can relax and write about other things along the way and trust that I will continue to work my way through the rest of my story. Trusting myself that I will finish.
You see, I have a thing about finishing. It’s an intense drive. I hate starting something and not being able to finish, or not being allowed to finish because life gets in the way. In fact, the self-induced stress of not being able to finish things probably creates more everyday anxiety in my life than just about anything else (that and trying to force things to work that aren’t a fit for me just because I think they should be).
Like most people in these modern times, I am frequently surrounded by masses of unfinished projects and long to-do lists. And finishing each item — especially larger ones — gives me a “high.” (I’m one of those people who loves physically crossing things off a to-do list, so much so that I still prefer a paper list to digital so I can get the satisfaction of scribbling out an item or drawing a heavy line through it with a marker.)
Here’s the thing, though: I cross things off the list, and more items get added on to replace the things I’ve just crossed off. Every day. I’ve lived long enough to know this doesn’t change. There is no finishing, until we die, I guess. So I know I need to sink into the process of finishing each bit of life, the process of telling my stories, the process of doing each thing, the process of creating. It can’t be about finishing in itself because there will ALWAYS be unfinished things.
If we can learn to enjoy not just the finishing but the “doing,” I think our anxiety levels would go way down. I know mine would. It’s classic mindfulness ethic, of course. I see this played out with the Covid pandemic every day. We (meaning me, too) sometimes get so focused on the pandemic “finishing,” we can forget the process of living our lives right now — what we are creating, what we are doing in the moment. Everything can feel on hold UNTIL it’s gone.
For me in this effort at mindfulness, I’m trying to learn how to relax into the telling of stories, rather than just getting to the end, editing, and pressing “Publish.” (But, oh, how I love pressing “Publish!”) I’m learning to be OK telling small fragments of my story at a time, in the hopes that all together the fragments will create a “whole” narrative.
I’ve been working on telling my trauma story for nearly three years now, though I’ve only told the actual linear narrative of the immediate before, during and after to the detective, my therapist, and the judge in my case (and those in court listening or who gave me feedback on my statement while I was writing it).
In psychology circles, it is considered highly therapeutic to work on telling your trauma story in a linear fashion to help you integrate and process it.
As psychologist and author Seth Gillihan wrote for Psychology Today, “Trauma memories tends [sic] to be somewhat disorganized compared to other types of memories. They’re often stored in fragments, disconnected from a clear narrative and a broader context. … Recounting the trauma begins to organize the memory into a story of what happened. We can see that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that it happened at a specific place and a specific time. We can better understand the events that led up to it, and our own reactions at the time and in the aftermath. By putting a narrative frame around it, the memory can become more manageable and less threatening.”
While I can certainly tell the linear story of those minutes (albeit with some blank parts), I feel like my story did not end after the paramedics and police arrived. It is not finished.
My story is my life since then, and it’s not finished. Because I’m still here.
My real story is in the “after:”
- what happened at the hospital;
- my interactions with the police;
- how I was supported and validated and how that helped me;
- how I was not supported and validated and how that affected me;
- the months of fear when he was still on the loose;
- the court process and exposure to the realities of justice system;
- the exhaustion of finding myself in the situation of being both trauma victim as well as self-advocate and educator;
- the progress and waves of my recovery;
- how earlier traumas affected and compounded this trauma;
- the successes and joy and love I have had in the midst of it all;
- the growth I’ve seen in myself and in those around me;
- the older issues I’ve dealt with and begun to process that maybe I never would have gotten around to;
- the new normal I’ve developed and nourished; and
- the written, artistic and educational legacy I’m working to create.
For me, those are all parts of my story and the trauma. And those parts are still overwhelming to me to figure out how to talk about and explain; many are still fragmented.
And so it’s here that I’m working to tell the fragments, to create a linear narrative from parts. To gradually tell the whole (unfinished) story.