When Walls Become Doorways

Walls define, protect and defend. They create and maintain boundaries. They keep the unwanted out, protect the ones inside. They serve to differentiate between what is mine and what is yours. They create feelings of belonging as well as feelings of isolation.

Likewise, with our inner world of thoughts and emotions. These protective mechanisms are sometimes consciously built; but some emerge unconsciously. We may not choose to create them, but the innate need to protect ourselves from perceived danger or something so intolerable and unbearable, directs us to wall ourselves in and keep the unwanted, the damaging intrusion out.

This often happens in psychological trauma. The fear, grief, loss and powerlessness experienced is so overwhelming, that one seeks to create as much distance possible from these. Some people run away from situations and memories that retrigger the experiences, some run towards situations that retraumatize them. And some—well they just disconnect. An impenetrable wall emerges forth from the raging frothy sea of emotions and seals off the unbearable from the conscious. That’s the only way some know to live and have survived thus far.

In the healing process of such trauma or heart wounds, there comes a time when those walls will have to be acknowledged. Unlike brick and mortar walls that have no voice of their own, these walls cry out to be noticed and acknowledged. They remind us that somewhere something is not free flowing. That one is trapped within oneself. There is a numbing and a deadening, reminding us that we are not fully alive. My own understanding of this “blocked experience” came up in the context of how I saw my own imagination and creative capacity. I have an image of a pipe through which there is gushing, fierce, free-flowing water, but it is blocked and what comes out on the other side of the pipe is just a trickle of the force. Sure, I could blast through what ever is blocking the pipe, and I will get free-flowing water. But I might have no pipe left and the fierce surge of water might sweep over everything else, uncontained and destructive.

There are ways of working through such blocks and walls (it’s safer to do it with some kind of support or with a trained counsellor/therapist) with the intent to create space for a doorway for a way forward—a breakthrough. Perhaps the notion of “break through” has some roots in this idea—breaking through a wall. What I would like to briefly present here is one path of working with the walls emergent in trauma—the path of creativity. Research has been exploring the relationship between trauma and creativity; studies are affirming links between the two. A study done by Dr Marie Forgeard on the link between adverse life experiences and creativity showed a strong relationship between number of adverse lifetime events and perceived creative growth as well as breadth of creativity (number of creative domains).

It has been seen with different traumatised populations that creative expression has given them a language to express themselves, helping them move forward in their recovery journey. People have used journaling, poetry writing, painting, drama, music, dancing, to name a few, as channels of expression.

The language of creativity seems to help expression and healing. It is a catch 22 situation though. One of the areas that trauma impairs in a person is his/her imagination. Imagination is closely tied to creativity. When a person experiences trauma, the world as they knew it is shattered, along with their beliefs and assumptions about it. To rebuild their shattered world, requires, along with hope, trust and resilience, a capacity to recreate, to imagine. A traumatised imagination is often numbed out, shut down which impairs creative expression and traps them in a primal fear state of response and stuck thinking. Says Dr Bessel Van der Kolk, a Dutch psychiatrist who has done immense trauma-based work, “Many of my patients have survived trauma through tremendous courage and persistence, only to get into the same kinds of trouble over and over again. Trauma has shut down their inner compass and robbed them of the imagination they need to create something better.”

With impairment in imagination and creativity, comes a limitation in the ability to receive, experience and express. Traumatic experiences often cannot be verbalised. Sometimes they are pre-verbal (as when a small child experiences it). Even when one can talk about it, the scope and impact of that experience is so intense, that much of it cannot be explained verbally. How does one put into words the overwhelming horror of powerlessness in the face of relentless abuse? How does one articulate the fear and loss of identity that a war refugee experiences? How does one express the grief and loss of a flood or earthquake victim who has lost everything and everyone that he/she has known as home? What words can infuse power into the helplessness of a person who sees his/her loved one dying and yet continues to take care of the dying person, knowing all his/her efforts will not save the loved one? Sometimes language isn’t enough. Rather the language of words isn’t. The traumatised need more.

It has been seen with different traumatised populations that creative expression has given them a language to express themselves, helping them move forward in their recovery journey. People have used journaling, poetry writing, painting, drama, music, dancing, to name a few, as channels of expression. In my Masters research which studied residues of childhood abusive sexual experiences in the present life of adult survivors, in response to the question whether they had addressed their childhood sexual abuse (CSA) experience in alternate ways (other than in therapy/counselling), several of the participants had explored alternate ‘languages’ of creative expression to process their trauma:

Expressing their self by storytelling (“…being part of an ensemble that used personal story telling to break the silence that surrounds CSA. I found it useful because it helped me break through my own sense of shame and work on the residues of CSA”); Drawing (“It touches my soul); Poetry (“I wrote poetry. But it was always figurative, not illustrative or direct. It helped me get my thoughts on paper where I could see it. That brought relief, reduced distress”); Writing, art, movement (“the personal narrative and sometimes the way colours and movements bypass words helped me.”); Writing (“I have written about it and examining it minutely to understand the kind of emotions that I was feeling helped me”); Talking, reading, writing (“Revelation n liberation”); Making crafts (“Through these I was able to focus on the present situation and nothing else. It helps me to think about how can I make things more beautiful and meaningful”); Reading (“…And I have found it useful—it helped me understand that what happened to me was not unique or was not because of some problem with me; it helped me realise that healing had to begin within me.”)

One of the participants in the research responded “Through lots of prayer and breaking of soul ties.”

Prayer is a creative expression! It is collaboration and communication with the master creator. Psalms are heart prayers that David lifted up to God and his creative expression was writing. The language and imagery in the Psalms are indeed a work of art. These expressions of David were the expressions of a man who had endured much trauma and of different kinds—death, loss,
betrayal, persecution and hatred, to name a few. David’s work of art that served him continues to serve us today.

Psalms are indeed a work of art. These expressions of David were the expressions of a man who had endured much trauma and of different kinds—death, loss, betrayal, persecution and hatred.

The Bible is a book of trauma; the traumatic experiences start at the beginning with what the serpent initiated. The pages of the Bible are steeped in accounts of loss, destruction, betrayal, abuse, abandonment and grief. The narration of the tragedy endured, of the trauma people experienced, and if I may anthropomorphise God for a moment—the trauma that God endured, are heart-wrenching artistic expressions in themselves. In some trauma-healing processes ‘laments’ (laments are an exercise in the trauma-healing programme of Trauma Healing Institute (THI) are one of the intentional ways that people are taught to express their heart wounds—they are asked to create their own laments modelling on the structure in the Bible (Psalm 13 is an example of a lament).

Where there is trauma, there is also God’s comfort and affirmation, again spilled over the pages of His Word to us. His message of comfort, in a few lines, is often “You are mine. I love you. I will save you; you are valuable, precious.” But He doesn’t say it simply like that always, does He? Consider, for instance, Isaiah 62: “…You will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. You will be a crown of splendour in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

God doesn’t have to be creative in expressing himself, but He is! All of creation is witness to that. Everything that has been happening post fall (probably the greatest trauma of all) has been a restorative redemptive journey, initiated by Him. This journey can be compared to a beautiful tapestry being woven, a spectacular painting in the making or a rich symphony being composed—choose the artistic metaphor that pleases you. If God is crafting this healing journey in ways that are wildly beyond our imagination, then creativity is not just of aesthetic value, it is actually restorative in its very nature. Creativity is part of the DNA of God’s trauma-healing programme—if I may get a bit creative here. We have seen over and over again, both in scripture as well as our lives that our heart wounds become agents of healing. We become an agent of healing. Is it possible to articulate the beauty of this process? Who could imagine!

Trauma-emergent walls can become healing doorways through creative expression. As I see it, impaired creativity is a wall, and creative expression is a doorway. Creative expressions help people, in Dr Van der Kolk’s words, “to process and integrate their traumatic experiences without feeling re-traumatised—to process trauma so that it is quenched, not kindled.” The causal nature of the links between trauma and creativity that are being uncovered is unclear. What is clear though is the benefit of creative expressions in tandem with supportive work in healing. Creative expression can be a transforming journey that empowers, gives voice, gives hope, gives life. So express. As you do, you become more and more alive to yourself, the walls become less threatening and you become more accessible to yourself and to others. You may no longer need to seal off the unbearable because you have allowed yourself to speak a different ‘language’ that has expanded your bearing capacity.  So, speak it. Our God unabashedly does.

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