Novels That Heal

Sometimes I feel uncomfortable writing a post that might oversimplify any process of emotional or spiritual healing, or patronize readers with advice. We’re all on our own intricate path through life. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. Aside from a handful of books I like to recommend for understanding trauma and PTSD, when someone asks me for reading suggestions, I often think of novels. 

I recently read The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld. This book had me in tears on the airplane. It’s about a child who’s gone missing in the Skookum National Forest. She starts to love and depend on the person she fears. As you read about her abductor, you can’t help but feel for him at times. The child finder, an intuitive private investigator working on missing children cases, spends her life rescuing other children while she herself fears being found—being loved as she is. It’s a hopeful story that deals with trauma and internalized shame in an honest and moving way. I think a good story holds power, especially when it’s written with as much compassion and understanding as this one. 

Another novel that stuck with me is Alice Hoffman’s Faithful. This novel also deals with shame. It’s about a woman who lost her friend in a car accident when they were both teenagers, and she survived but doesn’t believe she deserves her life. She rescues neglected dogs and through the help of people who care about her, one of whom sends anonymous postcards telling her to “do something” or “save something,” she learns to rescue herself.

I find it difficult to summarize novels (I’ve had a hard time trying to summarize my own!) but I thought these were worth mentioning. In a writing class I learned that it’s the specific that makes something universal. We relate to all the nuanced complexities of a character’s struggle, even if it doesn’t exactly match our own experience, because the humanity resonates. 

Suicide Prevention and The Nine of Wands

Before I get into the heartbreaking topic of suicide—the tenth leading cause of death in the US—I want to talk about Tarot cards. Whatever your beliefs are, Tarot can be a fun way to gain insight and new perspectives.

I was shuffling my deck (the Rider-Waite deck, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, an artist, stage designer and suffragist who was given little credit for her work), and this card dropped out: The Nine of Wands.

nine of wands

This card shows a person who is weary, barely hanging on to fight one more of many battles. It’s a card that says you’re fatigued, you’ve gone through too much, you’re feeling done. But you’re not done. You’re hanging on. There’s some part of you that wants to keep going. Underneath all of the pain, you are still there. And you’re about to push through.

Of course, when someone feels suicidal, they’re in too much pain to want to push through. They might feel isolated, mired in shame, believing they’re a burden. They might be coping with institutional prejudice. They might be clinically depressed or lacking the resources they need.

Often, they’re surviving trauma. “Psychological” trauma is a physical condition—it’s the result of anything which overwhelms our ability to cope and causes lasting dysregulation to the nervous system—which is why we can’t just “get over it,” and why we need a body-mind approach to get through it.

We’re all vulnerable to feeling this way. If you’re ever suicidal, you’re not alone. There are people who want to help. Social support soothes the nervous system, dissolves shame. There are people who have some knowledge and experience about what you’re going through. You are a part of this world.

Here are some helpful insights from people I’ve worked with, who are some of my best teachers and sources of inspiration.

        • Just because you were not shown love, does not make you unlovable (even when you feel that way, it simply isn’t true).
        • You’re not broken because you suffered. You now have that much more capacity for love and compassion.
        • It’s ok to acknowledge that you really don’t want to be here anymore, but no emotions are permanent. They all pass eventually.
        • You are not defined by what happened to you.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line, available to anyone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1-800-273-TALK (8255). All calls are confidential.

For information on trauma and recovery, I recommend these books:

The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk

Waking the Tiger, by Peter Levine

From Shame to Self-Compassion

sunset-401541_1920

When I talk about self-compassion, people often want to know where to start. Self-compassion might seem hard to attain, almost a platitude.

And I get it—I used to have a lot of anger and shame and the idea of accepting myself seemed counter-productive. How could I accept such bad feelings? I wanted to pretend they weren’t there and just…be better. But they showed up in vivid dreams and destructive patterns in relationships. I had strong physical sensations (that always had me going to the doctor, until I realized they were caused by anxiety) and pretty unhealthy coping behaviors. I did some good things with my life, but underneath it all I felt like a fraud.

I can look back on all of that now and see how distorted my thinking was, how “unreal” that sense of inadequacy is—but it can sure feel real. That’s why pushing it under and ignoring it doesn’t help.

Because the thing with deep, entrenched shame—and I’m talking about the kind of feeling that makes you believe you can’t be happy, or loved, or even want to exist—is you can’t just talk yourself out of it. Until you’ve transformed it by walking through its fire and learning different ways of responding to that pain, then it will continue to disrupt your life.

All things happen in cycles. I’ve had profound moments of forgiveness and inspiration. Months later, I would experience an upwelling of the same old anger and hurts. Because I had the experience of compassion for myself, I had a softer way of responding to the pain. I became a little less reactive and the shame was quicker to dissipate. I felt more empowered by my choice in how to respond to what I felt, and I could accept the struggle. I tried difference techniques and perspectives, and went with the practices that resonated with me, discovered things I loved in the process.

Many people despair that they continue to feel their shame despite the work they’ve done for themselves. And because they continue to feel this, they compound the shame with more shame over not being over it already, or messages they get from others about what their healing should look like.

Just because you have the tools doesn’t mean you’ll feel 100 percent better. You are using those tools to build your new way of being from the ground up. While there might be some setbacks and getting stuck, there will also be joy and empowerment as you find your way. You’re courageously looking at your “dark” or “unwanted” personality traits, and this isn’t easy to do. The process lies in finding the support you need to figure out the original source and function of these feelings, and learning to change your relationship with yourself and the world around you.

When I was in art school for painting, a teacher told me that my process was too inefficient because I made a big old mess in the beginning, then created something beautiful in the end. But that just was my process!

I don’t mind any of the chaos behind me, because that’s what it took to get me where I am now. That’s a feeling I want for everyone, on their own timeline, not anyone else’s. It’s powerful when you learn to give yourself grace, to treat yourself well in some of your darkest moments. We don’t have to rush or beat ourselves up to get it done. ❤