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Writing on the Dark Side of the Moon

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

I have always been a lover of words and those things only words can build ⁠— stories, books, the voices of people with extraordinary thoughts and powerful imaginations. My acuity for words, both spoken and written, has been an important skill I have relied on most of my life, including my childhood. I have worked it over many years, like a rare muscle, until it's strength was such it could support me. I never believed words could fail me ... until they did.

On an early August morning in 2017, everything in the universe failed me. That was the day I found my daughter's body. There are no words for that moment or the ones after. All I could do was scream. That was the only communication worthy of the horror I was facing.

What I didn't know before that moment, and have had to painstakingly learn over the last couple of years, is that trauma rewires your brain. It changes who you are on every level. Your personality alters, your tastes and preferences. Your needs are new and different in shape than the needs you used to work to meet. Even your body and physical appearance shift. Never in ways you like or appreciate. You age in an instant. It is reflected in every layer of who you are.

And the way you think — your cognition — changes too.

It suffers.

I struggled with memory loss and disorientation after Evelyn died. I fell out of time. I couldn't focus for more than a few seconds. I was hypervigilant, unable to settle, full of anxiety and panic, waiting for the next blow.

I couldn't read a book, much less write one.

Three months after Evelyn's death I started my blog on grief and child loss. That first post was a struggle to write. I wrestled with every word, with the strength of will it took to hold myself still and shape the nameless hell I was feeling into cohesive sentences. My body flooded with dread as I faced the very real possibility that this all-important part of myself might be lost to me forever. I may never read or write the same way again.

Now, nearly two years later, I can tell you that it's true. I will not ever read or write the same way again. But I can read, and I do write.

It has been disheartening for me to face challenges that feel elementary in nature at this late stage of my life. To have to make excuses when I can't recall a word as simple as "similar" during conversation. To sit down to something as basic as writing an email and find my mind wandered moments in, and I have spent the last three hours (or three days) doing countless other tasks instead. To experience bone-deep fatigue after writing only a few paragraphs, or to realize that after a solid eight-hour day of trying, I am fortunate to have squeezed out a few pages.

It takes me much longer to read a book now than it ever did before. And I am far more apt to put one down without finishing it. I feel slow and clumsy as my mind stumbles over the words it would have glided past so smoothly once.

Writing fiction has produced a host of new challenges I never faced until recently. I can't often recall how I described this or that, what I've already addressed or haven't, where I wrote certain scenes when I need to refer to them again. It gums the process. It feels like writing on the dark side of the moon, looking enviously at others who get to enjoy the glow and remembering how much easier that once made everything.

But what I can say is that I can see where, over time, incremental improvement is being made. I don't think I'll ever be completely without the cognitive issues PTSD and grief have gifted me with, but I do think they will continue to lessen, and I will continue to grow and refine my repertoire of coping skills. And the upside is that I don't take my successes and achievements for granted now, even if it's just completing a chapter or ⁠— most recently ⁠— finishing a whole novel. I know how much harder I've worked for that, and what a miracle it is to actually accomplish it.

I hear a lot of writers complain about comparison, about how it feels when they think they should be keeping up with someone else's word count or success story. I can't say I'm immune to that, but I can say I am far less likely to participate in it than I once was. I know my life, my mind are different. And so my process and my outcome will be different as well. Not less, just mine.

I sometimes wish I could impart a tiny grain of this experience to others, so they could order their priorities, feel the foruitousness of their circumstances, stop punishing themselves for such small infractions of perfection. So they could see and feel the wonder of being on the moon at all. So they could appreciate the light more.


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