“A Little Life”. On Trauma, Emotions and Words.
Happy New Year! January is not necessarily my favourite month. Like many others, I find it a bit hard to resume energy after the Christmas holidays, to motivate myself in the dark grim London weather. So what I normally try to do is finding some nurturing rituals or routines while waiting that the energy comes back to normal levels again. One of these rituals is reading a book I was really looking forward to really savour with joy. I therefore finally started “A Little Life”, the shortlisted 2015 Man Booker prize book written by Hanya Yanagihara. At first this book is about four Massachusetts University classmates growing up and becoming adults and successful professionals in New York City, which is already totally my cup of tea.
However, very soon the reader realizes it is much more and much “harder” than that. It is the story about Jude, the real protagonist of the book, a multiple traumas survivor whose life has been torn and shattered since the day he was born. This book has been without a doubt the most painful I have read in a long time but also one I will cherish forever. It is indeed a fiction about friendship and love but also about excruciating physical and mental suffering, trauma, self harming and its consequences. The reader is tested again and again but cannot put the book down and 700 pages fly away without being able to have a break.
“A Little Life” has not just been a terrific book in my read list. It has opened many doors in my Psychotherapist mind and this is what I am very grateful to Hanya Yanagihara for. Thanks to her story, I acknowledged even more and could almost physically touch the impact of Trauma on the brain, mind and life of the patients.
Without giving any spoiler, Jude struggles all his life to express in words the horrendous traumas that were inflicted to him. His beloved social worker Ana , his friends, his best friend Willem, his parents, his guardian angel doctor Andy relentlessly encourage him to open up and talk about what happened to him in his childhood and where his physical and mental scars come from. But Jude simply can’t. In his upbringing which is worse than any nightmare I have ever had, he has learnt not to trust anybody and that whoever seemed to be there to help and nurture him eventually became his ferocious perpetrator and aggressor.
Therefore in order to make himself safe, he keeps all his emotions and feelings inside, he completely locks in. Nothing is expressed, for decades he stops crying, not a tear. But the less Jude expresses his feelings, the less he can find the words. What he feels becomes indescribable, he eventually does not know to talk about how he feels. But his pain is stronger than ever and cannot find a way out. The only way to cope with his suffering is harming himself, every day, in many ways to try to numb the pain in his soul.
Working with clients that were victims of trauma, I know that this response is something that occurs very often. When people survive an assault, violence, an accident, a tragedy or any life-threatening experience that shook the way they see and conceive themselves and the others and their entire “Weltanschauung”, the first instinct is to try to walk away, to forget, to ignore.
“ I don’t want to think about it”
“ I just want to go back to how things were”
“I want to forget it happened to me”“It did not happen to me”.
Brushing it away is an automatic response to try to get on with life again. Unfortunately , while it may seem to work in some aspects of the daily life, it does not work and is likely to have harmful consequences as negative coping strategies are adopted which can lead to harm, mental illness, poor relationships with others, isolation. Trauma can cause secondary trauma if it not acknowledged.
The Key, the way out and forward is to accept the overwhelming emotions associated with the trauma. To recognise, to label and to accept them. To put them in words. Writing their story on paper, talking to a family or professional. Letting them go.Once the pain is put into words, it is not stuck inside anymore, it slowly finds the way OUT and life can start again.