Using Writing As a Form of Trauma Therapy | My Personal Story
We’re halfway through mental health awareness month, and we’ve discussed at length how writing and creativity are great outlets and are actually a form of trauma therapy whether you know it or not.
I’d like to share my personal story and explain how writing helped me find closure with the traumatic event I experienced.
I’m a Marine Corps Veteran and experienced a very traumatic event firsthand during my time in. This month is the anniversary of Exercise Purple Star. During that training exercise, we had two helicopters collide in mid-air at 2am in the morning. I was in the third helicopter and witnessed the mid-air collision out the small window as we were approaching the North Carolina coast.
After our helicopter pilot made some aggressive moves to avoid the debris from the mid-air collision, I had requested that they put my team on the ground to help our guys. I had no idea what the situation was, I just knew they needed our help and needed it fast.
Long story short, we lost all 12 Marines on board. My team of Marines, instead of conducting a search and rescue, conducted a body recovery of our own guys. What I witnessed and even smelled in the air that night was horrifying. Little did I know how that would affect me a few years down the road.
The map I carried that night is now framed in my office. Along with a photo of my team and page about the memorial service we held.
After getting out of the Marine Corps, I had nightmares almost every night and had a hard time holding down a job. I was up wide awake every night at 2 am. I tried therapy initially, but I didn’t feel like opening up to a stranger who never experienced what I experienced. I couldn’t understand how they could relate or comprehend what I saw, what I had to pick up, and what I smelled in the air. I was even turned away by the VA, which only fueled my anger.
It wasn’t until a few years had passed that my wife and I decided to go see a couples therapist. The therapist, little did we know, was a trained trauma therapist. I guess things work out for a reason. We got to talking about my background and the experience I had in the Marine Corps. As soon as I began describing the accident, I started to choke up a little. But I’d internalized my feelings for so long, that I automatically shut down and tried to move forward. As soon as my therapist saw this, she called out my behavior.
She immediately asked if I realized what I just did. Oblivious to what she was talking about, I said no. What she saw was an immediate mental state change when I shut down the urge to cry. We ended the session there for that night. But she gave me homework for the next session.
She wanted me to write down on paper everything I recalled the day of the accident, meaning the entire day from start to finish. I did, and when I came to the next session, I handed her my story on paper of how that horrific day unfolded. As she was reading, she looked up at me and asked. “What time did you say you wake up every night?” I said “2am”. She looked back down at the paper then looked back up at me. She said, “the accident happened at 2am”. I just sat there with chills running down my back, speechless.
She had diagnosed me with PTSD and then put together a plan therapy plan for dealing with it.
That paper I wrote for her, I still have to this day. But my writing about the accident didn’t stop there.
A few years after that, I started writing for a military media website. For Memorial Day, they asked me to write a piece on what Memorial Day meant to me based on my experiences in the Marine Corps. So I did. Ever since then, I’ve reposted that article every year on the anniversary of that horrific night (10 May 1996).
They joined tens of thousands of other Americans in all branches of service that have died in peace while preparing for war. You won’t ever hear the media mention that terrible night on the anniversary of Exercise Purple Star because the only ones that remember are the families that were left behind and those of us that were there.
Last year, I posted that article to my LinkedIn page and it went viral. The post itself got over 90,000 views in the feed, which led to several high-ranking officers (current and retired) reaching out to me to thank me for keeping the legacy of the lost alive. I even got a few messages from family members thanking me for giving them some closure.
What really hit me was just a week ago, when I received a comment on the article I wrote.
After reading that comment, I was flooded with emotion. You see, the Army Soldier that was killed was one that I recovered. I recovered his body and his gear. I still remember vividly to this day that moment. The moment when I found his pack and opened it in order to identify who it belonged to. I found a personal organizer with rental car information, a driver’s license, and a photo of his family.
Now that my writing was reaching people and providing some value to them, I had some closure myself and that feeling of knowing that my writing could positively impact others.
Never underestimate the power of writing. Writing is an untapped form of therapy that I think anybody can benefit from. It doesn’t have to be a perfectly formatted article to publish on the Internet. It just needs to be your story on paper, even if you keep it to yourself. It took me a few years before I took the paper I wrote for my therapist and made it public for anyone to read.
Yes, it was scary to put it out there, but seeing how it helped other people made stepping outside of my comfort zone worth it. I encourage you, if you’ve experienced any type of trauma in your life, to set aside some time, reflect on that day and just start writing. Once you begin writing, a weight will lift off of your shoulders.