If I Didn’t Write, I Would Have Died a Long Time Ago

Oct 6th, 2010 | By | Category: All Posts, Steps Toward Healing

by Libbe HaLevy

My abuse began when I was very young, pre-verbal. I repressed my earliest abuse in total amnesia, not even suspecting anything had happened. But from about age three, I became obsessed with words, language, meaning. Even before I knew how to put letters and words on paper, my imagination took situations around me and spun them into safe stories. My mind took me away from the home I was stuck in to “somewhere else,” and I lived more fully in this dissociative, imaginary world than in the physical world around me.

By four, I had a large vocabulary and made up elaborate stories about my dolls, stuffed animals and toys. I couldn’t wait to learn how to read and write, something my parents considered inappropriate before I turned six and entered first grade. Once I learned the rudiments of reading, I devoured books far beyond my grade level and began writing little stories for class.

When I was in about fifth grade, I secretly started writing for myself. I’d commit poetry, short stories, observations and thoughts to notebooks, then hide them behind the backs of radiators, under rugs, stuffed into drawers of desks that no one used. I sensed that it wasn’t safe to let my family know about the private comfort I found in what I was writing.

I’d been imagining myself for years as a character in westerns, usually a hermit or the adopted daughter of an Indian chief. This character always feared society, avoided it, and never seemed to have a birth family. The men in my stories were kind, sexless father- or brother-figures who saw and respected my secret pains. I never reached a happy ending, just moved from one set of western characters to another when I tired of a plot line.

At twelve, I took my favorite story parts and wrote a script for “Bonanza,” then a popular TV western featuring a father and his three sons. I actually showed this around to classmates and family members, proud of my work. But I didn’t understand why it upset my mother, or why she refused to help me get it to people who might buy it for TV. Ultimately, when the cast of the show changed, I didn’t know how to change my script to match their new needs, and so put it away.

As an adult, I worked professionally in the broadcast and film industries, as a freelance writer, and playwright. I was known for quirky works unafraid to look at the dark side of sexuality and human relations. An award-winning play and my first musical both featured female characters who had been sexually abused or were on the verge of it. Still in amnesia about the abuse, I simply considered it a strong plot device but felt no personal connection with the subject matter. I continued to write poetry for myself, some of it filled with powerful, dark imagery I didn’t understand, but which felt right.

I entered Recovery at thirty-four by attending 12-Step meetings that addressed sexual abuse. Suddenly, my writing became a lifeline. As I found myself triggered by the information shared at meetings, I raced home to write in the journal I’d started in my early twenties. I used this obsessive, daily writing to draw out the emotional toxins being released by my new memories and the healing process. I asked myself tough questions, puzzled through long free-associative answers, recorded life-changing breakthroughs in words, words, words. By virtue of my ability to touch type over a hundred words per minute, I could sit at my typewriter in the middle of a full-blown breakdown/breakthrough and narrate my pain with my fingers even as I sobbed and screamed. Words became the poultice that drew out and transformed my inchoate pain into solid statements of the truth I’d locked away as unacceptable to my psyche.

I did all the recommended Recovery writing exercises: letters to my younger self, future self, perpetrators, other family members – some of which I actually mailed; descriptions of my childhood homes; daily journal entries; gratitude lists; sub-dominant hand writing. I hammered out my Recovery like a blacksmith at an anvil, forging words with heat and sparks and rage and tears, tempering what I needed to say until it rang like a finely crafted sword. Words became my power, my strength, my allies, my friends. I saw the alphabet as sub-atomic particles capable of being organized into explosive devices that changed my world and had the potential to help others do the same.

And then I let those words out into the world. A play I wrote about incest and Recovery, SHATTERED SECRETS, ended up running 2-1/2 years in Santa Monica, California, and being published and produced internationally. Everywhere it appeared, survivors found and used it to empower their own healing. My articles on incest recovery were published in national magazines, survivor newsletters, duplicated for use in hundreds of Recovery meetings. I used my words to address the international media at a press conference that landed me on “60 Minutes” and debated the falseness of “false memory syndrome” on Los Angeles TV. Language, words, writing and delivery of that writing fired an activist response beyond my ability to predict.

With time, I was able to appreciate the true nature of my earlier writings and how they’d helped me survive the abuse I did not then remember:
• The “Bonanza” script featured a young girl who thought she’d murdered the old man she lived with after he came home drunk one night and started to attack her (no wonder my mother did her best to sink it!);
• A collection of my darkest poetry, which I’d labeled “You Should Be Afraid of This Book,” revealed itself as coded descriptions of abuse I was not, at the time of writing, strong enough to consciously remember;
• The incest themes of both a play and a musical revealed themselves as true representations of my relationship with my brother.
Through writing, I’d been relieving the pressure of repressed incest memories on my psyche before I even knew that pressure was there. Again, I state this and mean it: if I did not write, I would have died long before I found the ability to heal from my abuse.

I believe that for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, writing is not optional. Without words, we are trapped in the powerlessness of early childhood with no way out. It’s no accident that the true “incest taboo” is for the victims to talk — and write — about it. I consider writing a necessary healing tool, one that is free, readily available, and ultimately empowering not just in the moment but as a record of one’s personal journey. It need not have literary merit or even be in proper English; indeed, much of my most healing early work consisted of incoherent rage rants that deteriorated into scribbles and stab marks. The important thing is to use words, writing, scribbling, to get it out of you. Release the toxins through whatever language you can find. When words fail, scrawl, scribble, cry, scream (into a pillow, please!), and do what you need to in order to keep on getting what is in you out onto paper.

Then, when you are out of the heat of creation, find at least one safe person with whom to share what you have written. Read it to your therapist, a Recovery buddy, or find a safe writing workshop focused on survivors and our issues to read your truth in a community of others who will understand. I led workshops like that for years and watched the growing health, healing, strength and understanding of the brave women and men who dared to write and speak their truth.

The more truth put into words and released into the world, the greater the peace and power of each survivor. As each of us heals, we become part of a movement to break the cycle of abuse and pass healing on to others who still suffer. The true history of sexual abuse survivors and the impact on our world is just now starting to be written. We need all your stories to understand the truth of our own. I encourage you to have the courage to put your truth on paper/screen.

Whatever you decide to do, remember always: You are not alone, it was not your fault… and yes, it is possible to heal.

Related Posts:
Writing Is My Friend
Writing: My Power Tool for Rebuilding After Abuse
Paper is My Safest Friend

Libbe S. HaLevy, M.A., CAC is a Life Action Coach and an incest survivor with 25+ years of healing. She provides coaching for sexual abuse survivors, leads online writing workshops, and by late 2010 is launching the information/community-building site, Incest Survivor Healing.  She worked on the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, spoke about incest on “60 Minutes,” and her award-winning play SHATTERED SECRETS, about survivors in Recovery, ran 2-1/2 years in Los Angeles and was produced internationally. 

Does this resonate with you? Please join in by leaving your thoughts and feelings about this topic and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestTumblrStumbleUponRedditDiggGoogle GmailOutlook.comShare
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment »

  1. Libbe,
    It’s so interesting that you were already writing about your abuse without even meaning to and before you were conscious of it. I’m always amazed how the things we write are so revealing. The truth about our experience, beliefs and feelings leak out.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Libbe – Wow…not that I didn’t already know your passion for writing, for creativity in the recovery process, but what a remarkable journey of healing writing therapy has been for you personally! So inspiring! And it is so instinctual, don’t you think? The need to release it, to get it out of you and to share it with someone you trust. I found this to be true from the first day I started therapy, even when I hadn’t a clue what was buried in me, the instinct to start writing my thoughts, feelings and questions was set loose in me and it hasn’t stopped. As a matter of fact, it has increased, but in a more precise way, I believe. Such a valuable tool, an absolutely necessary tool for me in my healing process. It would take me years and years to be able to verbalize what I can write down in a few short months.

    I’m thrilled to have crossed paths with you and look forward to learning more about you and your process. And I honor you for using your gifts and skills and passions to help survivors find their voice and their healing in this way.

    Carla Logan

  3. I am definately going to try this. My childhood abuse effects my life in so many ways.


  4. Thank you for this! It’s so affirming to my past. At age 5 I began fantasizing I was part of a tv family, protective male characters (law enforcement, detectives, etc.) That continued well into adulthood not realizing the characters were manifestations of internal protectors. I still have my poems from 2nd grade, many …about death and graves. Just prior to my memories surfacing, in my 40s, I wrote a “novel” which later turned out to be many of my memories in code. I firmly believe that writing fiction is the door to the subconscious…not writing what we know. Fiction taps into the amnestic world. Again, thanks so much for sharing your process!

    (Sorry, I didn’t see this area to comment until after the comment area to Facebook.)

  5. Ah Libby, such powerfully brilliant words. My enormous interest in stories, in words, began as well long before I could read or write. I began to weave my world through the medium of a magic radio. Every night I switched on this invisible radio and I would tell stories through it to one of my sisters.

    We had books, magazines, scraps of paper, the television, movies, music and now the internet.

  6. Wow, thanks for the lovely, supportive comments. I’ve been dealing w/a computer crash and unable to access this until now. I honor all of you for being in community with me, with us, and for your words of love and support. It means a lot to me. If I can answer any questions about the writing process, let me know. I’m happy to share.

    Healing to us all,

  7. I wrote journals as a teenager experiencing the abuse of incest but nothing of any real importance to me was written in those journals because I was so terrified that someone would find them and read them and know what was happening to me and blame me or call me a liar. I lived with so much daily fear that I was 19 years old before I recognized that I was afraid. I felt the fear consciously for the first time and realized that it had always been a part of my life. I left home shortly after that.

    I have journals that I wrote in my early years of recovery. I have shared some of those words from my journals on my blog where I write about my incest recovery process. Today I write on my blog to help myself and to let other incest survivors know that they are not alone. Over the past year, I have started to write about incest on my Facebook page and on Twitter. It is so important for all of us to know that we are not alone in this painful, freeing process. I look forward to reading more about you and your healing journey.

  8. . I especially relate to the line, “I continued to write poetry for myself, some of it filled with powerful, dark imagery I didn’t understand, but which felt right.” I used to write about my abuse before I remember it. One time when somebody found one of my poems I told them it was a story I wrote about something that a friend confided me, even though I knew that wasn’t true. Deep down I didn’t understand where those thought where coming from. I just knew that there were strong feelings inside me. At that age I didn’t have anyone to talk to so my only option was to write. Writing was my first safe friend to talk to. Now I have many safe friends, but my laptop is still the first place I turn when I’m overflowing with emotions.

  9. Brava, Patricia! Keep sharing; the more voices that get out, the stronger we’ll all be. If you want to read more, I have a blog as well: IncestSurvivorHealing.wordpress.com. And a rebroadcast of an interview with me will be on The Pulse on Blogtalk Radio this Saturday, Oct. 16 at 11:00 a.m. Pacific time. Here’s the link: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thepulse1. It will also be archived. I talked about creative writing, online copywriting and (what’s most important to me), Camp Cadi, the camp for girls who have been sexually abused. It was recorded the day after I got back from camp and I think you will enjoy it.

    Thanks for being in community with me. — Libbe.

  10. Jennifer, you articulated exactly what happened when I had those feelings and the only way to deal with them was through words. Only mine was waaaaaay before laptops, so it was words on paper rather than a screen. We all have so much we lock away because we can’t deal with it when we’re younger. Time to let it out. Good for you for your writing! And thanks for being in community with me. — Libbe.

  11. I am a survivor of all of the above and more. God has been good to me. I have always written about my pain and now am trying to help others. I am a living testimony of the power of Almighty God. And I write, write and write.

  12. Wow. I am. Speechless.

    I buried my writing voice – my truth – at a very young age. Even though I always wanted to be a writer. When my mother started to laugh at me for always carrying a notebook around and when she ridiculed me in front of her friends, I stopped. But I never stopped WANTING to write.

    Now I am lost in my head. I wish I could use my writing as a tool for recovery. But so far it has been a tool for staying stuck.

  13. Lisa, I used to hide my writing behind the covers on the radiator in my bedroom or under papers lining the drawer of my brother’s (unused) desk or even between a rug and the rug pad in the corner of an unused bedroom, just so no one would know my mind. The one time I showed something to my mother that I’d been proud of writing — a Ray Bradbury sci-fi knock-off about a sunflower and an atomic bomb — she said, “I wish you wouldn’t write such morbid things.” Ouch! Went immediately into comedy.

    But here’s the thing: if the words are in your head, you can put them into a journal or a blog, and that is writing. Just tell the truth to yourself – that’s the only rule. Even what you wrote to me was/is writing. If you’re feeling stuck, write about feeling stuck. I worked myself out of a multi-year “writer’s block” (reaction to my mother’s negative statements and fear of the lurking truth I did not consciously know about at the time) by writing every morning about how afraid I was to write. By the time I finished, I’d written 4-6 pages about being afraid to write… except I’d written those pages, so I was writing. That was enough to prime my pump and get the words flowing onto a page.

    So keep putting words onto a page, a screen, a blog, or just by staying in the conversation on this site. One word at a time, you’ll turn yourself into the writer you were meant to be. — Hugs and healing, Libbe.

  14. Good going, Sheryl. I truly believe that the last step in healing is telling, and that’s what writing can do for us. Keep writing! The literature of our “tribe” has not yet been written; that’s what we get to do for ourselves, each other, and the ones who will follow in our healing footsteps.

    Thanks for responding to this blog!

    Hugs and healing,

  15. Libbe,

    Thanks for your words of encouragement. I am slowly starting to write in a journal again (since I found this site and Emerging from Broken). But I still have to force myself to the page. A friend of mine sent me a journal cover that belonged to her sister. (she was very close to her sister and her sister died). I was so moved by the gift I felt “obligated” to use it…but it is a great obligation. I stumble and stop and start and feel like a fraud when I put words on the page. I have memories of some sexual molestation at the hands of my siblings (that I have NEVER written about). I also can feel something underneath that – perhaps pre-verbal abuse, too, who knows – something ugly and awful that I cannot name. It’s interesting. My mother ridiculed me for writing. Now she wants me to write so I can write the “Great American Novel” and support her. I don’t think she’d be encouraging me if she ever read some of the “mothers” I write when I do. 😉 I wonder sometimes if I refused to start writing again for so long because I didn’t want to ever do again something she encouraged me to do. God, my thinking is fucked up. I punish myself in order to punish her. It’s sickening.

    I will keep trying to articulate what happened/is happening to me. Maybe I will find some relief. I am very happy to have found this site.

  16. Oh, and the one time I tried to share something I had written with my mother…I was reading aloud to her a poem I had written…she started talking about something else WHILE I WAS STILL READING. She didn’t even try to hear the end. Bizarre.

  17. GREAT!!! thank you.

    I write.
    I am a singer/songwriter….I use my voice and my words to heal myself and hopefully one day others…
    Would love to share one of my pieces…”Erased” come and download it for free.


  18. We, too, wrote our way back to some semblance of health; like you, we devoured books (college level vocab. & reading comprehension by 11 yrs old). And like you, had we not used writing as a tool, we would have long since killed ourselves. We have many scars from self-injury – you probably know the drill. Glad to see you are past ‘surviving’ and have moved into a thriving lifestyle. That is a good thing. Thanks for posting this. (PS: sorry about the we but we are MPD from abuse and don’t use “I” except when a single party is talking.)

Leave Comment