The Transformative Power of Words
Written by: Carolyn Roy-Bornstein, MD
Part of the reason I was so excited about the opportunity to edit the new Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering From Traumatic Brain Injuries: 101 Stories of Hope Healing and Hard Work is because I believe in the healing power of words. Five years after my son Neil’s traumatic brain injury, suffered at the hands of a drunk driver in a crash that killed his girlfriend, I began finally to reflect upon this horrific experience that had befallen our family. Before that, I was too busy to think too deeply about it, just putting one foot in front of the other, helping Neil heal and recover. Yes, I had journaled all the way through our ordeal and it was surely a relief to vent on the page. But to truly process an experience takes distance, both time and space. Graham Greene called it “the sliver of ice in the heart of the writer,” the span needed to objectively sort out the fallout from our lives.
I first began to write short personal essays and finally published a full-length memoir. Crash: A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude tells the story of Neil’s TBI from my vantage point as his mother, of course, but also from my “other side of the stretcher” perspective as a doctor. People ask me if writing the book was therapeutic. In some ways the actual daily writing of the work was quite the opposite. It was like picking at scabs one after the other, refusing to let distant wounds heal. Reliving the trauma on the page was painful every single time I set pencil to paper. Examining my feelings about the drunk driver, about the death of one so young, about my son’s broken dreams, tested my literary mettle daily.
But now, looking back, I find that the writing was actually therapeutic after all. It gave me the opportunity to exert some control over a completely senseless situation. I could not change any aspect of the accident. I could not erase Neil’s brain injury nor could I bring his girlfriend back to life. But I could control the narrative. I could not change the outcome, but I could try to make something positive come of it, by sharing our experience with others, by giving readers a more nuanced understanding of brain injury, one that considers the subtlety and diversity of its long-term effects.
A few years ago, I had the great privilege to present a writing workshop at the University of Iowa’s Examined Life conference. One of my fellow presenters, Nellie Hermann, is the Creative Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University Medical School which seeks to enhance medical students’ patient experiences by encouraging them to write about them. Nellie had written a novel based on an event in her life that was similarly tragic to my own. She made the following observation: “We write to exert power over something we can never control. The past.”
Trauma therapists have long understood this concept of using words as therapy. Often, patients with post-traumatic stress disorder are asked to record a “trauma narrative,” writing down events in their lives that continue to haunt them. Then, by reading the text over and over again, something amazing and positive happens. Through words, these events eventually lose their impact. Through narrative, trauma victims regain control.
This is my hope for not only each and every one of the writers whose work is represented in this collection, but also the many writers whose stories I have read and thought about and cried over and smiled at. I hope that the mere telling of their stories, the sharing of their narratives, helped them to gain strength and hope. Because every one of these stories reveals courage and bravery and serves to encourage others along the way to healing.