This post is for the June 2016 Carnival of Aces, which is on the topic of “Resiliency.”
Content warnings: discussion of trauma and violence (sexual and not), mentions of substance abuse and suicidality and self-harm, all in the context of talking about a work of fiction
Between 2008 and 2011 I wrote the longest piece of writing (fiction or non-fiction) I’ve ever produced–a 133,472 word, 251 page (single-spaced) vampire novel. I poured most of my creative energy into it for 3 years and then just hid it away in my hard drive. I returned to it recently, when I mentioned in a conversation to a friend and suddenly became intensely curious whether it held up or not. For the terminally curious, I liveblogged my reread, but this is not really a post about the vampire novel I wrote (thank goodness–no one wants to read about that). Instead, it’s a post about resilience, how the vampire novel I wrote helped me process a lot of the things going on in my life, and the extent to which I can gauge how much I have grown and changed by looking back on it.
First some necessary context for the novel: The actual plot is too convoluted and bizarre to detail here at any length, but the novel centers on an aromantic vampire named Tabitha (who goes by Tab) and a human named Marcus. Tab was turned into a vampire during a pretty traumatic incident, and has PTSD. She’s extremely avoidant, and tries to flee from and/or deny pretty much everything having to do with vampirism. Marcus gets pulled into vampire plots accidentally, but is very gung-ho about charging straight in, learning everything he can, and changing the world. There’s a large cast of supporting characters, many of whom are canonically mentally ill (most of the main cast have PTSD, some bits of vampirism manifest a lot like OCD, and there’s also a character with regular, non-vampiric OCD). There are also at least two ace spectrum characters and several gay and bi characters. Much of the plot revolves around Tab and Marcus’s relationship, which is explicitly not romantic but is based on trust and intimacy and a whole lot of shared trauma.
I should note, for anyone whose curiosity is suddenly piqued by this description, that this makes the novel sound a lot better than it actually is. It’s weird and frequently nonsensical, large sections of the plot happen just because, vampire biology doesn’t actually make any sense, the narration is pretty overwrought and melodramatic, it’s overwhelmingly violent, there’s a dude whose name is literally Clay Hill, people are constantly being punched in the face, and a lot of it is just plain embarrassing and uncomfortable to look at now. This is not a novel I would want anyone else to read, ever, and if you were one of the people who actually read it when I was writing it, I would like you to try to forget as much of it as humanly possible, for both of our sakes’.
When I was rereading the novel, one of the things that struck me was the extent to which it holds up as a story about trauma and how to cope with trauma. Of course, I started writing it about two months after I would have been diagnosable with PTSD, so a lot of the story was a very convoluted (very violent) way of processing what had happened to me. This is not to say that I sat down and thought, “You know, I think I will write a vampire novel to process trauma”–if you had asked me at the time, I probably would have told you I was writing it because it dealt with a lot of themes I found interesting that I hadn’t seen dealt with elsewhere in fiction. It just so happened that a lot of the themes I was interested in were trauma-, ace-, and aro-adjacent, such as relationships beyond the heteronormative and how people cope in the wake of terrible events.
I never meant to write a novel about trauma.* I didn’t even realize that Tab had PTSD until I went to a presentation on the subject and realized that a lot of her behaviors, her flashbacks, her avoidance and hypervigilance, were very common PTSD symptoms. It took me even longer to realize that I had modeled a lot of her off of me, that maybe the reason I could perfectly describe what a dissociative episode felt like was because I’d had dissociative episodes and the reason why she came across as a realistic portrayal of PTSD was because I, the author, had PTSD. In some ways, the silly, sprawling vampire novel I wrote helped me figure out that some of what I was going through was not “normal,” and that while I hadn’t been attacked by vampires or seen anyone I loved die in front of me, I had been through something traumatic.
Not that the outlook on trauma in the novel is particularly upbeat. As I reread, I was surprised by how bleak it was. A recurrent theme throughout the story is that if you get caught up in your own head and dwell too much on past trauma, you will die, either by someone else’s hand or your own. In fact, there’s a reoccurring line: “You either learn to live with yourself…or you die.” The story presents a very particular image of resiliency and survival–survival is constantly moving forward, not letting yourself get caught up in memories, not getting bogged down in regrets and past mistakes. I think it was what I needed to hear at the time; I didn’t have the time or space to process anything that had happened to me, and I still blamed myself for what had happened to some extent, so if I had slowed down to process it, I likely would have gotten caught up in regret and despair and self-blame.
That said, the novel also models a lot of people coping with trauma in different ways, some much more constructive than others. I think it’s interesting that even in my darkest moments, I never thought about hurting myself, but I did write a whole lot of characters engaging in self-destructive behavior to cope with trauma. I wrote characters who become consumed by vengeance, whose morals become more and more twisted as they try to dismantle the system that has caused them trauma in the first place, who are avoidant and in denial, who self-harm, who abuse various substances, who are depressed or suicidal. But I also wrote characters who took their trauma and tried to build something constructive from it, who brought together others who had been through similar circumstances and tried to protect them.** I wrote characters who found some sort of redemption or catharsis, who found some sort of way to reconcile what had happened to them, even if some part of it would forever remain inexplicable (as so much trauma is). The novel thus served as a space for me to think through and process trauma in a way that was separate enough from my real life that it wasn’t as overwhelming or threatening as it could have been.*** Thinking through why Tab reacts to certain things in the way she does, why she has trouble confronting the past or thinking about the future, was much easier for me than thinking about why I reacted to things in a similar way, why I had trouble confronting the past or thinking about the future.
As I look back on the novel now, I’m struck by how much I’ve grown and changed, how different my version of survival and resilience looks now. I still consider what happened to me traumatic, but I don’t blame myself for it anywhere near as much. I have had the time and space to process, so I no longer feel in danger of being pulled under if I stop to think about past experiences. I’m also a lot less isolated–I have a community of people with shared experiences. Processing and resilience look very different when you’re supported than when you’re alone.
But the sort of life I foresee for myself and for others who have experienced trauma is also quite different. In the ending of the novel, most of our heroes are still alive, but it feels less like a victory and more like the beginning of yet another long and ugly fight against the indelible scars trauma has left behind, a fight that they maybe can’t win forever. Our heroine and her new best friend have a tenuous peace, but her prospects are bleak–because she’s traumatized, because she’s aromantic, because she’s alone (other than Marcus, who has made some pretty ethically questionable choices and maybe isn’t the most trustworthy person), because I, at the time, couldn’t imagine a future for her beyond her finally making a decision to accept what has happened and try to move past it.
Now, 5 years later, I can see a future beyond that fight. Yes, the scars remain, but they don’t blot out everything. I can see a future for Tab beyond a constant fight for survival, because, to the extent that her storyline parallels my own, I’ve made it to that future.
It’s strange to have this 133k piece of fiction that serves as a time capsule for a very particular period of my life, with its attendant trauma and denial. It’s weird to approach it again with a deeper self-awareness and see so much of myself between 2008 and 2011 reflected in these characters. It was disconcerting to realize that when I finished the novel, there was no possible way I could have imagined where I am now.
But it was also empowering to realize how far I’ve come, and it made me want to bring these characters along with me. I started writing a little follow-up piece–a glimpse into the future I couldn’t have imagined for Tab and Marcus five years ago–and a couple of months later, I’m still working on it (I’m a very slow writer). Is it particularly well written? No. Is it utterly self-indulgent? Yes. Will I ever show it to anyone else? Probably not. But Raven has written about how useful art can be for recovery, and I think that this is no exception. It feels good to give these characters–the characters I poured so much of my younger self into–if not a happy ending, then at least a chance at stability and care. It feels good to present, even if only for myself, a less bleak outlook on trauma–a chance to process it and move past it even while accepting that there will probably be some part of it that always lingers with you.
*If I had meant to write a novel about trauma, I probably wouldn’t have written a vampire novel, because vampirism is a very bad analogy for sexual violence.
**Ironically, the character who deals with trauma in the most constructive and healthy way is arguably the antagonist. He’s also aro ace and has some of the most healthy and stable relationships in the entire novel. And his downfall winds up being caring about other people too much. I don’t think I was intending to subvert the “emotionless aro ace antagonist” trope, but somehow I accidentally did. On the downside, during my reread, I found the antagonist way more likable than a number of the protagonists.
***Thus, even though vampirism is a very bad analogy for sexual violence, its being a bad analogy is part of what made it work for me. I don’t think I could have written something that too closely mapped on to my own experiences.