Learning to Run Underwater: PTSD and Memory in the Creative Process

Some years you find yourself flying in a wide open sky. You are aligned with your path, your purpose, your rhythm, your creativity, your people, your joy. You make beautiful, moving, dancing shapes and patterns with your flock against the clouds. You are free from anything that doesn’t belong to you. You are close to everything that is your birthright.

Some years you find yourself submerged underwater. Unexpectedly knocked off your balance by a giant wave. You try to fight but you really have no chance against this thing that is much bigger, older and mightier than you. Your perception is blurred, your memory is distorted, your clarity is intangible and inconsistent. You can’t tell what’s real and what you’re making up. It took you so long to even realize you were upside down. You thrash and flail and gasp to get right-side up, and when you finally do, you find the current has carried you away to a place you don’t recognize or understand.

In the strangest way, 2016 was a year I experienced both these extremes, all at once. When 2016 began I felt connected to a joy within myself more present and clear than I had ever experienced before. I felt aligned with who I am and what I am supposed to do in my life. I felt free from dynamics and patterns that had always held me back from wanting to live, in my body, here and now.

At the same time, in January 2016 my Dad suddenly fell very sick and was hit by major waves of continuous, intense pain. It took two months in and out of emergency rooms for him to finally receive a Cancer diagnosis on March 16th, two days before his 72nd birthday. About a week later he was admitted into the hospital and was too sick to come home for the next 5 weeks. Then on May 2nd, he left his body.

I won’t get into details of what those 5 weeks in the hospital were like to witness and experience. Not only did I become more familiar than wanted with this brutal illness, I was also overwhelmed with layers of family drama and medical industrial complex bullshit. Last April was chaotic, devastating, overwhelmingly painful, traumatic and violent.

I found myself sitting in the balance and stillness of many contradictory elements: grieving for the loss of the most important man in my life, all the while stubbornly committed to not abandoning the joy I had worked so hard to access within myself. And even in the midst of overwhelming pain, chaos and violence, I fought like hell to cultivate peace within myself, for my Dad and my relationship with him, as he embarked on the most sacred transition any of us make in our lives.

This April 2017 I can’t help but be aware that I am moving through the only time in my life that I will experience this particular thing: the one-year anniversary of my Dad’s death.

Now I am re-learning this weird thing about anniversaries and PTSD. Like how one year later you can live through everything again that you didn’t fully process the first time. I am also re-learning this magical, life saving thing – that through art and creativity we have the opportunity to re-visit something painful and make it beautiful, loving, and meaningful beyond its boundaries.

Very soon after my Dad’s passing I had a moment of panic about his one-year death anniversary. I thought, “WTF am I going to do with myself on May 2nd 2017?” Just as soon as I asked myself the question, the answer came.

What else would I do, but dance?

So save the date! Join me on Tuesday May 2nd 2017 7-9pm at the Palmerston Library Theatre (Tkaronto) for One Year Later: Seasons of Grief and Joy.

Seasons Poster

photo by Cristian Newman (creative commons)

On this night eight brilliant and passionate QTPOC storytellers will explore the landscapes, elements and emotions we move through in the course of a year. The internal vignettes, the stillness, the movement, the place of balance and magic between contradictory elements – joy in the face of grief, celebration amidst devastation, resilience and purpose in escalating times of social and global violence, and the ongoing entanglement of life and death.

Starting the rehearsal process has already brought me many gifts and insights into the creative process.  We explore both the wide open sky and the current that sweeps us underwater.  One minute you’re aligned, full of purpose, and running like a wild, joyful horse toward your future. And then, a giant wave unexpectedly knocks you away from where you think you’re going, and who you think you are. You’re angry, frustrated, confused. You feel like maybe you’re dying. But if you reach the thing that lies just on the other side of surrendering to death, you learn to accept and understand this new environment. You have the opportunity to discover things you would have never known otherwise. You learn to run underwater.

I think that living with PTSD can feel like learning how to run underwater. Trauma blurs our perception, memory, clarity, vision, movement. In creative professions, we need to use our memory a lot. When we perform we need to memorize lines, choreography, music. Yet when we are moving with PTSD or moving through some kind of trauma that we haven’t yet processed, especially when we are exploring these exact themes through our art, our ability to learn and retain information can really get thrown off. Even aside from trauma, so many of us are neurodivergent, experience learning disabilities or live with certain kinds of illness that make how we learn and remember incredibly varied. 

Forgetful or foggy brains are genius in knowing how to survive through violence and trauma. Not remembering is our brain’s way of protecting us when we need space away from a memory in order to function in our daily lives. Like, okay self: I’m going to give you these memories little by little. And only when you are ready, safe and supported enough to process what you’ve been through and honour what you’ve experienced. 

Last Spring when my Dad was sick, I was also in the middle of mounting and performing in the most significant play I’ve written to this date, Letters to the Universe – a fantastical, magical version of my life story if I were a superqueero hopping through portals, galaxies and alternate dimensions (so, yeah, basically, just like every day).

Do the clicky thing to see more about Letters to the Universe!

It was my childhood dream coming into manifestation. I couldn’t put it aside for anything; my Dad knew and supported this. But I didn’t have the space or opportunity to really feel everything I was going through with my family. Over the last year I’ve found my body, mind and spirit slowly processing everything that happened, in unexpected and non-linear ways.

My relationship to memory has changed a lot over the year. I am a lot more brain foggy, mentally exhausted and unable to communicate in ways that I used to. But, instead of forcing myself to “perform” mentally or do a lot of communication labour in relationships and work projects like I used to, I am just letting my brain process whatever it needs to underneath the surface, whether that be unspoken or invisible.

So how do we acknowledge and honour our badass survivor selves when we need to work with memory and information retention in the creative process? A few thoughts come to mind…

Creative memory is a skill. Just like any other skill, it takes practice. The more you repeat a line, a phrase, a piece of choreography, the easier it gets. It might be as simple as giving ourselves permission to accept that our memory work will take longer than we expect it to, and that is okay.

Creative memory is not linear. We might practice something all night long and then the next day it’s gone. And then the day after that it’s all there, completely clear. It might be about riding those up and down waves, reminding ourselves that we never lose the work we put into something, it just might have gone underground for a while.

Art is storytelling. Even if we forget our lines, choreography, music, we never lose our stories. When I was a younger performer, I used to get so nervous before going on stage that my whole body and mind would freeze and I’d forget everything. Then I started thinking less about memorizing every word or every movement, but just letting myself sink into the story I was telling. And remind myself: this is my story, it belongs to me. I can’t forget my story. I was born knowing exactly how to live it and tell it. 

And here’s the thing about art that is life that is art (and on and on and on). I believe that before we were born, our soul chose the journey that we would embark on through life. Our soul chose what ups and downs we’d go through, what demons we would face and what lessons we would learn. After we enter into our bodies we forget most of this clarity, but I believe there is a part of our soul that still remembers.

But if a soul knows its life story before it begins, if it already knows what’s going to happen, why choose to have a body at all? Why choose puberty, why choose heartbreak, why choose pain, why choose the inevitability of death?

We choose life to experience it. 

To taste, smell, touch, feel. To have the opportunity to be present in a body that never has existed before in the history of time, and never will exist again. To meet and be close to people who also have never existed before and will never exist again.

It’s the same thing to create or learn a piece of art. What if you already know all the words in the book you are writing? What if you know all the moves in the dance piece you’re choreographing? The lines in the play you’re rehearsing? The strokes in your painting?

What if your task as a artist is not to memorize…but to remember. Receive. Experience.

What you’re left with is a once in a soul-time opportunity to love, and be with a part of yourself, that you would have never had the opportunity to discover, had you not been exactly here. At exactly this time. At exactly this place. Exactly as you are.


Keep in touch with updates for the Seasons of Grief and Joy dance showcase HERE and mark it in your calendars!

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