Bearing Witness with Poetry
Diane Hirt, MS, NCC, LPC
To work with DID clients in therapy is to work with a high-risk population. Commensurate with this is the high risk to the therapist, the emotional toll a therapist takes on when working with this population. Another word for this toll would be vicarious traumatization, or secondary PTSD. Any success in working with this population over the long haul as a therapist requires an ability to process the trauma in a healthy, meaningful manner.
With each new story I hear (and just when I thought I had heard them all, I discover I have not), the challenge of processing presents itself anew. Facing the reality of evil is not easy for any of us. To expand our own reality of the world to include these horrific experiences takes time. Although we are all faced with evil on the television every day, to partake emotionally with a client¹s story of horror and trauma, face to face, intimately, is another matter altogether. Some distance is necessary to protect our hearts and minds and that safe distance is discovered by experience, as part of the learning process.
My goal is to go as close as I can tolerate without doing emotional harm to myself. Some examples of emotional harm would be: finding myself distracted or dissociated in the presence of friends or family; frequent intrusive thoughts and images; experiencing compassion fatigue; sensing a weakening of therapeutic boundaries; depression, or losing the joy of life.
With DID clients, more often than not, I find myself having to "jump into the deep end" -- radical exposure to a reality of evil beyond comprehension. I am placed in a position of knowing and listening to things I did not want to know, things I never asked to know. But in those moments, I make a conscious choice to know and listen and stay. Being able to make that choice means having a certain confidence and strength that comes with the experience of processing previous unwanted realities. It is important for me to have a solid awareness of my own subtle patterns of denial as well.
I find that gradual exposure is the best way to safely process the trauma. In experiencing the trauma vicariously, it is important to be aware of what is happening and to take small steps in remembering ("finding the therapeutic window" with the client, as John Briere said, but finding it for myself instead). Breaking the client's story down into manageable memory chunks is helpful, although this does not happen so neatly at the unconscious level.
As I face images and words and stories outside the office, I choose to remember what was said and to see it with eyes wide open. One way of processing the trauma is simply to journal. I have found that writing poems is my form of journaling. It is a helpful way to contain the trauma, to avoid having it spill out in my daily life.
I first sit with the trauma internally for quite some time, without touching it. I refuse to judge myself or shame myself for repeated processing of certain stories, but rather view this as part of the processing itself.
I keep a book in which I then take the next step, which is to jot down a phrase that expresses a feeling, thought, or image which I had in the presence of the client or at a later time. I then write a rough version of a poem and eventually sit at the computer and put it in final form. The poems are then placed into a separate journal. Re-reading them is a source of healing and hope. I am able to give witness to being a witness. I am reminded of where I have been with the client and I am continually humbled and awed at the client's courage. This encourages me to go on doing what I do. I am challenged and inspired to be present with my clients, bringing my heart and soul to them.
My willingness to be a witness is meaningful to them and it has meaning to the world. These facts have meaning to me. Their stories are part of world history and their stories deserve to be recorded. Far beyond processing my own trauma, my poems are meant to honor the survivor and to bring into the light what occurred in the darkness. Although it comes with a cost, I am humbled and privileged to bear witness.
Here are three poems I would like to share with you.
She, sometimes, more or less here, lies
upon the floor of my office.
Worn out, nauseous, struggling to accommodate to her weekly hours of existence
in a foreign land called safe place.
Hair strewn, clutching her worn quilt
Old and new razor slashes appear on the glimpses of flesh
on arms in extra long extra large sleeves.
Scars that shout the story,
Circles of cigarette burns form patterns that stare silently at me.
They crudely yet articulately bear witness of atrocities she cannot speak
with the opening called mouth.
But as she cautiously opens the mouth that she curses,
snatches of words are haltingly spoken
jagged fragments of words whispered, filmed in smoke and smeared with blood,
spoken in defiance of pacts made in dark places
In defiance of them and all those unseen who wait for her to come home.
I move closer to gently catch the words lest they fall upon the floor,
shards left to be trampled or swept away.
I hold them gingerly, tenderly in my hands lest I be cut
by pieces of the fragile distorted broken window that offers me
glimpses into her life.
No one else is here. I am here, sometimes feeling so alone as her dissociated parts come and go,
no one part ever allowed to enjoy the stay or just pull up a chair and visit.
Longing so to know the insiders, wherever they are, whoever they be,
whatever they have done.
A foot here, a foot there, ever so cautiously proceeding together down the path leading out of denial into
Going forward but sometimes needing to quickly turn around,
I said: Brain, where will you put this?
Dialing up for a connection-access denied-re-dial-connected-transferred.
Just like her, I don't want to know or remember but I must know and remember.
I get to choose the answer to this while she does not, or so I naively
thought just a while ago.
If I refused to know, would her story of
survival be lost forever?
If the riddle still goes on unanswered about the tree that falls
in the forest with no one present,
the does-it-make-a-sound question,
what about this life of hers? Will the world care if I don't remember?
I said: Move over. Make room for this.
Land between Time
There's a land between time
wedged between the seconds that tick on the clock.
Maybe, like Peter Pan, I've flown away and landed in another dimension.
Somewhere in space I find myself
locked, where no keys or doors or walls or stairs are to be found.
The child did not seek this place out.
It happened the day she was given no choice;
or rather, two choices that added up to zero to the little one
barely able to do addition or subtraction.
He said to her: Create pain.
Make yourself hurt and feel it and show it or I will hurt you.
Do it to yourself or I will do it to you. But don't you cry, my little one,
or I will hurt you more.
Variation: My child, tell me not to stop and that you like what I do
or else I won't stop.
In that moment, she was thrust, truly by no will of her own, into the
land between time and there,
where time does not exist, she remains.
You can call out her name but she cannot hear you.
She is alone.
Others inside know I am here in this never-never-land of sorts
but yet I myself am unsure of my own existence.
Over and over I ask myself aloud: Am I real?
unsure whether any others inside can hear me
because I cannot even hear myself.
A voice from inside shouts out to me without words: shut the fuck up, you bitch.
She hates the present and the past.
Reality is too unbearable as are the memories locked in her past.
Somewhere between the now and the then sits her paper house.
Shhh. Can't talk about what is and can't talk about what was.
She says: I'm going to my paper house.
Paper trees are shedding paper leaves
that fall on paper grass.
Peekaboo through paper windows
made of paper glass.
A paper butterfly hovers
upon a paper rose,
A paper clothesline spans
to hold its paper clothes.
A paper sun is shining
from within the paper skies,
Paper beds and paper tears
and forbidden paper cries.
A little child is curled up tight
behind a paper wall,
Her mouth invokes the solemn prayer:
I'm just a paper doll.
The paper wind that's blowing
only brings its paper rain.
The hands and feet that strike her
only bring a paper pain.
Copyright © 2003 by Diane Hirt and Survivorship.
All rights reserved. You may print out one copy for use
in your own healing. For additional reprints, write
Survivorship, PMB 139, 3181 Mission St, San Francisco CA 94110.