How I processed my trauma through writing novels

Written by J.M. Bergman

I wrote two psychological thrillers, Carve Me a Place and its sequel Barely Breathing, as survival tools to process my childhood trauma.

I wasn’t brave enough then to write my experiences as an autobiography, so I created characters through whom I could explore my childhood shame and abuse. Each character represents a different piece of my heart on my journey or my exploration of the motives behind those who caused me pain.

The overarching story in the two books is about Ryan Grey, a man who carries immense shame from his childhood because he couldn’t protect his family.

With their deaths always on his mind, he kidnaps two girls and forces them into silence through a twisted form of possessive abuse. These kidnappings symbolize my childhood.

Along the way, a character representing the PTSD Ryan has been running from threatens to bring all the dark secrets back into the open and destroy the life he’s worked so hard to build. Ryan must decide if he’s capable of killing to keep the past hidden, or if he’s ready to face his demons and connect with his inner vulnerabilities.

Ryan represents the inner-critic part of my mind that thrives on perfection, self-discipline, and recognition. He beat impossible odds to get where he is in light of all the violence he witnessed and experienced as a child. His character expresses how for years I trusted in this part of my mind to protect me by staying busy.

I hated stillness because that’s when memories would tap me on the shoulder, then sucker punch me in the gut with debilitating panic attacks. I hated myself for being weak.

I’m not a kid anymore! I reasoned. I’m safe now! But my body refused to believe me. I was confused and frustrated, especially because I believed God was my key to healing.

The Bible said I could be free, but for some reason, this promise didn’t seem to apply to me.

I thought perhaps I was too scarred and broken to be healed, or worse, maybe I’d misunderstood my relationship with God. I begged Him to help me understand the purpose for this pain.

He gave me one word: Write.

When I was 15, my soft-spoken, trusting self was forced into silence and submission—by me. Back then I would have pinned the crime on several individuals, but now I know this silence was my body’s way of going into survival mode and exiling my inner-child into hiding.

It was a protection instinct. Subconsciously, I knew that this part of my mind couldn’t survive out in the open. In the story, this place is an underground bunker. 

Meet Annie, one of Ryan’s teenage hostages. She represents my inner-child: the innocence, hopes, and trusting nature I once had. Ryan was her soccer coach and mentor, and she adored him.

Throughout the story, she uses desperate emotions to try to reach him, but like me, he wants nothing to do with her gentle spirit. After all, a kind heart can’t save you from the past or protect anyone from death.

Like Ryan, I planned to keep this symbolic hostage hidden for the rest of my life, or at least until it submitted to my control and strict boundaries. When I put my photo on the cover of Carve Me a Place, I was specifically representing her.

Wade is one of my darker characters. He spent years getting in shape and planning revenge for crimes he pinned on Ryan. He represents uninvited triggers from my past that have surfaced without warning for as long as I can remember.

Most brains process traumatic memories through an emotional filter that doesn’t consider time. So instead of being able to shrug them off, I re-experienced the events in the present, often with accompanying emotions and physical symptoms.

In the story, Wade finds and abuses Ryan to remind him that vulnerable memories are always just beneath the surface, and once pulled out they are no less painful and damaging.

For years, I’ve struggled with understanding the role of PTSD in my brain. I now realize it’s my mind’s way of communicating with me that these thoughts needed love and attention before I can move on.

Teagan, the second hostage, is spunky and tough. She represents the fight or flight response in the emotional part of my brain called the amygdala.

In her efforts to keep her best friend Annie safe, she is reckless, martyr-like, and impulsive. Her actions, though well-intended, carry enormous consequences that have lasting impacts.

Through studying, I’ve learned that once the amygdala activates and sends a person into panic/survival mode, the logical left side of the brain is overpowered and becomes very quiet. This is a dangerous place to stay for long, and is unfortunately where I’ve spent most of my life.

By exploring myself through Teagan I realized I’m extremely reactive. If I don’t feel safe or respected, I immediately shut down and leave the situation or relationship.

These emotional escapes have caused me to become stubborn, tense, and unreachable. I guess I figured these adopted character traits would protect the vulnerable inner-child I’d stuffed under the surface.

For as long as I can remember I’ve faked confidence and joy. Most people would have defined me as a bubbly person, but beneath it all I was numb—terrified of being seen as damaged and weak.

This pushed me to try even harder. While it may have prevented future heartbreak, this form of self-protection has also made it difficult to put down authentic roots or maintain long-term friendships. And the little girl inside me continued to fade away like a ghost.

My sequel, Barely Breathing, begins with these four characters being thrown into life-altering danger. Ryan’s physical injuries are so severe at this point he doesn’t know if he’ll survive. He’s lost everything he worked so hard to gain: his health, career, and status, and is forced to commit all his attention to the past and his vulnerabilities.

This is what happened to me shortly after receiving a diagnosis for an incurable disease that has left me mostly home-bound since 2015.

The doctors said fibromyalgia pain wouldn’t kill me, but many days I’m still not sure I believe them. I quickly found out I couldn’t hide behind my achievements anymore. They no longer mattered.

I was trapped inside four walls with all my secrets and insecurities. Instead of my friends, my closest contacts were now my medical team.

At times when writing these books, I lingered over graphic symptoms the characters experience as an outlet to express the pain I experience daily.

Usually, I can’t put into words what it feels like, but the intense imagery gave me space to write about debilitating muscle and joint pain, nausea, brain fog, hot flashes, chills, migraines, and trips to the emergency room. I also processed violence from my memories through some scenes.

Finally, with nowhere else to turn but inward, Ryan (and I) began to face our wounds by sitting with the memories that had been begging for attention since childhood.

Talk about an emotional time in my life! In a strange way, I don’t think I could have done it without his bravery reflecting back at me from the pages.

In the story, someone tells Ryan a truth he’d never considered: children aren’t responsible for protecting others from the actions or decisions of those with power.

It’s not fair for him to blame himself for events that were outside his control. He comes to realize that individuals who have done unforgivable things—including himself—are more than these isolated incidents. 

As these blockages in his mind begin to release, he starts to learn how to love himself for the first time with compassion and forgiveness. Soon, his relationships begin to heal too as he learns to trust and depend on others.

Eventually, a version of himself that is stronger than he’s ever imagined emerges, and with it, his inner-child shines brightly—finally brave and unashamed. 

Writing these novels was like going on a soul-searching treasure hunt.

It was a painful and emotional journey, but the rewards I’m still uncovering have been worth every second and every tear-streaked prayer. Through loving my weaknesses and vulnerabilities, I’ve begun to heal.

The more I’ve worked through these memories and shown myself compassion, the clearer my mind has become in recognizing the true me who had been hidden beneath the shame all these years.

As I penned the last pages, my heart was full seeing how far I and my fictional sidekicks had come. I’m proud of them and I’m proud of me.

While I wrote these books to process my past, God has also used them to impact the lives of others.

Shortly after publishing Barely Breathing, a Christian musician named Sam Hinton reached out to me. She was so moved by the message of redemption in these novels that she wrote and recorded a song inspired by the books!

Now, we often chat on social media and pray for each other. I’ve been so blessed by the gifts of this beautiful stranger-turned-friend. Her song “My Redemption” is available on Spotify.

Through these novels, I’ve learned I’m more than my circumstances and more than what was done to me.

I can now look back and see God’s hand was in my life all along, leading me, and prompting me to dissect and process pieces of the puzzle as I was ready to handle them.

And more importantly, I’m learning God doesn’t expect perfection, but rather accepts my brokenness—messy heart and all.

In the present, each day is still harder than anything I would have asked for, but I am so blessed that my story isn’t over yet.

Carve Me a Place and Barely Breathing are available in print and ebook on Amazon.