This is a writing blog, about the writer’s process and the writing life. It may seem like we take detours -it’s really part of the journey to getting it on the page. While I spent the past year in therapy, I did not stop writing. Somewhere in the first few weeks of last year, as I learned the reasons why I have been self-sabotaging and freezing creatively, my mind traveled down the roads not taken. I tried to divert myself from that path by reading Robert Frost’s poems, starting with The Road Not Taken. I have loved this poem since I was a very young child.
The Road Not Taken*
By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I’d think of this poem when I was a small, bundled lump in a snowsuit, on baby skis standing at a fork in the ski trail on Mount Sunnapee. My sisters and I knew no fear on a ski slope and I’m sure we would have been banned had anyone been able to catch us. Our goal was getting to the bottom as fast as we could and we weren’t alone. The slopes were littered with fallen adults startled by the flock of under-ten-year-olds terrorizing the trails. One trail in particular –the Flying Goose was mistakenly believed by all of us that we’d fly, actually become airborne like a bird, if we could gather enough speed. Watching the winter olympics, we saw Jean Claude Killy flying down the mountain in an egg-shape, which the commentator foolishly explained helped him acquire the maximum speed. That was good enough for us.
No, we weren’t the girly girls in pink with white, ruffled bedrooms. We were readers and lost in the literary adventures that bled into our daily lives. Not one of us believed we couldn’t build a spaceship in the woods behind our house to travel to the moon at night while grown ups slept but maybe because we were girls, we didn’t really see a reason to do so. But, gaining enough speed to actually fly like a goose –yes! That was a worthy goal! The Flying Goose was a straight, steep slope littered with icy moguls and boulders. Skiing in New Hampshire in the days before snow machines was basically skiing on ice and rock –for a 5 – 8 year old, this was merely a rollercoaster ride that was under our control. This is why children do not get driver’s licenses -they are fearless idiots!
But, what happens to that young, fearless, unformed mind, when it encounters an event, an attack, a trauma so overwhelming as to defy definition? It stops. It freezes. The child’s brain code is being written just like a computer program, every event is processed, lessons learned, as responses are written into the brains programming. A child touches a hot radiator and burns their finger. The brain writes a program of avoidance for hot things like radiators, pots, stoves… lesson learned. But, what happens during an assault, an attack? The programming language is far too advanced for a child, the programmer is not capable for such a lesson not be written, so an end/stop code is inserted and life goes on.
But, the blocked pathway creates stumbling blocks. A horror movie can lead to paralyzing nightmares, strangers can cause you to faint, the wrong word or innocent touch can make you run away screaming in terror. You become shy, you learn other ways to cope. You become angry. Yes a child an later an adult, you feel different and always broken.
The trauma doesn’t rule your life or become a focus because you never processed it.
You were too young to even comprehend it. Tell a child the distance between stars and they smile and nod. They don’t know what a star is, how far any distance is… the star could be as far as Grammy’s house or in Massachusetts.
Later, as a teenager you might respond to traumas or danger inappropriately by becoming a daredevil or hide away in books. Our minds are wonderful at self-healing, creating mental scar-tissue. So, art classes and writing classes might feel right and good because our minds attempt art therapy. Poems of heroic acts, wonderful mythical worlds and happy TV families consume an abused child. Seeking approval and love from the abuser is also common, if only you can make him like you, the beatings or assaults might stop. The emotional abuse might end if you become a very good girl, the best girl, the perfect child with perfect grades.
When neglect landed me in a hospital and in a three week coma, I clearly saw the need to flee. On recovering, I flew from home by enlisting in the Marines on my 18th birthday. I was convinced only I could ensure my safety. The military offered me a guidebook: do this, follow these steps and this will happen. Work hard, get good scores on proficiency tests and you will get promotions. It was all a lovely roadmap of blacks and whites. Even later when I was married all the paths were clearly laid out. I walked those paths like an ox pulling a plow.
Until multiple traumas hit me hard from every direction. No one could have done better to plow through them but those interrupted codes blocked when I was five left me unable to process the recovery. I was diagnosed with PTSD, now called complex PTSD. Apparently, adults abused as children are primed for PTSD. I went into therapy and was told I was cured. For many, ‘cured’ means you have a job, can earn a living and are capable of taking care of yourself.
But, I remained feeling broken. A poem would get published and the editor invite me to be part of a special project, I’d freeze. I’d send out a short story to the New Yorker or the Atlantic and I get an enthusiastic response with a request for changes to resubmit. I’d freeze.
Then, a few more traumas blind-sided me, both personal and public. I lost my mother to suicide and grandfather to cancer in 2001 with September 11th hold fast as a center-point. The whole country was grieving and in shock, there was no rush for me to get back to normal. I just got back on my feet a little slower. Then my partner got a job with benefits and we were no longer struggling with keeping up with our web design business, he suggested I get back to writing full time. So, I dissolved my web design company and jumped into writing with both feet.
I wrote three books but had no idea how to get them published. I noticed the romance writer’s community embraced professional growth. Like the Marines, they seemed to have a structure of success. Choosing a community outside of my genre was one of those odd choices cPTSD people take, some call it self-sabotage. When I pitched my third book at RWA meetings and the conference, I would get requests for full copies. I would celebrate, after all I had them ready to go. I would get home and freeze.
I’d keep going back to the Robert Frost poem and assume I had taken the wrong path and refocus on my genre, joined Sisters in Crime, went to the Writer’s Police Academy and Bouchercon… again the freeze. Finally, during a guided meditation of riding a horse through deep snow and coming upon a fork in the trail, I started crying when I saw both paths blocked… and this led me to my year in therapy.
As it turned out, with the right therapist, it is actually quite simple to remove the stop code and rewrite the code that was interrupted at five –thanks to all the research done with veterans and PTSD and cPTSD my therapist and I were able to complete simple exercises. One was simply remembering times as an adult when I was protective and nurturing. In the most simplistic terms, I needed to show my inner child that had I been there I would have rescued her, loved her and nurtured her/me. I had to show my little inner cris, that she was worthy of being saved and big old cris is worthy of a future and worthy of success. No one would take it away unless I allowed it and I am too tough and old bird to allow it.
So, there it is as Robert Frost himself once said, no matter with road is taken, you’ll always sigh. If it took me forever to find the crack and mend it, then so what? It got mended. There is no ‘too-late’ –there is only now. And, that in and of itself is pretty damned exciting. There is no ‘wrong’ road taken, only the one taken and the anticipation of what is around the next bend.
Sorry about being so
Hard to be around
Lately I have been difficult
I put up walls and then
I expect you to jump over them
But –to be perfectly honest
You are very tall and have such lovely long legs
I assumed you would simply leap them
Like a deer, so graceful and elegant
I would have enjoyed that
Also, I would then be, in your eyes
But it was unfair
Not to give you a hint.
–by Christine Gasser ©2016
- * The Misread Poem in America by David Orr, Paris Review September 11, 2015,
- The Road Not Taken, wikipedia
- Discuss the Road Not Taken