The power of reclaiming your own story

Our columnist Najla Al Tenajii explains the triggering effect of reliving past traumas, and finds healing in the retelling – in her own way – of her story

It can be painful to revisit the moments after surviving a traumatic event. Indeed, most of us are hesitant to talk about it. However, the more we try to avoid or push trauma memories, the more thoughts tend to intrude on our minds and haunt us. What we resist, persists; as the saying goes.  

While we all are cautious in deciding who we would entrust to share our trauma stories, in some cases this decision is taken out of our hands. For me, my physical limitations speak before I have a chance to. They tell a story that I have no power to keep to myself.   

During my rehabilitation years, my family and I had to repeat my story several times – to friends, neighbours and medical professionals.  At one point, it became such a regularity that my psychologist warned us that continuing to revisit this traumatic incident can be very upsetting, triggering strong emotional and physical reactions, which could pose a hurdle to
my healing. 

Once I was out of physical rehabilitation, my doctors started to address my emotional and psychological wellbeing, a welcome break which brought a positive change in both my recovery and behaviour. 

They taught me how to process trauma memories by counselling, art therapy, mediation and music therapy. I started retelling my story through art rather than words. By retelling the story of what happened to me, in a format of my choosing, I find that my pain goes down. Memories that were once upsetting, even overwhelming, became tolerable. 

There is healing in the retelling of a story, in sharing your pain with the people who care and love you. Once I had reclaimed my story, owned it, it failed to grip me like before. One day much later I realised that this terrifying memory no longer controls me now. Its raw intensity has changed, and I am not feeling broken anymore. Yet timing is everything. I later learned that during the initial phase of rehab, the nervous system is on high alert, working to protect us from similar danger in the future. Therefore, it makes so much sense not to push anyone to share their trauma until they are ready. 

However, once I started facing them consciously, I conquered my fears. By putting a narrative frame around it, the trauma memory becomes more manageable and less threatening. Undoubtably it takes courage to retell your story, and witnessing your courage shows you that you’re not only strong but also whole. My old self-limiting story and beliefs lost their power, and I started living my life aligned with my true purpose and passion.