Expression Sets You Free: How Playwriting Broke My Silence on Sexual Abuse & Surgeries

How has expression set you free?

This weekend, I had my first official public reading of my full-length drama, Imprints.

As an actress, I love the stage.  But as a playwright, watching my own life played out before my eyes, I had never been more nervous in my life.

Reliving What I've Tried to Forget

It's one thing to perform a one-woman musical about my life.  But to hand off a script to actors you've never met before and have them play roles that have been to interwoven into my own life was a tremendous act of trust, bravery and good faith.

These actors were reenacting memories that I had tried to repress for years...until I realized that as long as I chose to run from my memories, I was choosing to run from myself.

Journals From a Coma

Imprints was based on a journal that my brother Jeff kept for the first 72 day I was in a coma.  It all started with one entry from Jeff, as he sat beside me in the ICU:

"April 25th, 2005: 1st nightt. took part of stomach out b/c of 4.5 inch tear. most of it was black and dead. blood suppl not enough. some of your colon.  stomach and intestines perforated"

The night before, we had our Passover Seder.  Now, Jeff was typing in his laptop what he could recall:

"Sunday night:  dad got home, ame still throwing up. rock hard stomach. dad and mom took you to pediatrician. you went to ER about 8:30. you were there 20 minutes before you saw DR. they put IV in to draw blood. took 3 times. wheeled her to x-ray. told dad you'd need surgery b/c something was hard with rock-hard ab and asked who he uses. he called les who recommeneded garvey and dad called. garvey started to drive in. pain kept getting worse and worse. wheeling her to X-ray, take her back. then, and air pockets formed on neck and face. then you collapsed. they stabilized you with IV's. garvey operated stomach grew so big, pain so intense. stomach crushed blood supply to intestines. when they cut into abdomen, blood hit ceiling b/c of so much pressure from ab blowing up. you went into septic shock b/c all of these toxins poured into your ab sand overwhelmed your defenses. septcic shock precipitates DIC. bacteria so overwhelmed your defenses that you couldn't clot and everything started leaking. you blew up to three times your normal size."

Yes, I almost died.  And my brother's journal entries - all 174 pages, are raw, potent and hard to read.

 

With every surgery, Jeff documented my struggles and triumphs:

May 12th, 2005: You just went down to the operating room. We all gather where the waiting room meets the hallway each time you go to . And each time you go I get angry about my thought of it not being the last time  see you. You are once again in the hands of Dr. Garvey wants to make sure everything inside of you is doing well. I am seeing progress. four pressers are down to two. your swelling continues to go down. your body is not needing as much new blood as it required just days ago.

Eventually, I started to show signs of life.

2:30 pm -almost out of coma>??  today, we want you to wake up. you've been sleeping for a while now, and we know your body is strong enough to be awake. they even want you to start breathing on your own, which I know you will be doing soon. I want to ask questions, but sometimes I am scared to get answers. plus, you are doing really well right now, and I don't want to jinx anything. the nurse said that she asked you to move your hand again this morning, and you moved your right. you also were opening your eyes for Mom.

I want you to wake up today.
And, soon enough, I was back to my old, spunky self - ventilator, IVs, oxygen tanks and all.

Saturday 6:08pm: ame - you are so punchy today. it is wonderful. you want that tube out, and as soon as we get all this residual fluid out of you, it will be thus. I feel you improving. I hadn't seen you move your legs thus far; you moved both of them when Mom, Matt and I were with you. Mom says you are definitely recognizing her. you are starting to cry, which we hear is great news. you are hating this tube. I cannot wait until it is out.

And...be careful what you wish for.  Soon enough, I was my talkative, restless self:

Wednesday Morning: I'm going to try to catch you up quickly on the last few days. yesterday, by far, was your greatest day thus far. Mom called me in the morning to tell me that they tested you off the ventilator for an hour and you did fine, so they were presently disconnecting the ventilator. I came in to see you breathing on your own. I welled up. you were working very hard, and breathing quickly, but your o2 saturation numbers looked great. and, you were talking! I hope you remember some of this when we're all out of here (though I guess I also hope you don't remember a lot of this). Matt, Mom and I were with you and I was trying to tell you to relax and conserve your strength (you were naturally agitated). after not hearing you speak for about 11 days, you replied, "I fucking know that." we started laughing hysterically. it was beautiful. you also kept saying my name and asking me to get the car and take you home. ame - it was so cute, and it made me even more eager and excited for the day we get to take you home.

Progress was slow, and for a while it seemed that I was making no progress at all.  As doctors told us, going from "minute to minute" and transitioning to "day to day" meant a major improvement - it means it was probably that I would survive.

June 20th, 2005: I can feel things changing. I was just speaking with sarah, who is your nurse tonight, and she was saying that you're going to be fine, though it will be a long road. it is nice that we are starting to hear people say that. I want to tell you this myself, and not have you read it, but I will just say that this was not always what we were hearing.

And perhaps Jeff's most important message of all to me:

Amy - when you are out of here I want you not to get discouraged at what else you have to do. it is impossible to overstate how far you've come and how much you've already done. and Amy, we will be with you every step of the way. expect days where you are so angry and just want all this to stop. but don't you dare lose hope. you  have been through hell. but you have already beat so much, and you are still here. and we all are beside you.

Words have tremendous power.  Reading Jeff's journals has overwhelmed me with gratitude for life, how far I've come, and the support all around me.

What is Re-Membering?

Reading Jeff's words helped me re-member.

Why the "dash" in "re-membering?"

Because I like to think of remembering as literally re-membering - putting the pieces (the members) of your life back together.  Recalling past events puts back the pieces of yourself.  Remembering may be difficult, scary and sometimes overwhelming, but remembering is healing.  

Remembering is how we literally put the "members" of ourselves back together!

What was it like waking up from a coma?

When I was finally discharged from the hospital, writing about my memories helped me to process them.

I wrote: "The ICU is a whole world in itself.  It exists in its own winding and bizarre current, so breeched off from the normal flowing river that is life.  No one in the real world could ever perceive the upside down hell that being chained to beeping machines is with 48 other "sickest kids in America", all wondering when or if life will start for us again.  Or if we'll even keep the life we're given now, because for a while that wasn't for sure either.  It's like a whole cyclonic vortex all on its own, but once you are sucked in, you are exposed to this whole scary alternate universe.  I didn't know if I would ever be able to go on my own again.  Back in diapers, back to being a baby, wide-eyed, innocent, unable to manage in the real world."

Healing Through Theatre

Ten years of dealing with memories of sexual assault and medicaltrauma had left me with the severe symptoms of PTSD, including intrusive memories, flashbacks and dissociation.  For years, I grappled with two halves of me, desperate to rediscover wholeness and comfort in my own body.

I came to know these two polarities as Wounded and Thriving, and learned that only when these opposing halves acknowledged the other, could I really move forward, and heal.

While the story broadcasted in the news emphasized the inspirational message of hope, gratitude and resilience, I wanted my Imprints to show the pain, the losses and ultimately the gift of transformation and growth that stem from trauma - the beautiful marks that imprints can create.

 Integrating my life before and after my coma

In "Imprints," the part of me that woke up from a coma is Patty.  My more innocent, healthy, pre-coma high school self is Patricia.  I had "Rita" (a hospital art therapist) help Patty and Patricia accept one another.

Healing Through Writing and Expression

Coming out of a coma, words gave me strength.   As I wrote, I discovered ways to handle difficult situations successfully and to learn from my situation and grow.  Strength is the ability to keep a positive attitude towards a situation that proves to be hard and painful and manage it in a healthy way.   Strength is the ability to overcome fear.  The more definitions I was able to write, the more empowered I felt.

Writing Imprints Help me Process My Sexual Abuse

Writing scenes between "Blaine," my abuser and Patricia, my younger self helped alleviate the undeserved shame that plagued me for years and allowed me to process, move forward and claim my voice.

Portraying My Family in Imprints

I imagined what it must have been like for my brother Jeff to stay in the ICU, comforting my mother as they anxiously waited for me to wake up.

Almost Telling My Brother I Was Abused

I remembered what it was like to be haunted by the secret of being sexual abused, and finally trying to tell my brother right before I fell into a coma:

Patricia:  tries again:  "Blaine...and I...are getting really close."

James: oblivious: Oh? You guys seem to have a really close relationship.  You must be learning a lot from him.

Patricia: Yeah...

How Should You Help a Survivor of Sexual Assault?

Finding the courage to speak up after being sexually abused can be overwhelming.  In my article for Huffington Post, Healing Through Our Voices: What to Say (and Not Say) to a Survivor of Sexual Assault, I list helpful phrases, tips and tools to help become a support system for those who have been assaulted.

Because speaking the words, "I was sexually abused" can be terrifying.

Repairing our Family

My abuser not only traumatized me, he broke the trust of our entire family. When I almost lost my life and woke up in the ICU months later, in a way, it gave my family the space, the time and the close quarters to finally start to heal together, as they prayed for my life.

And when I finally woke up, and made a miraculous recovery, I could finally join my family and we could all heal together, stronger than ever before.

Having New Beginnings

And to think this all started as one stomach ache on Passover.  Passover is a very special holiday for me, filled with juicy metaphors and a roadmap for our own spiritual journey.  It is a time of new beginnings, finding redemption, freeing ourselves, and joy with our loved ones, and telling our stories.

Imprints is set on Passover: the night I was first rushed to the Emergency Room.  I've always found that symbolic: a holiday about that magic day when we can finally free ourselves from what binds us.

As I started to heal, I realized that just as on Passover, when we hope to free ourselves, each year, I hoped to be a bit freer in mind and body than the year before:

"Now this all makes so much sense - the Passover connection.  Every year we say next year in Jerusalem - will this be the year for me?  I am breaking free one trying moment at a time.  One day we'll get our seder back.  We'll all be around the kitchen table, like old times, eating, laughing, simple, happy..."

Expression Sets You Free

I invite you to pretend like you yourself are breaking free from whatever binds you, fleeing your own spiritual Egypt and finding refuge in the beautiful new beginnings -  the season of freedom.

Expression set me free, and this weekend, Imprints brought it all to fruition.

Imprints is a journey of discovery for the audience, the characters, and the playwright herself, who is re-membering and discovering as she goes along.

How does expression sets you free?

All artwork was created by Amy on her detour. Read about "Imprints,"  learn about her speaking, or catch her touring Gutless & Grateful, her one woman musical, to theatres, colleges, conferences and organizations nationwide.   Learn about her mental health advocacy programs for students, and find out how to take part in the #LoveMyDetour movement, and learn about her upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour.