Poetry & Trauma: It Is Hard to Write with a Broken Heart

A light skinned person uses a pen to write something in a lined notebook. The room is dark enough that it's hard to see the writing on the page.

This week my debut poetry book, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery” comes out. The poetry sequence takes you through my experiences in an abusive relationship, my attempts to heal, my retrospective reflections on the relationship, and the larger-scale insights that came with long-term healing. To introduce it, I wanted to share with you this piece about what it took to write that book in the first place. 

CN: extensive and detailed discussion of the experience of the symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and heartbreak; extensive discussion of the impact of abusive relationships, discussion of the impact of poverty.

The worst part of trauma is after it’s over. You’ll be walking along the street when a trigger suddenly materializes in front of you; it’s a warning that you’re about to suffer a blow. You duck to avoid the blow, knowing that dodging only prolongs the wait before you feel it. You have to duck. You have to wait for it to hit you.

But the source of the trauma is gone. The blow never comes. The warning was wrong. During the silence that swallows you in the absence of a blow, you are forced to reckon with just how scared you are. In the past, once the blow had connected with your body, you could not feel the fear. At first, you could feel the pain. But when the cause for pain is so frequent, it eventually all blurs together and obscures reality with a grey monotone ache. That is all you felt, then.

But now, you can feel the fear, the betrayal, the insatiable drive to survive. You feel everything. These raw sensations flood the emptiness created by the cessation of your trauma and they saturate you with questions. What is normal? What is real? What is safe? Now that you have learned what safety feels like, the fear of losing it is so much worse than when you never had it to begin with.

In the spring of 2009, I stopped speaking to my parents after a lifetime of confusion about where my parents ended and I began. In the summer, my roommates and I parted ways and I moved into an expensive studio apartment on campus. They assured me it wasn’t the reason for their decision to move out, but I knew that I was a difficult person to live with.

It was my first time living alone. On my first night in my new place, most of my belongings still in boxes, I took five of my favorite objects and planted them in a circle around me. I hoped that claiming the space as my own would slow down the unrelenting waves of panic. But just a week later, my boss pressured me to quit, and with very little warning, I was unemployed. At the height of the recession and with very little job experience, I could not find work. In just two months, I was out of savings.

To pay rent one last time, I brought my coin jar to the bank along with the bits of cash I earned teaching music lessons and working as a test subject for psychology experiments. As I checked my receipt, I realized I was 35 cents short to clear rent. I had already checked couch cushions and pant pockets for lost change. I had nothing left. I walked 15 blocks to a friend’s house to borrow the money.

When your life is one long string of crises’, survival is the only thing you can afford to worry about. Your whole existence is focused on getting through the next moment and then the next. It’s like the viewfinder of your life is zoomed all the way in. Growth, self-awareness, healing: they all require stability and security to flourish. Until you have a safe place to fall apart, you hold yourself together, no matter the cost. Like a wild animal, you hide your wounds, pretend to be okay, until you can find a burrow to collapse in, a place to reveal yourself as not completely whole.

I don’t remember the moment I decided to leave my boyfriend. I only remember walking out of his room, grabbing my coat, heading for the door, knowing somewhere in my body that I wasn’t coming back. He yelled at me, making a last-ditch effort to pressure me into staying. I don’t remember what he said. I remember his words shot through my ears, reaching my heart, and then I grabbed them, said No, you will not live there, and I snuffed them out of existence.

I remember how many cookies I made the first time I baked a recipe from scratch. I do not remember what words he yelled at me the day I left him.

A very large leather suitcase  in a warm color brown, with multiple straps, pockets, and gold colored buttons. The suitcase is sitting outside on the ground covered in fallen leaves.

Just a few days later, my lease had run out and I needed to move out of my apartment. With no money to rent a new place, I sold my furniture and put my belongings in storage, scattered throughout the garages of multiple friends. Over the next two months, I stayed in six different people’s houses, wherever they could fit me. I dragged my suitcase, my CD player, and a handful of odds and ends that didn’t make it into storage with me to each temporary home. I struggled to fill in the “address” box on government forms. “Where do I live?” was both a question of memory and of identity.

During this time, I moved through life in a sort of fog. I didn’t feel much. I slept late, dragged myself to the bus stop, took three buses to reach the publicly accessible computers, looked for jobs, took the three buses home, then went back to sleep. That was all.

I didn’t know that I had been abused. The story I told myself at the time was that I left because I was too messed up to handle the type of relationship my ex wanted. I wanted to stop putting him through the misery of having a girlfriend who was never enough.

Many people tried to convince me that he was abusive. My old roommate had been concerned by the late-night texts demanding that I come see my ex and the frequent tears after even more frequent arguments, On one occasion, she tried to suss out if I was okay. “I’m worried that he’s abusing you,” she said. Emphatically, I assured her that he treated me well but her face scrunched up. “That’s what someone who was being abused would say.”

A month after I left the relationship, I woke up from a heart-wrenching dream. I don’t remember the contents of the dream itself,  but I know that I grabbed my diary and wrote down these words: “What if the person you trusted more than anyone was the one hurting you all along?

Just a few months later, I found a new job and a new boyfriend. I started to feel again.

I laid in Kai’s rickety bed made of boxes and a body pillow, wrapped in his arms, blissfully safe. He was the only person I’d ever met who made my anxiety go quiet. Inexplicably, in the middle of the night, I woke up feeling suffocated, as if my heart was full of rocks. I needed him to stop touching me, to be nowhere near me. Kai got out of bed, confused but considerate, and slept on the floor until I woke up two hours later desperate to be close to him again.

After a month, he dumped me.

No one had ever broken my heart as badly as Kai did, not even my abusive ex. With Kai, I was happy. With my abuser, my heart never stopped being broken.

Right after the breakup, I moved in with a strange middle-aged woman who loved living alone but was too broke to pay her bills. She lived like a bachelor and seemed to wish she could collect my rent without my actually having to live there. Finally able to support myself with my new job, I took my belongings out of storage and began to put myself back together.

Pop star Rihanna stands in front of a Sephora backdrop. Her dark hair is down and her wrists are covered in many gold bracelets. She looks thoughtfully off camera toward the right.

I knew I wanted to write poetry about what happened to me after I watched Rihanna’s interview describing the night her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown beat her up.

A constant cyclone of feelings and memories enveloped me each day but no poems came. The few times I tried to force them, they turned out long and messy.

Writing when you are heartbroken is unexpectedly hard.

Writing requires vulnerability. You have to open yourself, close your eyes, and say, What do I really think? Writing asks you to take the ideas that surface in your vulnerability, translate them, and believe that these translations of yourself will be as important to someone else as they are to you.

When you are heartbroken, vulnerability is staggeringly painful. To open yourself is to risk being hurt again. You hardly know who you are, let alone what you think about the workings of the world. Doubt creeps into everything. When you look for the words that are in your vulnerable place, all you see is, “I don’t know.” But look behind the blank wall of “I don’t know” and you’ll find the voice that’s saying, “I just want to be loved! Please, hold me, and don’t let go.” Because how embarrassing if you were to place your pen on the page to write a masterpiece and what came out was a plea for acceptance and comfort.

I know that they are not actually the same thing, but what is the difference between trauma and heartbreak?

When I invited my friends over to my new place for the first time, they asked me gently about how things ended with my abusive ex and why. I couldn’t find words to describe why everything about that relationship hurt to think about.

That night, I ran through their questions in my mind again. Why did we break up? What happened? Forming my feelings into tangible words, the words settled into an order: first just a few individual words, then a full line, and then four more lines. It was 2 am, I was lying in bed but I jumped up, grabbed a notebook and pen, and began to write my first real poem in months.

In the weeks following, I averaged one to three poems a day. I kept a moleskin notebook and writing utensil close to my person at all times, scrambling to catch all of the words as they fell out of my head. The poems kept coming for weeks. And most of them were genuinely good.

Recovering from trauma was far harder than the trauma itself. Because the trauma lasted for so long, I knew things were bad but I got used to it. Having trauma as an everyday part of my life became a normal level of hardship, rather than an outrageous one. My body and mind adjusted, learning that trauma was to be expected. I internalized the idea that traumatic incidents were the equivalent of a really bad day.

But when the trauma ended and I was thrown into a world where life challenges were far milder, all my conditioning and reactions were out of sync. I was still tuned to a different reality.

The first time I attended a tango lesson, I was terrified. As the instructor spoke, I caught myself wrapping my arms tightly around my internal organs, my hands frigidly cold as all my blood traveled toward the core of my body,  preparing to defend itself against the impending threat.

A pair of tango dancers, the camera focused just on their feet. The follow, wearing a black skirt and silver heels, steps backward, as the lead, in black pants and black dance shoes, steps forward directly in front of her.

As much as I loved music, partner dancing meant so many things I was afraid of: physical contact, intimacy, boundary negotiation, connection, trust, all with another person. I was so used to being consumed by the desires of other people. What if dancing with someone consumed and obliterated me?

As I took my first steps on the dance floor, carefully guided by a new friend who cheerfully explained the mechanics, I was stunned by what I felt. My arm lay along the length of his, my cheek brushed his cheek occasionally, and his hand firmly held the small of my back but I felt no romance in this intimacy. Just his solid, friendly presence. Through all these points of contact, we spoke without words.

“Is this okay?” his hands said. “Yes,” I said.

“How do I connect with you?”
“Like this,” I said.
“Can I connect more deeply? I won’t do any more than you’re comfortable with.”
“Yes, you can. Here is my limit. You can come all the way up to this line, but no further”

I never missed a dance after that week.

As long as the words were hitting the page, my poems served as a portal for my emotions to exit my body. But once my emotions escaped, my poems read like works of fiction. These stories hadn’t happened to me. They belonged to someone else’s life. As I wrote each poem, I looked at my memories just long enough to identify what happened and how it felt, and then I hastily stuffed the memory onto the very top shelf of my mind where I never had to look at it again.

But I didn’t want to keep pushing them all away. I wanted my poems to be real. Slowly, I took each memory off of the top shelf again, turned them over in my hands, examined them, and considered where they belonged in the layout of my mind. One at a time, I placed the memories in their home, allowing them to be part of me.

I lay on the couch, my new boyfriend cradled around me. Luxuriating in the closeness, I waited for the panic to slowly creep over me like it always used to whenever I trusted someone with my body’s presence for too long. I waited for the moment when I would have to move away from his body and breathe and hurt until the feeling passed. But the panic never came. I just felt safe.

Being loved was exquisitely painful. My boyfriend told me just by touching my face with his hand that he would take care of me and I would always be safe. Oh, how it hurt, like finally reaching a heat source with which to thaw your hands after they have been numb with cold. My pain receptors bombarded me with all the emotions I could not feel when I was frozen. It was not until I was treated well that I could feel the impact of the neglect.

A light skinned woman wearing a denim jacket brushes her hand along a stone, textured wall. She is wearing a wedding ring.

As my life improved and my relationships deepened, I began to notice a wall built around me. The wall was made up of thousands of bricks, each with an inscription. They said, “You don’t matter.” Another said, “Your needs aren’t important and they don’t deserve to be met,” and yet another, “You are a burden to the people around you.” I had one brick for every time a person close to me had hurt me.

I had never noticed the wall because I thought the messages reflected me accurately. For a long time, I needed these ideas to be real to understand why so many people found it difficult to love me. But the structure I built no longer served its original purpose. To my surprise, I began dissembling it, one small brick at a time. If someone I loved showed me that I was important, that my needs were worth meeting, that I was a source of joy in their lives, I removed one brick. Slowly, the wall was taken down.

Eventually, I wrote my last poem.

I will never be truly done recovering from my trauma. It’s been more than 10 years of painful work and I am still working. It wasn’t until long after the awful time had passed that I learned my greatest lessons.

Trust is like love. When you have it, you could swear you’ll feel that way forever. When you lose it, you can’t imagine ever getting it back again.

But trust requires trust. It feeds on itself. I could not spare any vulnerability until I knew that I could stop running. I could not learn to trust until I could give some of my trust away. I had to be the one to take that leap of faith and hope that this time someone would think I was worth catching.

Our Debut Book of Poetry:
Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery

A demo of the book cover: The full book cover: The background is a digital illustration. In the bottom fourth, there is a beat-up wooden cage on top of a cliff face, with an old fashioned lock hanging off the side and a golden skeleton key sitting in front of the cage. Behind the cage ascending from the bottom to the top right of the cover are a series of five layers, each with a different shade of grey-blue, starting with the darkest and ending with the lightest, and each layer has a different painted texture. The bottom is moody watercolor, the second is a rippling water effect, the third is sponge-textured paint on a canvas, the fourth is marble, and the last is cloud-like. Separating each layer is a thick line of gold foil. Ascending from the fourth to the fifth layer is a beige colored bird, flying joyously into the top right corner. On top of this illustration are three portions of text. In the top left is "the Journey/ from Abuse/ to Recovery" on three lines, in a pale blue serif font. In the bottom half, slightly right of center is the author name "Kella Hanna-Wayne" in the same font and color blue, but in all caps, with a thin line beneath it. And in the center of the page in very large, highly textured, painted, pale-beige letters it says "Pet"For the last 13 years, we’ve been working on a book of poetry to represent our process of sustaining, recognizing, and healing from the trauma of the relationship in the story above. We finally decided it was time to share it with the world.

After many months of work, our self-published poetry book, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery,” is now available for pre-order for both print and ebook!

Order your copy now

Why You Will Want to Order “Pet”

“Pet” is a poem sequence that navigates the reader through the traumatic & transformative journey of domestic abuse and its aftermath.

Written in four parts, “Pet” explores what it means to lose the sense of self to the coercion of violence; the world-shattering revelation, grief, and uncertainty after the escape; the ache of hindsight; and the quiet strength found in healing. Kella Hanna Wayne’s debut collection of poems is a story of self-denial and self-discovery; A book of poetry to be read cover to cover, and then over again.

Order from the store of your choosing

Watch the Remote Poetry Reading

A graphic promoting a remote poetry reading. The graphic features a small demo of the book "Pet" and in a circular frame, a picture of Kella, a light skinned person with long brown hair, rectangular black glasses, and bright red lipstick. the graphic is on a blue and gold patterned background.On November 6th, 2022, we held a remote poetry reading over zoom and facebook live. Even if you missed it, you can still watch the whole thing on Youtube! 

Why you’ll want to watch this event:

  • Hear live readings of poems from Kella’s new book “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery”
  • Learn the stories behind the inspiration and creation of these poems
  • Get personal insights on the way the meaning of these poems have changed with time
  • Readings of other poems not included in the book and their backstories
  • Music that inspired poetry and poetry that inspired music
  • An opportunity for Q&A with Kella about her work

About the Author

About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.

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