Several times in my life, I have been told that I am 'too honest'. Lying makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. Over the past few years, I have been working on an semi-autobiographical fiction book called Pet Purpose. I see it as semi-autobiographical because it is telling my story in disguise.
Originally, when I chose the title around five years ago, I intended to write memoir about my bond with pets. But more of life happened and the story has evolved into a story of courage as a young girl suffers trauma and loss, is later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and with her determination to survive, finally starts a healing journey many years later in adulthood.
The story loosely reflects my own journey, but I have changed the story-line to protect myself and others, even those who have hurt me. Changing names wasn't enough. I made the decision to write fiction, to 'lie to tell the truth', to help ease flashbacks of PTSD. So that I didn't have to remember it 'exactly' and keep re-traumatising myself. So that I minimise upsetting people. So people can't say 'that's not really what happened' (because they won't know what really happened) and minimise my message. So that I could have some distance while I still tell a personal story. So that I could express my truth in a creative way.
Without giving too much of the story away, Pet Purpose is a story about a young girl who loses her beloved cat in a tragic accident around the time she was sexually abused. The girl became a 'rescuer' and as an adult needed to work with pets to try to 'save' them. But grappling with the effects of injury from PTSD and bipolar disorder (episodes of mania and depression) and with the trauma re-enacting, in her determination to survive and on a long list for trauma therapy, she does strange yet creative things in order to heal. Pet Purpose is also a story about relationships - how trauma and mental illness affected her relationship with her parents and her romantic relationships.
In order to disguise people and to simplify the story (which is still complex), all the characters including the main character (mostly based on myself) are composite characters with fictitious elements. All the pets are also composite characters with fictitious elements. Snowball the cat is a composite cat. She is a metaphor, which will be revealed in the story. She is actually based on two cats of my childhood who suffered a great deal. The character in the story is trying to make sense of suffering, but finds religion to be inadequate.
Writing Pet Purpose has been a huge emotional release. I have had mostly the childhood form of PTSD which is avoidance and shutting down. I've had many years of depression. But during bipolar mania episodes, when I become energetic, the intense emotions that were shut down come flooding out with PTSD flashbacks which are extremely distressing. So distressing that I changed my name legally because my former name because a trauma trigger.
There are times when I cannot work on it. Instead I paint. All my paintings are symbolism and emotion, even the more realistic yet stylised paintings I've been doing recently. Painting has helped me express emotions even when I can't 'feel' them. I painted a lot of symbolic abstracts to help me process and held an exhibition of these process paintings. I felt safer because no-one really knew what they meant, yet they were intrigued about them. The paintings were about trauma but the bright colours and abstraction disguised it.
Snowball was not for sale because I was not ready to let go of her yet. She is the proposed cover of Pet Purpose when I finally complete it, hopefully this year. When I painted Snowball, I showed my therapist and we spent the session talking about what Snowball meant. My therapist knew that Snowball was trying to say something very important. She was trying to find her voice, to communicate. This book is about the message that Snowball has to say, a very powerful message. You see, Snowball is a self-portrait (I cried writing that sentence).
In the past few days, I've been doing a lot of trauma processing. I become hypomanic during processing. The medications I'm on (a mood stabiliser and an antipsychotic) help stop me from becoming fully manic. I use the energy from the hypomania creatively. I resumed work with Pet Purpose and edited a few chapters. Then the next chapter was 'scrambled' - an editing nightmare. Often in this case, I have done a complete rewrite of the chapter.
When I'm hypomanic, my mind can see patterns and links easily, but it's hard to communicate that clearly to others. So if I write, it's a huge emotional release at the time, but it will usually need heavy editing to make clearer to others. I know what it means, but it would be confusing to readers. Editing is best when I am more stable as then my brain is more 'organised.' But I find editing to be a chore, unlike the creative writing part.
When I'm processing and hypomanic, that's a good time for me to plan out themes and chapter content by mainly using mind-maps. My mind becomes disorganised in the conventional manner but become very organised in another way - seeing patterns. I see patterns and they are essential to my story. I re-planned the four final chapters yesterday using scribbly writing - jotting down everything that I need to remember to include in there. I'm up to the sixth draft. Each draft has been evolving and the story has changed so much that it has been pretty much a re-write each draft. So I have written several books in my journey towards writing one that I will feel confident releasing publicly.
Sometimes anxiety has kept me from working on this project. Anxiety about disapproval from family members about some of the content, for example. My family doesn't know my full story. No-one does but me and I've been feeling safe enough to tell my trauma psychologist. I've edited scenes out and toned down the intensity in places. The initial version was for my own release, but it is not suitable for a general audience (I'm aiming at teenagers and adults and I want to help people understand, not to be offensive with what I write about although I suspect some content will be unsettling).
Like my paintings in my exhibition, only I know what the real meaning is. There is metaphor and symbolism. Only I know what the 'true' story is. I don't feel 'safe' sharing all my story and it's too long and complex to put in one novel. But I am willing to put it in disguise - it's more than changing names. It's completely reworking storylines to simplify or to add metaphors.
What I feel I've been doing is to make colour from the trauma. Both in my paintings and in writing. Yesterday I looked at my latest painting on my easel and cried. Because I saw the symbolism in it that I am waving goodbye to Snowball by having the rainbow point at the waves of the sea. My painting, 'Splash' is a metaphor for no matter how much you are smashed upon the rocks, look for the colour in the rainbow. The symbolism will be explained in Pet Purpose. It's nearly time to wave goodbye to Snowball and Pet Purpose. Pet Purpose is a hugely meaningful project to me that has helped keep me going. I still need to re-write the end chapters and do a heck of a lot of editing, but Pet Purpose is nearly complete. I won't release it until I feel it's finished.
I have a new collection of paintings which I intend to exhibit, hopefully after I finish Pet Purpose. Pet Purpose has been like a very long-term, complex painting. Painting emotion in words. I'm getting ready to part with Snowball. A meaningful project can help keep one going. A creative project can be healing.
Xanthe finds writing and painting to be therapeutic. She has lived with mental illness for over 25 years. She has been diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety disorder after originally being diagnosed with 'treatment resistant' depression with general anxiety.