A Conversation with Sarah Mariann Martland
Sarah Mariann Martland is a writer, a creative and an artist. She is also the founder and curator of Trauma & Co., a project built on the foundations of community, connection, compassion and complexities.
You live in a body that has known chronic, complex and severe trauma, and you have spoken of how writing and art have repeatedly saved your life. When did you first realize that creativity could become a lifeline for you?
When I was around six years old I said I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. For many years I looked back on this and laughed to myself as I did not know how to access any creative forms of expression, or even how to express myself at all in many moments. Survival for me meant repressing numerous aspects of my lived reality and I was profoundly silenced by abusers, so I didn’t know how to access, much less to express, much of my real self. With this, most forms of creative expression felt far too exposing to even contemplate.
Reading poetry and stories often gave me a sense of being known by another, but it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, when I allowed myself to start writing poetry, that I fully discovered the power of writing (and then later other forms of art) in helping me to access, express and eventually to share some of the more difficult parts of my story. I found not only others’ words and art, but also my own creative expression, had the power to save my life. Repeatedly.
I often say how writing (and art) saves my life over and over, and I mean this. It has been and continues to be a huge lifeline for me, in the creation itself and in how it allows me to connect with other people. It carries me through some of my darkest, most painful moments, into another moment. Over and over again it saves me.
I think the six year old me knew this instinctively, even if I didn’t then know how to listen to her. I am listening now.
How has your creative journey helped you to know yourself and your identity?
Creativity helps me to know myself more fully in so many ways. I have found deeper levels of knowing myself and my experiences in life, of listening to my body, of naming parts of my identity, that have only been possible within or because of my creative process.
Writing and art allow me to access parts of myself that struggle to be seen, heard or felt in any other way. The creative process allows me to access and express parts of myself that have often been hidden or repressed for a lifetime, including the creative processes involved in embodiment practices.
There are parts of my identity and experiences that do not have verbal words attached to them, given the type of trauma or the age I was, so the creative process helps me to know these parts of myself more fully. And sometimes finding a way to get my words or art onto a page (or screen) allows me to know the experience in a different way outside of myself, which can often lead to a deeper sense of inner knowing or facilitates big shifts around how I hold an experience.
There is a huge sense of connection for me that comes from creativity, both with my own self and in witnessing the creative expressions belonging to other humans. Their creativity allows me to know my own experience more fully, especially for experiences I have not yet found a way to express. Or sometimes they give me the knowing of what is or is not true for me; teaching me about different experiences to my own, thus informing how we relate to each other. Which in itself has been revolutionary to how I connect with and know my own self.
You know trauma processing to be non-linear. What are the grounding practices that you embrace as you navigate your way through the complexities of living with PTSD?
Yes, it is very much a non-linear process for me. And even finding what practices might be grounding to me at any given time can be a complex, non-linear process.
One of the most grounding practices for me is feeling through my body into the ground or surface beneath me. Reorienting myself to my environment helps me to come back into the present moment when I am feeling triggered or experiencing a flashback, including noticing the room I am in and focusing on the objects, colours and textures I can see or feel, and even reminding myself of the current date and age. These little reminders help bring me back into the present moment.
If I am more oriented to the here and now, I practice various body-focused nervous system soothing exercises. Feldenkrais exercises are sometimes helpful to me too, when focusing on my body doesn’t feel too triggering. And sometimes meditation or simply focusing on my breath really helps, but other times this can be too triggering for me (as it can be for many people who have a complex trauma history). It really depends on how I am feeling in relation to my body in that moment and the type of trigger.
Drinking water. Singing. Dancing. Listening to music. Being in nature. Feeling the breeze through an open window. Wrapping myself in a blanket. Being driven in a car, the motion of it, especially at night. Lollies (or popsicles as I think they’re called in America). These are all go-tos for me in different moments.
Having some form of communication with another person is very grounding to me, be it emailing/seeing my therapist or connecting with a close friend, especially if they are able to hold the complexity of what I am experiencing, even if I cannot find the words fully.
Expressing myself creatively can be quite triggering for me in some moments, especially when I don’t have grounding tools in the forefront of my awareness, but more often creativity, particularly writing, is incredibly grounding and soothing for me. In the times when it is soothing, I often describe it as feeling like a big exhale.
I also have some flashcards for helping me to remember certain grounding techniques and at various points in my life I have had post-it notes around my home to remind me of grounding practices or of phrases I want to recall easily (my therapist is often encouraging me to use these reminders).
Grounding is a complex area for me, one where I have a varying set of needs in each moment. It can be frustrating to work out sometimes, but when I can approach my needs with less judgement (especially when something isn’t working for me) the more space I am able to give myself to find what does support and ground me.
You are committed to continued, lifelong learning on trauma and how it impacts us in our bodies. How has the art of others impacted your learning?
Other humans’ artistic expressions (including writing) have been some of my most cherished and valued teachings about trauma; how it impacts us in our bodies and also relationally. I do value the more academic teachings - academia and science has a lot to teach us about trauma, and, when it comes to finding expressions anywhere near to my own lived experience of trauma, I more often look to more creative forms of writing or artwork (or even music) to find a deeper sense of connection and learning.
Every human experiences trauma in a body, and every artist creates from a body. So witnessing other people’s creative expression in relation to their own trauma continuously reminds me to access my own inner knowing and self expression, leading me to listen to my own body more fully and in increasingly creative ways.
Yes, there is a huge amount that academics, scientists or therapists etc can teach us about trauma and the body, or tools they can teach us to process our own traumas (I look to their wisdom too). And, despite what much of society may teach us to the contrary, I believe we can trust ourselves and we each know our own experiences best, including our complex, nuanced, individual experiences of trauma, how they impact us and what we need or want as we process them. Sometimes it might take a long time or a lot of work to learn to listen to ourselves in this way (such is the nature of some of our conditioning) and we might need the support of others to reach that place, but I believe somewhere inside each of us we do know. This in itself feels like a creative process and witnessing this in others is a huge part of my own processing and learning.
Alongside this, I have only lived my own life, in my own body, with my own privileges and biases, and through the lens of my own complex experiences with trauma. So there is a huge amount of learning to be accessed by listening to or witnessing accounts of other people’s experiences, not least in creative forms.
While I do not believe my learning about trauma will ever be fully complete, it would be even less so without the artistic, creative expression of others. There is so much value to it.
Trauma & Co. amplifies the voices, words and art of others who are navigating the intersections of trauma in relation to our human experiences. What has it felt like to create this community and hold space for others?
It feels like coming home. This has been a project I have been dreaming up and working towards for many years, and now it is starting to take shape it is giving me an enormous sense of possibility and purpose. Feelings I have never really felt before, not in the grounded, sustainable way I am currently feeling with this project. I am passionate about where Trauma & Co. is heading and the plans I am making for the coming years are so exciting to me. Building a solid foundation and community around the project, as I have been doing for the last few months, is just the beginning (I hope). A very important and needed beginning. And, yes, it feels like coming home.