Trauma and the Healing Effects of Fantasy

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream. ~ E.A. Poe

As a little girl and well into my young adult years, my life was submerged in a world of fantasy. Of course, witnessing my schizophrenic mother routinely retreat into psychotic reverie drove me towards taking refuge within. Untethered and unmothered, this is where I too could safely buffer myself from harm and invent distracting narratives.

“She daydreams in class’’ was frequently cited on my report cards by elementary school teachers. One teacher even went so far as to contact child protective services to discern if my dissociative symptoms and obvious social handicaps were evidence of a bleak situation at home.

I remember being pulled out of class to be brought to the nurse's office. The investigator seemed caring as he looked for bruises and asked probing questions. I welcomed his attention, but survival prompted me to mitigate my familial landscape of schizophrenia, narcissistic abuse, malnutrition, and poverty. I did not want to be sent away again. He could not help me. This much I knew.

I found ways to manage. Ways to survive. Escaping into a dream world was one of those ways.

Maladaptive daydreaming or what is known as daydreaming disorder is a common occurrence for those seeking escape from traumatic childhood abuse. Although I take umbrage with the notion that relying on one’s imagination to cope is pathological, I certainly view retreating into fantasy as a predictable byproduct of complex trauma.

While daydreaming can certainly veer into compulsivity, for those whose lives were beset by upheaval I regard retreating into a world of one’s making a creative form of mastery.

The palliative escape into books, comics and mythology fed my imagination. The metaphorical symbolism evident in the trials of protagonists who were challenged to persevere and triumph over the harsh reality of brutality and inconceivable circumstances, offered me hope. I may have been a fragile, weak weirdo to the bullies in the schoolyard, but in my mind, I defeated them all.

Indeed, for us readers plagued by trauma, literature can provide a healing experience that assists with crystallizing a multiplicity of struggles. By engaging in a compelling fictional world identification, catharsis and insight can occur (Russell and Shrodes). This can help reframe one’s own situation, experience emotional release, clarity and possibly even make behavioral shifts.

When I read Paul Zindel’s play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds I recognized myself through the character Tillie. Although an outcast she was a dreamer, uncorrupted by the brutality of the world she was born into. Her resilience and restrained suffering spoke to me.

Meeting Tillie offered me insight into how I too would have to challenge my mother’s hatred of the world, and that like Tillie I somehow had to find the beauty in the ugliness if I was to survive. For Tillie, science was her redemption, for me the arts and eventually psychology.

Zindels’ play encouraged me to believe that by attaching to abstraction and the stories that comprised my inner world I would endure. Perhaps one day my imaginings might even be realized.

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Fairy tales also captivated my attention and galvanized mythic motifs. Well into the night I’d stay up to read The Violet Fairy Book. These classic fables from around the world exposed me to the shadow side of existence through the lives of legendary monsters and witches. The catalyzing of great power in the maiden when she would face the darkness within exhilarated me.

The foremost authority on the psychological interpretation of fairy tales, Jung’s disciple analyst Marie-Louise von Franz described fairy-tales as, “The purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.”

The collective unconscious of which von Franz refers are those embedded experiences and genetically inherited memories which bridge all humankind. As von Franz conveys, our shared ancestral experience is communicated through the universal patterns and symbols found in fairytales. For those of us afflicted with traumatic loneliness, sometimes these stories served as the only link to a shared humanity.

As I revisit the respite I sought through fantasy, recollections of being kidnapped by Snidely Whiplash and rescued by The Beatles, surface from my daydream archives. I fondly recall children’s theater classes where stories and characters took form. Naturally, I loved The Bad Seed and The Children’s Hour. Music also took me to far-away places.

As I got older and my morbid fascination with the origins of evil tenaciously took hold, revenge fantasies and a particular fondness for horror movies ensued. Brian De Palma’s Carrie certainly whet my appetite for tapping into feminine power. Paradoxically around this time, the universal blight of romantic mythology permeated my longings for love. Unfortunately, like most young women the emulation of passive damsels and victimized enchantresses infiltrated my sexual fantasies. My ambivalence about standing in my strength was exemplified in my secret reveries.

By the time I reached eighteen drugs, alcohol, and reckless sex accompanied my retreat from reality. A terrified wreck, I entered long-term treatment. Here I tentatively encountered the bridge from fantasy to reality. The therapeutic tools of active imagination, storytelling, creative expression, hypnosis, psychodrama, and dream analysis reframed my mental escapes as creative intuitive impulses that kept me cycling through infinite possibilities beyond the wretched life I knew.

Although fantasy is always greater than reality, it’s consoling to know that it is always available to make life more bearable and even richer. Keeping that in mind, with the hope that fantasy will match what reality allows, I will continue to dream until I can finally dream no more.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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