Writing About Trauma In My Debut Novel Became Part Of My Own Healing

By Cyla Panin

Do we ever get over trauma? I don’t think so. In my experience, trauma lives somewhere deep under the skin and bursts forth at the most inopportune times, like a bad rash. For years, I thought I could simply forget the things that happened in my past, falsely believing I could make them disappear if I didn’t give them any attention. Like a toddler who closes their eyes and thinks you can’t see them.

Spoiler alert—that didn’t work. Whether I like it or not, my past has shaped who I am now and I can’t deny those parts of my any more than I can deny the color of my hair (well, maybe that’s a bad example since my hairstylist does a pretty good job of doing exactly that). 

I’m not a big talker when it comes to deep emotions or revealing trauma. Part of the reason for that, I now understand, was an unhealthy dose of gaslighting when I was younger. I don’t like to talk about it, even with those closest to me, because I’m afraid they’ll tell me it all wasn’t a big deal, that I’m overreacting, that I’m being dramatic. 

None of that is the case. The years between my childhood and adolescence and now have given me the space to see that, to acknowledge that my feelings were—and are—valid. 

So, what to do with all that? For me, I knew I wanted to write about it. Sometimes I find I can express myself better in email or text than I can through talking because I’m most articulate with my thoughts when writing. I wanted to work through my feelings with words on a screen, where I could type and erase and choose exactly what and how much I wanted to share. 

Early on when drafting my YA fantasy debut, ‘STALKING SHADOWS’ (out Sept. 14, 2021) I knew I wanted to depict a sibling relationship I felt deeply in my heart. And good or bad, my deepest tie with my siblings comes from the roles we played for each other while living through shared trauma. We were each other’s protectors, the rocks we could hold on to when home felt like a roiling ocean ready to swallow us up. 

That’s what it’s like for my main character, Marie, and her sister, Ama. They cling to each other because life has threatened to tear them each apart and they’re stronger together. They love each other for more than that of course, as I do my siblings.

They love each other for the stories shared in front of the fireplace and the slingshot hunting trips and the game of hide and seek in behind the broad trees of the forest behind their home. But they also love that they both understand the pain of having an alcoholic father. 

I write for young adults, and there’s a responsibility to that. I went into my writing career knowing I wanted to be honest, even if that was hard. I’m old enough now that I don’t have the same anxieties around what people think of me (though, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any), and I’m writing for people who may not be there yet. Who still feel all of it so deeply, who may feel like they alone are experiencing trauma. It sucks to feel alone in that.

And so I wanted my books to be a tiny rock for some—something to hold onto. Proof that you’re not alone. Confirmation that it’s okay to feel crappy when a parent comes home glassy-eyed. That it’s not overdramatic to want security and stability. 

My greatest hope for my books is that someone, somewhere will take comfort in them—like I did, and do, with so many. 

And did I process my own trauma through writing my novel? Maybe pieces of it. Maybe I understand myself a little better. I’ve learned nothing can carve that trauma out of my soul, but I’m a little more at peace now.

Cyla Panin is a YA and adult author who prefers to look at the world through a dusting of magic. Her debut novel is called ‘Stalking Shadows’ (Amulet/Abrams, Sept. 14, 2021) which is a haunting gothic retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” exploring sibling loyalty as a young woman discovers the truth behind her sister’s curse. After spending most of her childhood wanting to escape into the wonderful worlds her favorite authors created, Cyla now uses her own words to craft magical places. When not writing, Cyla can be found playing dinosaurs with her two young boys, watching swashbuckling and/or period TV shows with her husband, and, of course, reading. Find out more at http://www.cylapanin.com/.
Follow Cyla on social media:
Twitter: @cylapanin 
Instagram: @cylapanin