By Chloe Burns
“You need to address this now,” my therapist told me at a regular appointment in December of 2019, her tone more stern than I’d heard her before. “The longer you wait, the harder it will be to correct.”
She was referring to my laundry list of trauma symptoms—a collection of hyper-vigilance, chronic insomnia, disorganization, nightmares, panic attacks, and dissociation—I had been dismissing for years until I experienced an assault at work in October of 2019 and those symptoms came crashing back. I was then unemployed, living off of my dwindling savings, and spending my days alternating between crying and watching TV with my eyes unfocused. I hadn’t been in Los Angeles for a full year, and already, I was at an impasse.
In June of 2019, I moved to LA to pursue acting and filmmaking, and the business of my life had helped me manage my existing trauma symptoms so far. Running between background acting jobs on television sets and acting classes to my various jobs left me happily exhausted at the end of the day, my mind distracted from the anxieties and hyper-vigilance that tormented me in the quiet.
But when I was violated at work that fall, my systems shut down completely, and I could no longer lean on my lifestyle for distraction. My ability to sleep was destroyed. My body felt so numb that I frequently mistook my own heartbeat for the earthquake tremors I had experienced since moving to the coast. Anxiety flooded my veins so ferociously that I was exhausted before my day even began. Yet, rest was out of the question. Unexpected noises caused me to lurch out of my seat, but my limbs felt so heavy I doubted my ability to defend myself against even the slightest threat. I was somehow moving one hundred miles an hour while stuck completely still. Every day that passed meant more of my savings vanished, and by the time COVID sent the nation into their homes, I knew something needed to give.
In March 2020, I drove back to my hometown in Kansas—my belongings resting in a storage unit, aside from the single suitcase I had packed. Like so many others, I figured this would be a restorative time with my family where I could clear my head before returning to LA to get my life back. My therapist had instructed me to find trauma-specific therapies in California, specifically EMDR or Brainspotting to address the physical injuries that my traumas had left behind. My time in Kansas could be time to find a new plan and then return to my life in LA and get back on my feet.
That’s not what happened. As the pandemic continued to worsen, I realized going back to LA right away was not in the cards. All of my potential sources of employment had been cut off by industry shutdowns, and the threat of catching the virus was heavy on everyone’s minds. After accepting my new reality, I found an EMDR specialist at home and began weekly Telehealth sessions from my bedroom. We began by writing a list of the worst traumas I needed to address. Among the top of the list was an abusive, terrifying relationship I had escaped from years before and lived in fear of ever since.
Every week, I lived through emotions that I had shoved away for so long. There was the grief for what I had lost: the person I was before the abuse happened. There was profound isolation when there was no one to talk to who actually understood what I was going through. There was the betrayal I felt from the people I had looked to for help, whose responses had ranged from ambivalence to actively taking my abuser’s side. But there was also fear wrapped up in the process of healing itself.
I had lived with my trauma for so long, I wondered who I would be without it. I had dissociated completely to cope, living detached from my body for years. I wondered if there would be anything to come back to, or if my inner self had simply withered away from neglect. As hard as I tried, as much as I wanted to believe therapy would work, I simply could not picture what recovery would look like. I was living as two people: the bright, curious, happy person I had once been, and the angry, terrified, depressed person the trauma created.
The way I understood it, one of those people had to die for the other to live. I couldn’t see any other way forward.
Isolated from all of my prior activities and coping mechanisms, I desperately searched for an outlet for those feelings. The idea of the two halves began to develop in my mind, and I began writing them into characters. Soon, a world began to grow around them: How did they come to exist? Who did they seek out in their relationships? How did they interact with each other?
My writing became my escape—a chance to be anywhere other than the same bedroom where I constantly dug up personal grief. An idea quickly became a structured story, a web series of six episodes in which I would have the chance to act, and I became interested in making it personal. That’s when everything ground to a halt.
If I wanted to write about my abuse, I would have to write scenes of abuse. If I wanted to play the characters I had written, I would have to endure my own trauma for a second time. I would have to cast someone to play my abuser and see him every day on set. This was the only way I had ever seen the subject portrayed on film, and very quickly, it suffocated the flame that had been moving the project forward. I was paying good money and spending a tremendous amount of time and energy processing the things that had happened to me, and now, I was going to seek them out again? For what?
Aside from risking further injury to myself, I couldn’t see how enduring my own misery after doing the work to understand it would help me grow as an artist. On top of that, I was frustrated at the idea of my abuser getting screen time, especially with the episodes allowing only a few minutes each to tell the story. As I re-processed my memories in therapy, I realized he no longer belonged in the story at all. He had been living with me for years in my mind, around every corner, repeating every abuse, but in reality, he had left my life all those years ago. I was the one perpetuating my own injury, that was the story at hand, and he wasn’t required to tell it.
With those realizations, I started writing again, and this time I set specific rules for myself:
1) I would not show graphic scenes of abuse.
2) My abuser would not receive screen time.
3) The show had to be fun.
I may have been writing it for catharsis, but I was also writing it as an escape, and without an element of humor and adventure drawing me back in, I would never have seen it through.
As I continued therapy, my symptoms began to fade. My sleep became deeper. My time alone became less loud with panic. I began to find calm in hobbies and activities. Reframing my traumas gave me new perspective and helped me let go of the resentments I had been holding onto for so long. As the trauma healed and I felt my body again, I learned I had always had someone to come back to, and that inner me I had dissociated from years before was happy to see me.
I realized I had spent years feeling cold, constantly piling on blankets and layers. Now I felt warm. Where deep breathing exercises used to send me into panic attacks, they could now ease my stress and leave me feeling more grounded than before.
At the same time, my writing began to tighten and the story felt concise I could write exactly what I wanted to say. I felt confidence in my work that I had never felt before. I truly knew and understood my work inside and out. I originally didn’t plan on sharing it with anyone, or filming it at all, but now my mind started to wander toward budgets and crew positions. Finally, I began to reach out and make calls, and as the project began to take shape I could see a path forward for myself that my past had been distorting for so long.
There hasn’t been any one day or moment I could point to and say, “This was the moment I healed.” There are still days where I feel familiar anxieties come up or my body is more on-edge than usual. But I can say that I am in a far better place than I was before, and the things that used to haunt me are just a memory.
Trauma Bonded, the title I gave my project, was born out of the work I did healing myself, and it has given so much more to me than I ever expected it to. Part of the friction within myself was caused because I kept the half of me that was created through trauma hidden from the world.
By putting words to the experience, I created an authentic way to talk about my trauma. Trauma Bonded is not an autobiography in the literal events that unfold, but it is very much my personal diary from the past year. By seeing the project through and sharing it with others, I hope Trauma Bonded can help someone else the way it helped me: by making part of them more acceptable, more understood, more visible—and above all, showing that there is a path toward healing, even if it feels impossible to see it.
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Chloe Burns graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Film & Media Studies and currently works as a Los Angeles-based actor and filmmaker. In addition to studying at Lesly Kahn Studios and Warner Loughlin Studios in LA, her acting work has been featured in projects from the University of Southern California and ArtCenter College of Design, and her film projects have premiered at festivals including Indie Short Fest and Life After Life Films: FEM Fest. She is passionate about using humor to find authenticity in complex characters, and hopes that her work will help diversify women’s perspectives in popular media.