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Writing romance as a form of therapy

Trigger Warning: non-descriptive mentions of trauma, PTSD & SA

When you feel fundamentally unlovable, creating characters with similar questions is a safe way to explore the answers. Without getting into gory details, this is an ode to writing romance novels as an act of therapy. 

Making sense of the trauma

When I began writing, I wrote primarily Young Adult fiction with a big focus on worthiness and independence. 

Am I worthy of love, and can I trust myself to make the right choice? How do I separate my inherent worth from the awful things done to me?

These were the big questions that came up for me a lot in therapy, and what better way to move through my emotional stuntedness than to go to the source of the fracture? Now, I’m not in any way saying that folks who write YA are emotionally stunted in adolescence. I’m saying that I was, and I draw a lot from my own experiences, thoughts, and feelings to create characters, so it became a pattern I couldn’t ignore. 

Writing YA romance helped me to understand that people are complicated and adults make choices they aren’t emotionally mature enough for, just like teens. It helped me make sense of my life and see it beyond my own emotions and trauma responses.

Taking back control of my body

After a few years of therapy and writing YA, my ideas naturally moved to the next questions about value, sex, and bodily autonomy. Was my body truly my own? How do I trust another person to care about me when I’ve been left alone to deal with for most of my life, and when my trust was betrayed, how to trust again? These new questions bumped my characters and stories up into the NA bracket.

Writing smut can be fun. It is fun. But for me, it is also cathartic. Being raised to hide and hate my body made it difficult to build a healthy relationship with myself, and I know I’m not alone in this. It’s cultural, and it’s damaging. The subconscious belief that my body did not belong to me and that no matter what, I needed the approval of others, especially men, to feel worthy culminated in me not trusting myself when I should have. I was betrayed by people I thought cared about me. I’m not blaming myself for what they did, but if I had trusted my gut, I can’t help but think things may have ended differently. Writing about it is my way of exploring body autonomy, how it’s navigated, and what happens when someone oversteps a boundary—in both big and small ways.

Writing NA romance with this in mind helped me understand that I’m not broken and that my hurt, anger, and disappointment were valid. It also showed me that a lot of our ‘flaws’ are ways that we try to protect ourselves from experiencing pain which made creating characters so much more interesting.

Going dark to reframe the response

There was this whole thing going around on TikTok about if you read dark romance you need therapy. Well, I took this to my therapist and asked her about it because she was the one who encouraged me to write darker when I expressed my fear of doing so. I wanted to write about these dark themes but worried about what would happen if I did.

Humans have dark thoughts. It’s unavoidable, but we live in a world that says if we don’t have wholesome, traditional values or maintain a positive attitude, we are ‘other.’ That those of us who express those dark thoughts or try to make sense of them are the damaged ones. I couldn’t imagine living my whole life pretending that everything was fine and weird shit didn’t go on in my head. I have to write it down or else it manifests in other ways like paranoia or rage.

I will stay with the body autonomy theme here because that’s my experience in dark romance.

Writing about dubcon or noncon can be extremely helpful to some survivors of sexual assault because it can help reframe the experience and put together pieces of the puzzle that PTSD fragments inside the brain. That doesn’t mean everyone should do it, but for me (with the help of an actual professional), it was vital to my healing process. I haven’t had any triggers or episodes since I started channelling my anger, revenge, and ‘dark’ thoughts onto the page. 

This damaging energy no longer lives inside me as a festering mess of anxiety and fear. When I write it down, I untangle it, put it in order, and reframe it in the way I want it to be. My choices were torn from me, my body was injured, and my mind became a prison, so when I write about women who live a similar reality and how they healed, overcame, or straight up got revenge, it helps me process the hurt in my life because I get to choose how it ends for my character. I get to filter that toxic energy and use it to help rather than hinder my healing.

Writing dark fantasy romance helped me regain control of my thoughts and experiences. Keeping these stories in the fantasy realm also helps me separate from them so I can explore without being triggered.

The romance vs reality debate regarding smut and dark romance is charged by emotions and personal experiences. It’s easy to point fingers or make blanket statements because there is no right answer or wrong way to process. Everyone sees it differently.

It’s important to note that this concept doesn’t work for everyone and is not prescriptive. I speak from my experience only and in no way suggest this is the right way to go about healing. 

I use writing as a form of therapy and then take what I write to my therapist to analyze it. It works for me and is only a small part of the healing process. 

If you are struggling and think you might like to try writing as a form of healing, I would highly suggest speaking to a professional mental health practitioner to ensure your attempts at healing don’t become triggers.

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