Making Sense: Trauma and Identity

In his final blog, amputee, poet, therapist, change-maker Phil Sheridan talks about how trauma changes identity.

I recently received an invitation to speak and present at a conference this October at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds (links below). The conference closes a thought provoking exhibition called – The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics. The exhibition explores and questions our relationship with our bodies. Prosthetic limbs perhaps more than any other technology over the last century have challenged our perceptions of the human body and the embodied self.

For example, the running blade prosthesis made famous by Paralympic athletes such as Aimee Mullins, Oscar Pistorius, and Richard Whitehead have acquired a totemic status. A status that stands for performance and enhancement. When I wear my ‘blade’ it provokes the same level of excitement in people as if I had driven a F1 racing car to my local supermarket.

In comparison the prosthetic leg I wear day to day, which performs a far more difficult task, elicits all too familiar responses from people. Responses that range from purposeful ignoring to the all too often overheard statement to children, ‘Come away David, stop staring at that man’s leg!’

Survivors of significant trauma live with the effects whether they go noticed or not. The physical and emotional scars, seen and unseen, each leave their mark. As a survivor we each, no doubt, have asked questions about how our lives will go on? Questions such as, ‘What's happened to me?’, ‘What now?’, ‘Will my partner still want me?’, ‘Will I keep my job?’, and many, many more.

Some questions get answered quickly. One such question saw me make a career change within 12 months of my life changing accident. In all honesty thank goodness I did, even though it meant leaving behind over a decade of hard work and losing close colleagues and  friends. Other questions can take years for the answer to resolve. My physical recovery took almost three years whereas I continue to live with the ongoing mental and emotional issues to this day.

As I've said before in previous blogs for AfterTrauma, support from family, friends and health professionals can make all the difference in getting through these transitions. In the acute stage of my accident, I could do very little to save myself or look after myself. I depended on a dedicated team of health professionals to save my life and sustain me. Over time I moved into the chronic stage where I am now. A place where I exercise the greatest level of autonomy over my health and life. 

In other words I self-manage most of my health needs very well like most people do. Close family and friends know how to support me in my day to day needs. Physical adaptations such as grab rails, bath/shower boards, and an adaptive car take care of some of the practicalities of life. My prosthetist, who I see on rare occasions nowadays, matches my physical mobility and fitness with my aspirations to prescribe the most appropriate limbs to meet my needs.

  • With these survivor questions in mind I thought rather than present a straight talk at the Henry Moore institute,  I'd use my creative writing and poetry to explore three themes:
  • How does my survival from a near fatal accident change my sense of being in the world?
  • How does such an irrevocably life changing event affect the dialogue I have with myself and with society?
  • What happens when all the boundaries of embodiment that I had grown up with get catastrophically disrupted?

I'm looking forward to this talk very much because it offers an opportunity to explore trauma and the questions of its survival away from the clinical domain of medicine. I get the liberty to draw on the broader domains of the arts and humanities as a way to making sense of trauma. I think it’s an important way.

Meeting and talking with fellow survivors of trauma reminds me of my work with emotionally traumatised children and young people. One of the most fruitful and helpful mediums to work with them came from the creative use of art, drama, and storytelling in the therapy sessions I facilitated.

Trauma can render one helpless for a while. For some people that helplessness passes, for others it lingers on for a life time. The language and medium of medicine has an important place in saving lives and putting people back onto the road of recovery. I'd suggest that it also has its limits. One of those limits arises when we try to ask the big life questions like those above.

I think the arts and humanities, paraphrasing the famous Heineken advert, can reach the parts of trauma that clinical and medical can find hard to reach. The arts and humanities can give survivors, carers, healthcare professionals and wider society an alternative voice and medium to understand trauma.

In finding that voice or means of expression, one can gain a sense of control over some of the longer term consequences of trauma. We can begin to describe what has happened in our own way and in doing so begin to explore the potential for what will become of us. We can begin to accept that life as we knew it has changed and not in the way we wished for. It has changed never-the-less.

Just as significant, the arts and humanities enable us to share with others what we have experienced. To describe the path we have walked and the journey we face. It can also allow others to walk beside us too even if they can't walk in our shoes. A therapist I worked with once said of my poetry, ‘You know what Philip, your poetry isn't just for yourself. Your poems also offer a window into your experience and how you've tried to make sense of what has happened to you.’

In the end my creative work and the presentation in October has that one aim. To help others, for a time at least, to grasp the tremendous task of living after trauma.


You can find out more at the links below:

Henry Moore Institute

The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics

Philip Sheridan - Poet and Facilitator



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