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What a 'Safe Song' Means to Someone With PTSD


Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm, experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Four months, two weeks and seven days ago was the worst day of my life. Without getting into too many details, I have experienced a lot of trauma in my life, especially in the last few years. I have come across a lot of pretty terrible and abusive people, I have experienced a great amount of physical and emotional pain, and I have done my fair share of self-destructing due to all of this. I have been living a life of pain and fear, and for the longest time, I did not know how to cope with any of this.

When I said earlier that the past few years have been rough, I really was not overexaggerating. About two and a half years ago, I lost a close friend of mine to an eating disorder, which is something I have also struggled with since I was very young. At the beginning of last summer, I lost another friend of mine to a drug overdose. Later that summer, I lost yet another friend to suicide. A few months after that, I learned about my ex-boyfriend’s suicide. While beginning to process through the grief I was facing, I tried to pursue charges against one of my abusers. Throughout all of this, I was also in treatment for depression, an eating disorder, and self-harm, and I wanted nothing more than to die.

At the end of last February, my life changed for the worst yet again. What started off as a drunken night, ended with me being drugged and experiencing more trauma, which ultimately resulted in a full-blown diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is a concept in therapy called re-victimization. I consistently found myself in situations that were dangerous. I thought I was scared before this, but my life turned into what seemed like a bad horror film that night. I have been living in incredible fear ever since.

When I got hurt the first time a few years ago, I was afraid to speak up. I was afraid to reach out and get help. I felt as though I was stuck in my own world where I had no control over anything, not even my own body. I have been in therapy for many years now and started doing intense “trauma work” or “trauma therapy” just a few months ago. I was always told to think of a “safe place” or somewhere I have been or want to go, where I feel completely safe and out of danger. I could never think of anything like that, because no matter where I went, there was always a reminder of something painful that had occurred in the past.

I went to a concert just a few weeks before my most recent trauma occurred. A singer, Tom Walker — whom I had never heard of before — opened for my favorite band, The Script. To be quite honest, I was not expecting much of Tom. I knew nothing about him or about his music and I just wanted to skip the opening act so I could sing along to the Script’s music. When Tom Walker came on stage and started singing, I was blown away. His voice is so different than anything I had ever heard and his musical abilities, in general, were phenomenal. It wasn’t until he started playing “Leave a Light On,” though, that I felt this sense of safety I had not felt in many, many years. I looked for that song for weeks after I heard him perform it, but I must have missed the part where he announced it had not been released to the public yet. When I finally heard the recording on Spotify, I knew this song would be special to me, but I still did not realize just how special it would become.

I do not want to make this a graphic article or paint a picture of how bad the events that have happened in my life really were. I simply want to explain how the ‘safe place” concept ties into my trauma recovery. The song “Leave a Light On” helped me understand part of why I struggle so much to find the light. It helped me understand that “hiding from the truth ain’t gonna make this all OK.”

“If you look into the distance, there’s a house upon the hill. / Guiding like a lighthouse; It’s a place where you’ll be safe…”

The song also helped me understand that, no matter how alone I feel, there are always people in this world who love me and care about me. There are people in this world who will always be there for me.

I am sure Tom wrote these lyrics in hopes of helping people. What I do not think, though, is that he realized just how much he would actually help people like me. These lyrics and this song itself have saved my life. I have been in dark, dark places in the past, and this song helped me come back to the light in this world and find a more positive perspective on things.

tattoo of woman and wolf with tom walker lyrics from Leave a Light On

While I have struggled with pain and abuse from multiple people (including myself), I have also met and worked with some of the most incredible and inspiring people. These friends, therapists, art therapists, music therapists, etc. helped me put together my own safe place. If you look at the picture above, you will see a wolf standing next to a girl with a side braid. Both of them are looking at a house with lights on, far away in the distance. The wolf represents my friend Kim since she loved how protective and brave wolves are of the ones they love. The girl represents my friend Jess, as this side braid was one she always wore. The lyrics to “Leave a Light On” (my “safe song”) are in my friend Amy’s handwriting; I kept her writing after she passed away. My ex’s part in this safe place is the light that is on in the house. Even after we broke up, Jack made it clear he would always be a light in my life and he would always support me in anything and everything I do. He promised me he would always be there for me. While I sketched and designed this piece myself, my friend Stef and my tattoo artist James “Majik” helped this piece really come to life. They helped make my “safe place” a reality for me.

Now, when I go back to the past, I still struggle. I am not going to sugarcoat anything and say my life is fixed and things are better now, just because I found a “safe place.” No. Things are still hard as hell and I am still trying to cope. But now, when I start leaving my body, dissociating, letting my thoughts wander off, or when I experience a trauma trigger, I try to go to this place in my head. I try to picture myself with my friends, in “a place where [I’ll] be safe.” I try to use my senses to experience every part of this place. While it is so important for someone who struggles with PTSD or trauma of any sorts to learn to stay present, it is also important to learn to be and to stay safe. With the help of the people who love us (whether friends, therapists, family members, even musicians…), we will always be OK. “I’ ll see your pain if you don’t feel our grace and you’ve lost your way… I will leave a light on.”

Image Credits: Emi Brito

Image via contributor