Healing as Mapping: Mapping the Self

Cartographers call blank spaces on a map “sleeping beauties.
— Annie Dillard

Healing from trauma is an expedition. It is a task of preparing for the expedition, the unraveling of the trail and the story, and slowly and painstakingly mapping the terrain.

You take a map with you of where you think are headed and where you think you need to go. But maps are always a mix of accurate truth and misinformation. Indeed what makes maps readable and usable is their loyalty to understanding and guidance, and not necessarily to accuracy.

All maps suffer from a problem of distortion—and all distortions on a map are there to serve some purpose, to create  order out of chaos. One of the most famous distortions was created by Mercator. In 1569 he created a map to help sailors. The map was a radical departure from other maps, but he wanted to make it easier for them to plan a straight course towards their destination. With his map, drawn with new meridians and parallels, all the sailors needed to do was to place a ruler on the map so they could plot a straight course. The map was never intended to depict the world as it was, just a journey that was as simple as it could be.

On this now familiar map, as you move away from the equator, the sizes of the continents become more distorted. Greenland and Africa seem to appear to be the same size, when in fact Africa is fourteen times the size of Greenland. We don’t see the distortions because this is the map we know. We grew up with this version of the world; pulled down by a string in front of the blackboards of our elementary schools.

Sometimes it what isn’t there that makes a map useful. The famous motto of the London Underground, “Mind the Gap” actually describes well the London Underground map—in that what was missing made it more understandable. Henry Beck’s 1930 map was a new map altogether—it dispensed with accuracy of exact locations and focused on the easy understanding of the interconnections between subway lines. It allowed people to understand how to simply get from station to station. In both Beck’s and Mercator’s work there was an important focus: how to order the world so that people could easily navigate.

I have a friend David Lindroth who is a mapmaker. He often tells about how when you are drawing a map of the coastline, you can’t draw it perfectly, the way you would see it in a photograph. If you drew the coastline the way you see it in a photograph, you would draw all of the inlets and edges of the coastlines which would actually make the coastlines of a country look porous and unfamiliar. In order for a coastline to look and feel familiar you need to leave out details. A general coastline feels more accurate than a real coastline.

Mapping the self is no less fraught with complexity. You need to begin the journey with some rudimentary map to make the trip—to know where to head. But you must remember that you are both using the map and creating the map. And trauma changes maps. If you are traveling in a war torn country—the maps made before the war will help you some, but not entirely. You need them all, you see. The maps before the war, and maps during war, and the maps of what exists now, the maps you are creating. They are different maps of a territory or place, but they don’t describe the same thing.

Putting names to things, locating the experience in time and place, understanding the closeness-distance of things. These are the actions of mapping. And when you head in to unknown territory it can be terrifying. Sometimes you are trying to talk about information you know, the experience you remember,--but even in the known there can be unknown.  The unknown can be the feelings that went with the experience or how the story will impact another. Whether you will be able to tolerate telling the story, tolerate the feelings, the shame.

 Sometimes the unknown is experiencing something you never let yourself experience before—it is truly unknown territory for you—perhaps trusting or depending on someone for the first time, or trying something brand new.

Sometimes the unknown is creating new structures altogether—building new bridges, planting new forests, destroying old fortresses.

But know this: creating maps is a brave endeavor. It takes courage to map your territory and account for what is there and not there. It takes courage to create a map that lets you be found—by you, by others, by the world. But the beauty is that the hard won courage you used to heal and create your maps stays with you. The bravery of the expedition stays with you. You get to use it to grow and learn for yourself. And you get to use it to help others. This courage is perhaps one of the many gifts of healing from trauma. It is one of the places on the map you can’t see before you start. It is one of the ‘sleeping beauties’ the cartographers speak of, and that your bravery allowed you to find. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015