Living in the Abyss (Katrina N. Jirik)

Reviewed by Kate Champlin

Living in the Abyss is a heartbreaking meditation on life with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) written for two purposes. First, Jirik hopes to show others with CPTSD that they are not as alone as they generally feel. Second, Jirik hopes to create a tool that people with CPSTD can use to reach out to those around them. She hopes that those with CPSTD can share the book with friends, family members, and therapists to help these people better understand their experiences. The result is a traumatic look at CPSTD that will tell those who are living with the disability that their experiences are shared and will invite others to consider their perspectives.

These are the first lines that greet readers of the collection:

Words flowing over your body,
Bringing no comprehension to the mind buried in trauma.
Because trauma does not allow meaning
That does not serve its destructive purpose (15)

Each poem’s direct address and visceral language pulls readers into the poet’s perspective. Jirik states that several of her reviewers were overwhelmed when they attempted to read her book in one sitting. Readers will not find this surprising. The poems hurt, and Jirik’s warning to read the poems one at a time is one that readers should take to heart. Nevertheless, the poems are evocative and unforgettable descriptions of the experience of trauma. A later poem adds:

…when you live in a trauma shroud
Everything revolves around terror
You are only partially alive
And you are never safe (74)

When I read about Jirik’s goals in her introduction, I expected more of the poems to discuss recovery or moments of relative peace, but Jirik understands how dangerous false promises of safety or security can be to those entangled with trauma. In fact, several of her poems discuss the pain of dealing with professionals who either misunderstood trauma responses or implied that overcoming trauma should be easy. As Jirik puts it in one poem:

You’re told you need to trust people.
Your problem, they say, is you think people are untrustworthy,
That you can never belong if you don’t trust people to care for you,
That the past was what you created, you were responsible for it. (60)

The poem continues with overwhelming evidence that the poet’s learned, lifelong experiences have taught her not to trust anyone. The doctors are asking her to undermine her own survival instincts. These supposedly helpful conversations widen the gulf between the poet and those around her. Worse, they make her feel ashamed of her own experiences. In a later poem, the poet is labeled:

…a failure at resilience
Because you cannot manage any
Of the supposedly healthy ways
Of bouncing back from trauma (90)

These attempts at healing are, of course, less than unhelpful. Thus, Living in the Abyss documents abuses perpetrated and perpetuated against people with CPSTD by those asked to help them. Living in the Abyss also refuses to duplicate an “easy” or normative professional narrative of trauma and recovery. In terms of numbers, this means that 89 pages of a 99-page book are dedicated to trauma in forms that are unrelenting and seem nearly beyond survivability. After all, as Jirik tells us, trauma both dissolves narrative and stops time. Of survival, Jirik states:

The world moves on and by.
But the survivor remains stationary,
Lost in the timeless connection with past,
Reliving the terror that comes with the territory (25)

Nevertheless, despite this loss of time and narrative, Jirik’s narrator eventually reaches an accommodation with her own trauma. This is a way to withstand past medical abuses and reach the point Jirik describes in her introduction: she still has CPSTD, but it no longer controls her life. In the process, the narrator forges her own terminology and coping methods, methods that focus on dismantling the trauma-shroud “from the inside out” (93). She acknowledges that the trauma will always be with her but also that she has defenses and agency. She considers reaching out to others while remaking her world, and even looks forward to eventually exploring her positive feelings. As Jirik puts it:

The facile methodology [defined as resilience] can’t
Teach you the strategies
That return you to the normal world
You are, instead, a survivor

I am a survivor, I will survive even this. (90-91)

As a survivor, Jirik’s narrator learns that she can live with CPSTD. She offers herself as a model for those who are deeply traumatized and wonder what their own futures will hold. She represents both one possible path away from a life entirely defined by trauma and proof that survival is worth the struggle. These evocative, unforgettable, and often horrifying poems will suggest a possible survival method while also showing readers with CPSTD that they are not alone.

Title: Living in the Abyss
Author: Katrina N. Jirik
Publisher: Kelsay Books
Date: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.