Natasha Khullar Relph speaks to the multi-passionate writer and TEDx speaker on the unique challenges creatives face when writing about trauma and how to break the pattern of self-sabotage.
In 2002, Angela Giles Klocke was the first person I ever emailed. I’d just started a website for writers and, given that she also ran several websites (and a print newsletter), I thought she might like it. She did. We’ve been friends ever since.
Today, Klocke is a writer, a podcaster, a photographer, a coach, an advocate for trauma survivors, and a TEDx speaker. She is the author of The First 22 Years Are the Hardest, a book that details a journey of abuse that started with emotional and sexual assault in the home, and ended with her husband dying with a gun in his hand as he attempted to kill her.
I spoke to Angela about the healing that was necessary to get this book out into the world.
It’s been a long journey with this book because you lived it. And then you had to live through the writing of it. What was that process like and how long did it take?
The process has been like the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
I began sharing it in early 2000, soon after my trauma ended [in 1997]. It was a very angry and victim version, as in, look at these terrible things that happened to me. And they are terrible things that happened to me, but I couldn’t share them with any kind of compassion. I would do this to people, too. It was my litmus test. Do you like me? Will you still like me? Can I trust you?
I didn’t realise at the time, of course, that I was working on processing it.
Yes! I did that too. It’s a challenge. Let’s see if you can handle it.
Right. And it’s an unfair measure of how people can accept you, but that’s where I was. And then in writing it, I would story vomit, if you will. I didn’t have to see their faces if they were retreating.
So the book has gone through those phases. Can I be seen? Can I be heard? It just reached a point that it felt like this was the best, safest way that I could tell it and have it do what I actually wanted it to do now that I’m in a healthier place. And that is to help people see what abuse can look like, how insidious it can be. It’s not just “Hi, I’d like to be in your life and date you and punch you in the face.” It grows.
That story you vomited on to the page, that’s how I discovered you. And had I not discovered you and that story, I don’t think I would be here today. I wouldn’t be a writer. I wouldn’t have known to trust that I could share my own story. So while you’re critical of that version, I know it helped many people. It basically changed my life.
But I like hearing that it’s changed in versions in your own head as well, because that’s how these stories go. As you’re processing, you’re discovering new things, and you’re going through layers of it. When did it become a coherent story that you could tell?
It was a physical book under a different title in 2006. Right after we moved to Colorado, I thought, “new location, new me,” I can release this book. I self-published it through Lulu. It was called When I was 13. Something about that still felt icky. And I pulled it back. I put out websites, and I pulled them back. It’s like running to jump off the high dive and then running back. I realised that a huge part of that—and it still plays out, but I have a little more awareness around me doing it—is the self sabotage, those old ghostly whispers from all of that past.
I wasn’t processing. Even though I was writing and healing through those processes, I wasn’t unpacking it in a way that was very helpful. I expressed a lot of anger and a lot of sarcasm and I had a really big audience for that.
It turns out, the more I started healing and letting go of that anger, the more I started losing people. That was really hard to deal with.
And I realised that I kept betraying myself. I kept trying to be something for someone else. I needed to come to this place with the book that felt “not icky,” which, you know, is the very technical term for healing. But I needed to process it with a trained professional who could help me see things from a different perspective.
So it was between that healing process and then actually joining Toastmasters and starting to speak my story out. Having people see me do it, instead of being behind the computer screen, is what helped start connecting me to my story again.
I speak to a lot of women who’ve been through abuse and one thing they have trouble with is staying in a happy relationship. I never had that problem. I never did that in my personal life. But I do it in my career, and I know you do it, too.
The only constant is that I’m aware I’m a writer, I have no other skill. You use the word sabotage, and that’s how I’ve seen it as well. I get to a certain level of readership and I’ll burn it to the ground. Got to a certain level with journalism, burned it to the ground. New business, sure! Daily newsletter, why not? And then, as soon as I start seeing success, burn them to the ground.
So my question is, how have you experienced that? And what do you do about it?
Yeah, you just described it to a T. I noticed that we’ve had that in common because I’ve watched you do those things. And sometimes it’s just a pivot, right? Like, okay, that’s not working. But sometimes you’re at the top of your game and you’re like, I don’t think so.
Let’s just stop before I get to where I want.
You’re hitting that right on the head. I’ve had that conversation because what I’m currently working through is that I don’t have any reason to do that other than the old programming. In my relationships, I’m solid. I’ve been remarried for almost 24 years and I’m solid with my kids. I’m solid with my family. With my friendships, I’m loyal. I’m there.
But the one person I’m not loyal to is me and my career.
It’s heartbreaking to see. I was here and then I cut myself off. And then I was there and cutting myself off.
I tell myself I’m bored. But it’s just a lack of self worth.
I have this with photography all the time. I’ll tell myself I’m not really that good at it anyway. These people haven’t sent me high fives with fifteen exclamation points, so they obviously think I suck. It’s a war within yourself.
I don’t know that every creative has this, but creatives with traumatic brain and mental health challenges certainly do.
My rule is to not make any decisions. Not making a decision on a low day when the darkness has descended. And also not making big decisions on a mountaintop day because I’m Superwoman that day.
You talked about outing people earlier. One way I’ve gotten around that is by making my story fiction, which means I get to express the truth without having to be tied to the truth. You chose to write it as a memoir. How have the people you’ve written about responded to your work?
I’m not really in a relationship with anyone who I would be outing in the book. I have not been in a relationship with my mom for ten years. And my ex-husband is dead.
I’m more concerned about his family at times, and they have reached out. The last time I put out the ebook, I pulled it back because someone in his family was reaching out to my oldest son saying, aren’t you suspicious that she was never investigated for setting [my ex-husband] up to be killed? And he said, as an officer of the law, no. They have their own version of the story, right? And that’s always going to be true about everything. Everybody has their own version.
But this is how I counsel and coach my clients who are going through recovery, and that is to go back to the facts. I go back to the facts. These are the things that actually happened. Memoir has a lot of feeling context around it, but the facts are A, B, C, and D. I was this age when this happened. He died with a gun in his hand. These are the facts.
I’m not always confident I know the facts. I believe I know what happened. And yet, there are moments when I will doubt myself because I shoved it down and refused to think or talk about it for so long. The idea of truth sometimes feels very muddy. How do you experience that? And how do you make peace with the fact that on some days you have the solid truth and on others, you’re not quite sure?
I agree. It can be very muddy. There are scenes I had to sit with to process them, remember them. Some of it would just come. Chronologically, that is exactly what happened. Some of that was feeling it, knowing something happened in that space.
That’s the challenge of telling our stories. We have to revisit them, we have to go back. When I have blank spots, I get really concerned because I think, oh, what happened there?
Especially when other people who are part of that story are denying it or telling a different version.
The brain is doing two things. It’s trying to protect you, help you not go into that dark space. And it’s also trying to help you focus on what is more life giving, what is more joyful and loving.
It’s so complicated and easy to convince myself that I’m crazy. That these things never happened. You gaslight yourself.
I’ve been told for years that I’m wrong, that those things didn’t happen. They did happen. There’s a paper trail. But even for folks who don’t have a paper trail, there are certain events that are just facts. And that’s where you have to trust yourself.
With this book, I had to come to a place where I was at peace with what it is. I had to come to a place that I didn’t need to go in and correct any more hindsight, or feelings or facts based on new information, because I was going to change the voice of that person. It’s not rewriting history, but rewriting the way I see history. I needed to be very careful not to do that. Because we can do that right now every day.
And you could spend your whole life rewriting the same book.
Right. And it was time to just be like, I have other works in me, I have other things to talk about.
How do you write a book like this without getting re-traumatized and going into endless spirals of depression?
I look at writing about trauma the same way as the healing of trauma. When I was an advocate working with domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking victims and survivors, sometimes I was the first person they were telling their story to. It was so beautiful for them to sob it out and be in that place and they’d say, yay, day one of healing done. And I’d think, um, it’s about to suck a whole lot. But you have to send them out with love and hope.
There’s that fine balance between space and grace for yourself to process and also pushing yourself forward. Sometimes it can be just a sentence.
I would always recommend if a person can to have some sort of professional around them, that they can unpack with as well. Or if that’s not an option, a group of people who are writing like-minded things that you can lean on. Have agreements in place when you’re reading each other’s work, like an “Ouch Rule.” It’s a time out. You don’t have to explain why it hurts, just that we need to go on and move around that.
Part of that is that when you begin healing and telling your story through healing and healing through telling your story, you begin to look at everything you’re doing. And your worth. I used to say, “I don’t require much from friendships.” Now I think that’s not the best approach. I should require at least as much as I’m giving, right? Those are things we explore with writing, with the healing process.
I have one last question for you. If someone is thinking about writing a book or essay about their trauma, what is the kindest thing they can do for themselves as they’re going through that process?
Don’t do it alone.
A lot of people, a lot of writers, a lot of people in healing, try to go at it alone. They don’t want to talk about it and don’t want to tell people what they’re up to. It’s not about accountability. I don’t need somebody to check in to see if I’m doing my work. What I need is somebody to check in to make sure I’m okay.
And I pick my person. Who am I writing this to?
I have on my computer screen, which is where I do my writing, the name of the person or a picture of the person I’m writing this for. And sometimes it’s me, right? I’m writing this for 11-year-old me who needed a voice. I approach it a lot like I do in one-on-one coaching with people in recovery. I’m only speaking to you. And so in this moment, I’m only writing to this one person. If everyone else happens to get anything from it, wonderful. But I’m not thinking about them.
To connect with Angela and work with her, check out her website.
Watch her TEDx talk.
Buy her book The First 22 Years Are the Hardest.
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