“The Great War” of Fighting for Recovery: Finding Healing in Taylor Swift’s New Song
Anyone who knows me knows I adore Taylor Swift. The cathartic way she captures arrays of emotions through artful songwriting, like lightning bugs to a jar, validates me every listen; the glow of her work illuminates every room in my heart. I have always felt seen by her work. Taylor inspired me to begin writing poetry as a teenager. Her music has acted as an outlet for me since I was young — allowing me to safely voice my pain, and even my hope.
Taylor Swift’s new song The Great War, a bonus track on her highly-anticipated and already well-loved Midnights album, encapsulates the healing of my past trauma and pain so exquisitely. The Great War shows my unwavering hope and true commitment to recovery and healing — healing of myself and healing of this world.
Here I share some of my recovery story through the lyrics of The Great War…
When I was a child, speaking was intimidating to me and I struggled verbally — it’s how I became a writer. It was vastly easier for me to write; I found my voice through writing first. I speak well now, but there were years of my life I suffered in silence. I still prefer writing over speech in many situations; I best express myself here.
Due to trauma and anxiety, there were instances growing up where if my brain felt too overwhelmed, I’d shut down. “Spineless in my tomb of silence” illustrates this trauma response that kept me entrapped in the lonesome quietness. I felt like by speaking up when things felt wrong, I was punished, which is highly confusing because you’re just trying to feel better through the act of opening up. It’s traumatic when the rare occasions you do have a voice, you are left stranded in the ocean — the freezing water creeping higher and higher and no lifeboat in sight.
Being punished for using my voice by adults who were supposed to help reinforced my instinct to swallow my needs and ignore my intuition. As a psychology student, I’ve learned that punishment is only conducive when it is utilized as a last resort and only when consent is present. Punishing struggling children for having emotional needs is not only unethical, but it is also ineffective as it perpetuates shame and trauma. I truly punished myself too much for my own missteps, so to feel like everything was always my fault when there was so much more happening behind-the-scenes was heart-wrenching.
“All that bloodshed” takes me back to the years I self harmed as a child. I initially cut my arms because I needed a release from the pain. The endorphin rush numbed it for me — for a while at least. When you can’t speak it, the pain has to come out somehow. I was very ashamed of my scars and hid them carefully. I also used my wounds as means of communication later on when I discovered the pain I couldn’t speak I could show you physically. My eating disorder also gave me the power — albeit, misguided power — to convey my pain. Through baggy clothes and dizziness spells — results of my dangerous restricting behaviors — I felt I had to show the physical effects in order to be believed and supported because I felt invisible otherwise.
“Sweet dream” stands for those short periods of time — glimpses of hope on the horizon — where I felt supported and everyone seemed on board with my recovery journey. My “sweet dream” was certainly over the times I was blamed and then punished by the adults around me. I felt like a scapegoat much of the time. To effectively shape behavior, we first must be willing to show deep compassion and see a person’s pain through their eyes and believe them.
The Stanford Prison Experiment taught us that stripping people of their humanity and reducing them to the label of “bad” resulted in the “guards” abusing the “prisoners” in horrific ways. “Us versus them” attitudes harm the most vulnerable. For people of authority to abandon their humanity perpetuates unconscionable harm. What we also learned from the controversial experiment is that when people are placed in powerless situations, they can become submissive and may, in fact, lose their sanity. We cannot ignore that perpetual unjustness and withholding humanity can act as precursors to, quite frankly, expected emotional reactions. What I’ve found in my recovery is that cycles of abuse end with me.
“Loss is Hidden in Plain Sight”, 2013
It was challenging for me to ignore the adults who were not supportive of me back then because they had to be in my life, but now with my freedom as an adult, I leave those with cold, stigmatizing views alone. Psychology has taught us that social pain, such as emotional pain from rejection or loss, activates the same part of the brain that experiences physical pain. More compassion needs to be freely given to children in the depths of trauma just trying to do their best.
Amongst feelings of unsafety at home and now school, my survival depended on finding “safe zones” and allies. I found a few really great allies along the way who protected me, believed me and validated me. These supports didn’t need to know I would be a successful creative one day who helps others through her work — they just supported me because of their own goodness. They saw something good in me when all I could see was “unworthy”.
One of my teachers was a great support throughout my early recovery and has been a constant in my life. As I said, I shut down a lot back then. Disassociation is a trauma response and it was my safest space as I was in a world of floating nothingness — this place kept me safe from flashbacks. I very rarely disassociate anymore. I only feel my mind begin to disconnect that much while I’m experiencing a panic attack, but even then, I work to use skills to stay present and grounded today.
This teacher noticed I was disassociating one time I was conversing with her at the table we were sitting at. She gently placed her hand on my hand on the table with the intention to help ground me. I noticed it and felt it, but I felt so safe in my head still. It took me what felt like a long time, but maybe just a couple minutes, to come back from it. And she just very patiently waited for me. “My hand was the one you reached for,” of course, represents this physical reaching out, as well as the countless times she reached out and supported me the best she could during some of the hardest years of my life. I felt so unlovable back then, so to be seen and loved through it began to guide me on a steadier path to healing. Her compassion she freely and non-judgmentally holds helped me find my own compassion for self again.
“Long Live”, 2020
To me, “I vowed not to cry anymore” symbolizes no more restricting, purging or cutting as I am dedicated to my recovery now. I’ve found safer avenues of expressing myself and no longer show my pain on my body. I was once desperate to be seen in the pain I was unable to verbalize and I was also desperate to numb that pain because it was all too much. The issue is that I would attempt to numb the pain, and I numbed it too much through dangerous methods, so much so, that the pain would come out in even bigger, more overwhelming ways once the numbing wore off — it wasn’t being properly soothed.
I know how to care for myself today. I use my voice now — through both writing and speech. I speak up when things feel wrong and I find solace in also sharing when things are good and well in my world. And I treat my body and mind with kindness and love today.
I cry maybe once a week or every few weeks now — it’s a therapeutic way to release emotions and to feel better in time. What matters most to me through my tears is that I am better equipped now to soothe myself with distress tolerance skills and I tell myself affirmations like, “It’s ok to feel this way” and “You are safe” as opposed to how I used to shame myself for feeling big emotions, which mirrored how I was yelled at or ignored growing up whenever I cried. Perhaps tears are not a “bad”, shameful thing, but are actually a vessel of healing worth exploring through kinder eyes. Although I often didn’t feel safe growing up, I feel immensely safe and loved in my body today. I am my own best healer and friend.
“Inner Child Healing”, 2023
“Telling me to punish you for things you never did” reminds me of punishing the wrong people at times as I felt defensive from being harmed by others. My compassion runs deep for the people I mistakenly hurt along the way when I couldn’t hold the right people accountable.
The truth I am learning now is that I was a child and I didn’t have the right tools or ability to properly help myself. They were very confusing circumstances and my mania also fueled me in unhealthy ways, understandably. I truly was not able to be my best self.
The science shows us that my emotional reactions at the time made perfect sense for the trauma and instigators given, and yet my empathy and strong morals still self-blame today; I care a lot and I never want to hurt anyone. I still struggle to forgive myself for my missteps, but when I imagine a younger version of me, I can’t help but feel deep compassion for her. Perhaps not every adult showed compassion for me when I was hurting as a child, but I am the keeper of the light now.
“Always remember” that compassion. Turn your pain into power. Turn your compassion into passionate work. Fight stigma — never yourself. For me, I like to practice seeing a metaphorical stigma — even this evil force of unkindness that takes control of people — rather than simply just people who stigmatize. People can unlearn stigma. I unlearned stigma. We often learn discrimination through our upbringings and social norms, so knowing this, we have to be given the chance to unlearn it. In the great unlearn, sometimes as we grow, we have to move on from those who don’t hold the same desire to be better and ban together with those willing to put in the work.
There are a few relationships I’ve lost from that time — some “reason or a season” and some let go due to the trauma. It’s hard when you want to make amends with the learnings of today when you didn’t have this hindsight — or even this knowing that things would get better and that you would recover. It felt so hopeless back then. I didn’t think I’d be alive in my twenties. I work to be a good person and a good friend, and I have also left others “broken and blue”. Sometimes kids “cause problems” or “act out” when they can’t voice they’ve been harmed themselves.
“Memory garden” is reminiscent of my writings and artwork. My work will be my legacy one day when I’m gone. As a suicide attempt survivor, I share content I’m most proud of and feel true in my heart. The community support is so useful to me, as it instills togetherness. I also find comfort in the idea of my loved ones being able to always see a history of my life for comfort and reminders of who I was and how I loved them.
It is a desolate feeling to know I was once shamed and punished for my openness. My authenticity is widely celebrated and admired today. I only ever want to be human.
I was at war with my body and mind the most, so I feel at peace to know I no longer fight myself.
How I was treated by some wasn’t fair. At the same time, the lack of mental health training and sensitivity for mental illness isn’t fair. Stigma isn’t fair. Mental illness isn’t fair. Trauma isn’t fair. All of this can be true.
The progression to “And we will never go back” gives me immediate comfort every listen. A smile forms on my face and I feel at peace. I may taste the salty tears, and yet here I am smiling. I naturally feel emotions very deeply in my body, and when I hear this line, as cliché as my reaction may sound, I feel a weight lifted from my shoulders and chest; I feel like I can finally breathe.
Feeling like a problem and so broken back then was the norm for me, and I feel whole today. This song validates how I’ve worked to put the pieces back together again — with the help of others along with my growing self compassion.
“Held. Rooted. Uplifted.”, 2022
I hold clarity as an adult who has found safety and healing. The effects of mental illness and trauma can be ugly and unfavorable at times, and I’ve also always been kind, giving and compassionate. We can make mistakes as children who are in deep pain and we can do better once we feel better.
As a college student, my experiences today have been vastly different from my tumultuous, shame-pointed teenage days. I haven’t felt judged or stigmatized. I feel safe here.
I am in recovery now. I don’t have to go back to the eating disorder. Or self harm. Or isolating. I’m free now. I’m understood. I’m healed and I’m healing.
“We survived.” Always remember the hands reaching out. Always remember your heart finally being seen. You’ll never forget the pain, but your mind will always feel at peace remembering the helpers and continuing to find the helpers today.
“You Are Welcome at My Table”, 2022
Having this past where I felt like I was judged for “feeling too much”, I know my heart is my true gift. We are the artists, the writers, the creatives, the healers. I hope you never put yourself down for caring and for feeling deeply. Your heart, even if it’s translucent with sensitivity, is needed in this world. Your sensitivity makes you wise and compassionate. In time, you will find your people — your people will respect, reciprocate and remember. May our hearts be beautifully delicate and may our hands be open and out-reached.
I wrote in poetry several years ago that my heart belongs to this world. I am careful of the energy I take in and am conscious of my boundaries, and also, my love and compassion do belong to this world. I want to give back the love I’ve received over the years. Paying the love forward creates a domino effect of goodness. The other side of deep pain is feeling immense joy, love and peace. It’s meaningful for me to show my love today because I once only ever hid in my pain and concealed who I was.
The same day I published this piece, 13 hours later, Taylor Swift’s surprise song for The Eras Tour in Tampa was The Great War, which she performed with co-writer Aaron Dessner. Sometimes the universe has its ways of telling you that you’ll be alright.