How Writing Is More Powerful for Healing Than You Think
Major (ret.) Joshua Mantz is the author of The Beauty of a Darker Soul, a book dedicated to helping people overcome emotionally traumatic experiences. A graduate of West Point, Josh served as an Infantry Officer in the US Army for nearly a decade and is the recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor. He is a highly sought-after speaker on the topic of emotional trauma, having shared his message at TEDx, Got Your 6, and hundreds of other events.
This incredible author shares his journey of writing his book and how revealing his Darker Soul was so important to its success.
Here are the highlights of my conversation with Josh:
Josh got killed by a sniper on his trip to Baghdad while on duty and he flatlined for 15 minutes. He now uses his experience to help others heal from dark moments. And today, he’s sharing some insights into dealing with traumatic experiences.
He also talks about his writing journey and the power that comes from storytelling, writing, and the art of giving your message to the world. His book, The Beauty of a Darker Soul, is mainly the subject of this conversation.
[02:05] Josh’s Near Death Experience: Translating His Story into Writing
On his trip to Baghdad, Josh got shot and killed by a sniper and died for 15 minutes before being revived. Two years later, he began speaking. He partnered with the Department of Defense so he can help people begin to overcome emotionally traumatic experiences.
The book outlines his ten-year emotional journey afterwards as he sought to find meaning in his second life. The challenge in terms of the book writing for him is that his near death experience was a captivating thing for people. And it’s so easy to get distracted by storytelling. At first, he was resistant to it because he didn’t feel ready. He didn’t just want to tell the story. But he wanted to leverage it in a way that can help transform the lives of other people.
Josh explained how that was a dangerous journey being on the brink of suicide for multiple times, fighting through the shadows of shame, guilt, depression, and anxiety. It was that whole process of navigating through all those in order for him to uncover the truth behind trauma. And this was what led to this book. That being said, Josh just had to trust himself. Additionally, he got the best advice from someone telling him not to write a book just because he wanted it but write a book because you feel like you have to.
Had Josh done this five or six years ago, it would have been a cool, inspirational story but it wouldn’t have otherwise helped people transform their own lives and apply the experience into their lives.
[06:30] The Goal of the Book: Transformational
Josh explains the book is geared to helping people understand one of the most complex topics out there, which is also often too misunderstood, which is emotional trauma and how to integrate those experiences into our lives.
On the other hand, Josh considers this writing experience as the most transformational and therapeutic thing he has ever done. When he was doing the TED Talk, he already knew he could help transform the lives of others. And once the talk began to mature, Josh felt the need to capture this whole thing in book format.
[08:43] The Challenges of Writing His Near Death Experience
A person is usually called on flatline when he/she is already on a 6-minute mark since this is the point when catastrophic brain damage starts to set in. But his medical team never gave up and so it pulled off this miracle where he got revived after 15 minutes. More surprisingly, he woke up with no trace of brain damage. Not to mention, he had full recollection of the event from the moment he got shot to the moment he took his last breath and transitioned to death, which he could describe in detail.
Josh explains that human beings have a natural tendency to compare experiences with other people. As a result, we tend to minimize our own experiences. He says, people’s response to his talk would be that they’ve never been through anything he’s been through and then they’d share their own experience. Josh understands they’re trying to be humble but when it comes to resolving our own experiences, one should remember that trauma does not discriminate and that it’s not what it seems.
So Josh wanted to leverage the power of this near death experience to emotionally engage the audience and the reader. While at the same time, he had to keep it welcoming enough so they have the courage to validate and recognize the source of their own pain. That being said, he found it tricky, trying to figure out a way that he can use his experience so other people can apply it to their own lives.
[12:43] Shame is the Master Emotion, and Guilt is the Deadly Cousin
Josh has a firm belief that the root of traumatic experiences are the deepest emotions – shame, powerlessness, betrayal, and guilt. Again, he underlines that trauma isn’t what it seems. However, people see an experience such as getting killed and coming back to life as the holy grail of trauma. So he thought there should be something wrong and he should be emotionally challenged by this experience. He actually was able to feel this very deep, dark void, but he didn’t know what it is. He then assumed it must be his near death experience.
It wasn’t until a decade after that he gave himself permission to recognize that it was everything before and after that experience. This stems back to the death of his father when he was 7, the totality of the entire deployment to Baghdad, living with Crohn’s disease, relationship issues.
Apparently, the things happening throughout our own lives are harder to navigate through compared to things that appear “traumatic” on the surface such as the near death experience of getting shot.
[15:40] Dealing with Guilt and Coming Back to His Second Life
As it turns out, the same bullet that killed him also killed one of his men. Upon waking up two days after his injury, he learned his comrade didn’t survive. Josh would define trauma as a traumatic experience, situation, or event that fundamentally alters the way we believe the world should work. So in this context, he knew things like this were bound to happen. Hence, Josh was initially reluctant to label this as a “survivor’s guilt,” thinking that it meant he lived and his team member died.
However, he discovered that guilt is the driving force behind everything. And he acknowledges that his guilt started at West Point. And it was revealed to him as part of his writing process is that he was emotionally affected by the fact that he was surrounded by worst types of injuries being there. So he felt this guilt in his ability to heal when others couldn’t. This was coupled with not being with his team. He realized it had nothing to do with losing one of his guys. And it as important to be able to distinguish that.
Josh adds that guilt and shame have the capacity to infect the deepest, darkest corners of your soul like a form of cancer. It can dominate and control your life in ways you don’t even recognize or understand, until you reach stage 4. And you find yourself in a crisis point.
[21:30] What is Moral Injury?
Josh tends to shy away from what people know as moral injury since it leads people to think that one has committed some type of atrocity. Instead, the large picture here is the moral, ethical, and spiritual wounds.
When our perception of an event gets flipped upside down by an extreme event, it can start to impact the way we feel about ourselves. So the process of integrating that is what leads to true transformation.
[23:15] Healing is a Journey, Not a Fixed Point in Time
Josh admits that the book’s draft could have been published two years ago, but he realized he had so much growth and healing to do. So there were points throughout his writing process that he had made some assumptions that he had overcome his part experiences. And that he’s off to moving on. But he learned how healing is actually a journey and so there’s never a fixed point in time. And so is transformation. It’s never a fixed point in time.
Then a year ago, he had it done and thought it was good to go. But he had a massive relationship failure that set him into what he describes as the worst spiral of his life. Thinking he had hit rock bottom before, he realized this one was more severe. He reached a point of going through anxiety attacks and sleepless nights. His last resort was to go home with his family. But it was through this fog that a clear epiphany has emerged, allowing him to break through the process. Josh then realized that human connection is everywhere. It doesn’t just rest in one person, be it romantic or not. Another thing that emerged after a couple of months, was realizing that healing is a journey.
He had to look back on the words of John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame that Binds You. He was then honest enough to acknowledge that he hasn’t yet resolved the shame and guilt he thought he did. It could have been expressing itself in a different way and he hasn’t uncovered the root cause of it. He then had to go through the deepest introspection, which involves diving into the darkest, deepest corners of his soul. He knew he had to not only understand that truth behind trauma, but to also find the words to express it in ways that other people could benefit and internalize the principles themselves.
[29:45] The Weakness of Shame and Guilt
Looking back, Josh realized that he was inadvertently hiding behind the shield of his own story. And though he has been doing hundreds of talks to help other people and without any intention to suppress anything, he actually realized the story served as his shield.
Josh makes this very sensible point that at its core, shame is this deep internal self-hatred, where we feel worth less than others. And what better way to cover it up than to make a positive and profound difference in the life of somebody else, even if you don’t know it. So initially, the speaking circuit was that shield. And then when it died out, he thought he was getting better but it didn’t. The shame and guilt only went into remission. And they’d always find ways to express themselves and control you in ways you might not realize they’re happening again. And for Josh, this turned out to be a series of unhealthy relationships. He tried to turn into a savior for women with traumatic pasts. And then where relationships weren’t there, he turned to alcohol. He adds that it took the universe slapping him around enough times until he finally got the hint.
Currently, Josh describes being in a much different place now. He did ask himself whether he did it to cover up himself or that because he wanted to do it. And the difference between the two is crucial, according to Josh. He explains that shame and guilt have a weakness and that’s by shedding light on them and finding the root cause. We never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s about living in the present moment and surrounding yourself with a network of close friends and people who can support you.
[34:40] The Power of Awareness
Josh explains that truth and humility can hide behind shame and guilt if you’re cognizant of it. So it all boils down to awareness. The power that experiences can have over us is sometimes unnoticeable. He goes on to say that sometimes we need to place blind trust and faith in those closest to us in order to take the next steps forward.
He can remember many times where people in his life recognized red flags in him before he could recognize them himself. They had the courage to approach him which led to very uncomfortable situations, but good thing he had the courage to listen. And even if he couldn’t agree or couldn’t understand what they were talking about it at that time, he allowed himself to be receptive to it. He realized he had to be humble enough to realize that sometimes other people know more about us than we know about ourselves.
It’s that receptivity to feedback that kept Josh alive. Their words planted seeds of healing that would grow at the time he needed them, which is often years later.
[36:55] How to Build that Human Connection – People that Can Plant Seeds of Healing in Your Life
Josh explains that it’s all about the closest relationships in your life. Being a professional speaker and author, he could help people. But really, true long-lasting, sustainable healing happens at the ground level. It happens at the community level and within our network of closed family members and friends and co-workers.
So when you reach situations of emotional distress, it could be very difficult to talk about it. Add to that this belief that we don’t want to burn other people with our problems that we tend to suppress it. But realize that people closest to you would actually be honored that you trusted them with that experience. So try to reach out to these people. Josh recommends reaching out to at least ten people in your circle. This way, you’re not only tapping out one person all day long. Regardless of how many, just identify the people in your life who can support you and you can support them and build that relationship. Be willing to have the courage to call upon them if necessary.
There were times he thought nobody could understand him, but each time, they would always prove him wrong. There was always someone in his life who had the strength and courage to plant those healing seeds in his mind.
Finally, Josh encourages everyone to grab a copy of his book. He invites you to find the strength to look at it through your own lens and apply those experiences into your own life and through your own ways because trauma is universal.
The proceeds of the sale of Josh’s book on its first week will be donated to the Integrated Recovery Foundation in Southern California, a new nonprofit treatment center that treat sexually-assaulted women in the military.
Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw