Why I Stopped Selling My Pain: On The Commodification Of Trauma

I don't have to make money off of my suffering to be valuable.

  • Isabel Abbott

Written on Apr 12, 2022

woman looking at phone Maridav / Shutterstock

Any casual scrolling online will offer up a kaleidoscope of trauma narratives complete with selfies, traumatic stories used to sell me everything from self-care e-courses to commitment to the cause, the sharing of other people’s traumatic experiences of violence without their consent as means to “raising awareness” or making sure one doesn’t look uninformed and uncaring, and triumphant trauma mastery or redemptive good survivor slogans that are intended to uplift while garnering a bevy of likes and growing social capital.


This trauma sharing is sometimes called “brave” which is a clear indicator it will boost your numbers on socials and signups for whatever you are selling, and sometimes it is framed as an antidote to toxic positivity which glosses over suffering and oppression and asks #goodvibes only.

You might also see it coupled with the word “vulnerability” and has become part of an entire way of relating which associates the sharing of painful life experiences as a means of going deeper and growing closeness with others, and if you watch any of the reality tv dating shows, this often times seems to come with the idea that if you share something personal and vulnerable to others you don’t really know or are getting to know than they owe you something back.


And not care and kindness, but a vulnerable share in return or a relationship or marriage proposal.

In movement building, the public sharing of traumatic stories is used to theoretically awaken awareness and empathy and bring about action, though it is not always clear on Instagram when something is motivating change in the collective and when it is circulating the most painful things in other people’s lives without any real awareness of their humanity.

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Trauma is, without question, a currency. Sometimes it is the entrance fee. Sometimes it is the check that pays your bills. Sometimes it is the price of belonging. Sometimes it is the dues of igniting a vision. Trauma sells.


I used to sell my own. It was how I knew to make it in the world, how I survived in capitalism, and how I once experienced a kind of connection, trying to matter in something bigger than myself. It would come with an initial sense of exposure and rush of possibly of being seen, quickly followed by emptiness.

Because of all the people whom I knew and those who were complete strangers, most of the time no one had actually asked, and if they had asked, it was not because they wanted to know me in order to care for my life, but rather because they wanted to know if it would help us grow our numbers and reach more people for the work we were doing.

I did not know anything different, so I played along for a very long time. In doing so, I lost what was most valuable to me. Everyone else had more of me than I did.

I am one of those people who has a “big story.” The kind that makes other people see you differently once they know. The kind that has an allure of intrigue around it, because the trauma is so terrible and the circumstances so atypical and my life did not and has not fit into any of the boxes of what a life is supposed to be or look like.


When others hear my stories, know the “big story,” listen to the trauma, a kind of voyeurism often takes over, which is curiosity that distances. It is also a life that made me incredibly perceptive of patterns and sent me seeking understanding, and I became a person who could craft together narratives of why things happened the way they did and why that matters, how exactly that pertains to the current crisis and why this should motivate all of us to want a different world.

I found that there were those who would use this to grow the cause, which I too believed in, and this would feel like a kind of intimacy or aliveness.

My stories mattered and my trauma meant something. It also was depleting. I grew exhausted from the demands I placed on myself to come up with think pieces on whatever was currently happening, excavating my marginalized identities and how I have been hurt to prove the validity of my words.

I realized that when it came time to my actual physical needs and living with the very real impact of this trauma, the same people who wanted my stories for the work were nowhere to be found. It was the currency of what I had to tell that was valuable; I was disposable.


I also used to be a writer, and writing was one of my primary means of expression and connection. At first, there were blogs, then the social media of Facebook and Instagram, and writing articles that would get published and send more people to your own sites.

I know things have moved on to other platforms since these; I simply have not moved with them.

Writing here could feel good like there was direct communication and immediate gratification. And, a very specific and disturbing pattern arose. Writing about trauma and suffering gained me more likes and followers than anything else. As they say in journalism and media, “It bleeds, it leads.”

When I wrote about ideas, re-imaging a future, creativity, pleasure, and what it is like to be human in its full range of experiences, people did not want to read or engage.


It wasn’t interesting enough to sell. Trauma and being willing to bleed out the big stories are the currency that opens doors, gets you in places, gets you enough followers to get you book deals.

Your humanity must be proven through offering your suffering for public consumption, and in doing so you are dehumanized. People wanted the stories of trauma, and if there was something good, it had to first be introduced by some kind of suffering to show I had earned this good thing.

I had worked for it. There was no room to live for its own sake because it is my life and I wanted to live it on its own terms. I had given myself away in selling my trauma and there was nothing left for me.

Three years ago, I experienced a brain injury that resulted in significant memory loss. I still have vast memory gaps whereas before I had detailed memory of the minutia, these stories I carried around with me had been crafted from recollection and re-telling.


I lived with them like my oldest companion, used them to remind myself who I was, and then they were just gone. All that was left was the empty space where they had once lived, and the hollow of all the times I gave them away.

Others now had access to parts of me even I did not have access to. It is a strange and surreal experience. It made what had been a long process of disentangling become starkly clear. I opted out, closed accounts, and ceased commodifying my trauma.

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Though I have much less memory; my life is now my own.

I am not against social media or sharing online. It can be such a beautiful thing. It can connect. It can make the world so much lonely.


I am a disabled chronically ill person who spends a great deal of time in bed. My online friendships are mz real-life friends. There is no distinction for me because my real life doesn’t include a lot of going out to socialize. Knowing there are others who experience life as I do is meaningful to me, and I am liberal with my honesty in sharing what life as a chronically ill disabled person looks like in reality versus the slick pictures we see that paint disabled folks as inspiring or sad warning stories.

And, this is distinct from strangers on the internet being allowed a front-row seat to the worst things that have happened to me. I don’t sell trauma porn anymore, mine or others.

My lived experiences are not here for entertainment, currency for social capital, or as a means to let others exploit them for their purposes while I leave empty. I will never ever tell a survivor they should not speak. It matters that we speak when we want to speak and that we speak truth to power. What I know for myself, is that speaking became fused with selling, and I was done with selling.

These days, my personal and private life is shared with those whom I trust, know, and with whom I experience mutual care. And even then, I am wary of always sharing trauma as a way of going deeper. There are so many forms of intimacy, and it feels good to know they do not all require bleeding out. Whatever art I make from my life, including my lived experiences that are trauma-filled, will have to speak for themselves, and I no longer offer up interpretation and meaning.


When asked to speak at conferences or on podcasts, which I sometimes do, I am honest and say that I will gladly speak on how ableism and capitalism show up in the health and wellness industry or how to be inclusive of neurodiversity in your online spaces, but I will not be selling my own suffering as a means of legitimizing illness and autism.

I will not be sharing deeply painful things as a way of hoping others might have some empathy and do what is right. If they need to know the details of my pain to treat me like a human, that is something they will need to work out on their own.

I am not one of those folks who think all trauma can be healed. I live with mine and it impacts me daily, sometimes more acutely than others. My lived experiences have shaped who I am and there is no real separating them from who I am or how I experience myself. I don’t hold healing as the goal in some transcendent way, or that if I only heal correctly or completely, I will be given all the rewards of normativity.

Those are stories that only crush and uphold the very systems that harm. It is also true that for me, the more I tend to my own hurt places and let myself have what is mine and what belongs to me, to care for myself deeply, the less pull there is to commodify it. It becomes more integrated, and in doing so, more difficult to extract for public consumption. I think this is a good thing.


Thriving and filling up your life with your own self because it is the only life you have, knowing and staying in your own lane, loving and being loved, finding yourself so terribly charmed by bathtubs filled with plants you immediately begin to search for a clawfoot tub for your living room, choosing to give yourself to that which you care for and will not be seen and no one will praise you for or give you likes or social capital and cash for.

This is what was on the other side of selling myself as if these terrible things marked into my own body could ever be given to another in exchange for what is needed to live and not fight back. I am so glad they did, and that the memories either left me so they can no longer be told, or came home again and asked to shut the door behind them.

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Isabel Abbott is a queer disabled artist and writer and the author of Salt + Honey.