Why Writing Can Help Heal Depression – 2

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As I discussed in this earlier post, writing has helped heal the depression that dominated decades of my life. That post reviewed James Pennebaker’s research, as summarized in Opening Up, but said little about how I go about writing to confront the most powerful feelings and maintain the progress I’ve made in recovery. For writing is an important activity for sustaining my health as well as for healing. So how do I get the writing done – and how did I manage to do it when life was still dominated by depression?

First, I had to get past not just the fears writing brought up but all the self-defeating habits of earlier attempt to write. Louise DeSalvo’s essential book, Writing as a Way of Healing, has a great list of the ways people can undermine writing as a healing process and even worsen their feelings. My own list included these beliefs.

  • If my writing is no good, I’m no good.

  • If the first draft isn’t great, there’s no point in finishing.

  • No one can see this until it’s perfect.

  • If X thinks this piece of writing isn’t perfect, I’ll never write one of those again.

  • I must write novels to be really successful.

  • Writing journals isn’t really writing.

  • I can’t write until I have more time.

  • I can’t write until I’m in the right mood.

I could extend the list, but this gives you the idea. My assumptions guaranteed that I would spend a lot more time avoiding writing than doing it. What I did finish was never good enough for me, and often I would give up for years at a time, telling myself I just couldn’t do it.

I started thinking differently about writing one day when I described a painful experience in a letter. Someone I hardly knew had heard that I had cancer and wrote to tell me of his own experience with the same type of cancer I had. I was moved by that and wrote back. I put down exactly what I had gone through and what I had felt at each stage. I wasn’t at all self-conscious about what I was doing, and when my wife read the letter, she immediately said: “This sounds just like you – it’s so real.”

I felt good about what I had written, but more importantly I felt better emotionally. There was something about writing to a specific person and trying to convey just what I was going through that opened a door to feelings I usually held back. I started then on a piece of fiction in the form of a series of letters. Again, I could bring out the feelings of each event I was describing – it might have been fiction, but I was writing about my own struggles.

The next step was realizing that until I could write through what I had actually lived and reached my own feelings about it all, there was no other writing I could do. I saw how important it could be – no matter how hard – to use writing as part of the recovery process. Medication, therapy, all the exercise in the world weren’t getting me very far. But expressing the most powerful experiences in written words was changing me on a deep level.

I began writing journals, sometimes about the traumatic experiences of the past, sometimes about that day’s events and emotions, or about connecting on a feeling level with simple things – the sight of a neighbor playing with his ten year old son, running into an old friend.

Gradually, I worked out a new set of attitudes and practices about writing.

  • Writing is an important way of learning about my life, not a measure of my value as a person.

  • If a piece of writing isn’t capturing an experience very well, I can improve it by revising.

  • Sharing and talking about my writing with others adds to what I’m learning and stimulates further exploration.

  • Writing short pieces or breaking up longer ones into small sections is the best way for me to work.

  • Writing every day – even brief notes, ideas, impressions – feels good and reinforces my skills.

  • Writing is a part of my life, like close relationships, not a separate activity that I can only do under special circumstances.

  • I can always write something, no matter what my mood is. If I’m in a bad mood, I can write about that.

Such a complete turnabout from the beliefs I used to hold didn’t come easily or quickly. To begin moving from one state of mind to the other, I had to focus on a single form of writing, that of the letter. In each one I spoke to a specific person and described as closely as I could exactly what I was feeling and learning. I avoided thinking of this as Writing – which felt like the dead-end road to judgment. Instead, it was personal talk that came naturally.

That helped me focus on an essential dimension of writing: discovery. As I described what I felt, I was also learning what each experience meant to me and how much emotion I had always tried to bury. even about immediate, smaller moments of each day.

Writing became more transparent, helping me see myself and what I experienced every day, rather than deflecting my mind toward outcomes and judgments of self-worth. It took a long time for the changes to get inside me as a part of everyday life. It also took a while for me to recognize that this process had become an essential part of recovery from depression. By that time, I had started on this blog, and its healing effect was clear to me every day.

How about your experience? Have you had the problem of confusing the writing with your self-worth and turning it into another weapon of depression? What practical steps do you take to sustain the healing power of writing?

10 Responses to “Why Writing Can Help Heal Depression – 2”

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  1. Bewildered says:

    I think I may have caused a bit of confusion here.

    I am using a forum as a platform because it enables me to structure posts differently. It is still really a blog though, as I only allow comments, not posts.

    Allowing people to create posts would defeat my purpose and my forum was never designed to create a community as such.

    Thought I would just clarify the forum Vs blog reason.

    • john says:

      Hi, Bewildered –

      Thanks for clarifying – I see how it works. The grouping by threads is helpful, and setting up the chronology is much better. I think there are advantages and disadvantages for both the blog and forum structures. Soon, I’ll be introducing a different way of organizing the material here to make it easier to find things.


  2. char brooks says:

    i think writing on a forum or blog is really useful. it helps to be witnessed in a supportive community. others comments can be very helpful to lending perspective.

    i love how you introduce ideas here for getting through difficult experiences.

    • john says:

      Thank you, Char –

      A forum is great because there’s more exchange directly between the members, while blog comments tend to be just with the blogger. But the support from both has meant a great deal for my recovery.

      Thanks for coming by.


  3. Oh boy…::breathes deeply:: you struck a nerve with this one. Thank you!

    I write for some of the same reasons.


    • john says:

      Hello, Victor –

      I’m glad you could make a connection with this post. I’ll check out your blog.

      Thanks for commenting.


  4. Bewildered says:

    Dear John,
    No that doesn’t sound right……………..

    Hi John,
    I found your blog about 3 months ago and identified so much with what I was reading, I started at your first entry in 2007 and read all your entries up to nearly the end of 2008.

    I have always balked at suggestions to keep a journal and have started, then abandoned, blogs about my own depression several times. But your aim of “self enlightenment” through writing down your thoughts made sense to me.

    I started a Blogger blog, but found it too limiting in posts being chronological and decided to use a forum structure instead.

    I have made it public, which scares the hec out of me, but felt any comments people made would be good for my ability to handle confrontation and criticism. It is hard work and takes me ages to organize my thoughts when making a post.

    Your current post makes me feel less of a fool in attempting to keep a “journal” and I thank you for writing in such a way that depressed people can see themselves in you. I’m glad I bookmarked your site.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Bewildered – I’m glad the site is helpful – I must say it sounds like a daunting task to read through this whole blog from the beginning – I don’t think I could do it!

      I hope you’ll never think of yourself as a fool for attempting to write in any format – or feel constrained to write to fit that format, whether journal, blog or forum. I’ve found people in the blogging world – at least this corner of it – to be full of empathy rather than sharply critical – or confrontational. I’ve benefited almost as much from the exchange of ideas through comments here and on other blogs as I have from writing. A forum is an interesting idea as an alternative to blogging – it is a much older form of internet writing and proves its value over and over again.

      I hope the writing can be a renewing experience for you.


  5. Wendy Love says:

    Occasionally I have written out feelings, often ugly confused feelings, just to get them out. Sometimes that was necessary. Sometimes it helped. Other times I have found that writing out all of the negative thoughts just reinforces those thoughts and instead of freeing me of them, makes them seem even more overwhelming and I obsess even further. I need to decide which kind of writing is necessary at what time. But just writing itself, because I love writing, has become therapeutic. So for me doing what I love is therapeutic. As it turns out, writing is supposed to be therapeutic for most people just as a massage feels good to most people. I would suggest to anyone going through depression to try writing, lots of different kinds of writing. Maybe try writing about something that doesn’t matter, something totally fictional, or whimsical. Just the act of writing may be something to add to your depression toolkit. Thanks for talking about writing John. You always see angles that I have not observed and I learn from you.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Wendy –

      Those are good thoughts – I like the freedom you give yourself to decide what sort of writing will work best for you at a given moment. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of feeling constrained by someone else’s rules about the “right” way to do it in order to get a therapeutic effect. Doing what you love is the most important thing. I’ve never felt better since starting to write all the time – it’s one of the activities that renews me at a deep level, and I don’t feel right if I can’t do it for a while.

      Thanks for coming by –


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