As I discussed in this earlier post, writing helps 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. It was the clearest example to me of how writing helps heal depression instead of being caught up in the turmoil of the illness. 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?