When I say that writing can serve as therapy, I am speaking from personal experience. Back in 2000, I struggled with depression in the early months of that year. It’s difficult to describe what I felt back then -- something deeper than feeling lonely, frustrated at work, or sad at losing a loved one. A numbness lingered.
I felt nothing then except that everything was wrong and everything needed to change. But I had no idea where or how to begin that process of change. I felt stuck in mud. Alas, this happens to so many people at one time or another, and not just to artistically-inclined people but to plumbers and CEOs and truck drivers too.
I began seeing a therapist, but had no idea how the process was supposed to work. I’d just sit on a chair in my therapist’s office until the hour was over, nodding and offering monosyllabic answers, and then go back home.
I mostly talked numbly about books and politics. My therapist was an avid reader. But she was wise enough to see that I wanted to talk about anything else but what I needed to talk about: what I was or wasn't feeling.
People in denial often organize their lives around their denial -- they work endlessly to keep from noticing the elephant in the room. Sadly, some people do this all their lives. My therapist would listen patiently as I spoke about books or writing, and then she'd say quietly, firmly, “the only way around is through. You can’t just keep going around.” But I kept on talking in circles.
“Why don’t you just write about what you're feeling?”, she asked me one day, frustrated at my unwillingness to talk about what mattered. “You don’t have to do anything with it, you needn’t show it to me or anyone else unless you want to, but writing about it might help you find some meaning.” I told her I wasn't feeling anything in particular, but I took her advice anyway and began writing.
Writing forced me to grapple with feelings I was working overtime to avoid (aloneness, fear, insecurity, and uncertainty) and it compelled me to observe myself from a certain authorial distance. And yes, it started me on a search to make meaning of what I was (or wasn't) feeling. I had to tell a story, if only for myself, and that process changed everything
So I'd sit in front of a computer screen at 7pm each evening and try to feel and write at the same time. I sometimes cried more than I wrote, an acknowledgement of my own helplessness and a way to begin accepting feelings I wanted to push away but that always seemed to return.
One thing I learned then, and have never forgotten, is that it's okay to admit you're helpless, feeling alone, afraid, and broken. You have to admit those things in order to be human and to connect with others. All compassion for others comes from knowing how vulnerable we all are. You can hate your own vulnerabilities and limitations (as I sometimes do), but you can't deny them.
I wrote ten chapters of about fifteen pages each. I found that I was unable to get any distance from facts or feelings, that it was a struggle to gain any clarity at all. I was the classic unreliable narrator. Nothing I wrote felt like it had happened to me, but it wasn’t about anyone else.
I liked none of it, not the person at the center of the narrative nor the writer nor the finished book itself. Nor the struggle it took to write and feel each day at 7pm. But I learned then that our mental health is intimately connected to the stories we tell ourselves.
I brought the pages into my therapist, and we started to use them as a basis for the first "real" discussions we'd had. I was still talking about writing, but it was my own writing, my own experiences and reflections. It was a breakthrough, our first. She read and asked questions, and I tried to answer them honestly, even if that meant opening up difficult feelings (trust me, it meant exactly that). These conversations were raw and painful, but they helped me re-connect with myself.
Of course, the writing itself was terrible, as unprocessed as my feelings were then. This is an important lesson for all creative people -- you need to know yourself in order to connect with others. The writer (me) had no perspective on anything. The narrative was a way for me to place my hands along the walls as I moved through murky rooms, stumbling along to feel the shape of where I was.
I had gained what psychologists call “agency,” meaning I was finally an actor in my own life, taking some control even if just to shape meaning from the mess. The stories we tell ourselves and others are what makes us human. We need connection to be well.
The last chapter of my "therapy memoir" was written over sixteen years ago, and I found it in an old box in a closet a few weeks back. Re-reading the chapters, I was struck by how little authorial distance I had. The book was anything but art, which takes perspective and deep self-understanding.
But that “writing project” had served its primary purpose, which was to get me moving toward the light. I'm still moving. We all grow and learn, mostly because we don't have any other choice in life. I learned so much from using writing as therapy -- that feelings can't be denied, no matter how frightening they seem. You have to go through, not around, no matter how long the journey takes. You have to tell yourself stories that heal instead of hurt: nobody else can do that for you. And if you can't live your story out loud, you can try writing it down. It's a good beginning.
Writing can be many things -- connecting us to our better selves and to the generosity of others. We can (and will) lose our way, but we can regain it. Writing helped do that for me then, and it still does.
How about you, dear reader . . .have you used writing for therapeutic purposes?