April 22, 2015

Memoir Boot Camp: Writing to Heal.


Write it down. Get it out.

Let it fall onto the page so you can laugh and cry and pound your fists and for once Dear God, for once, get it out of your system and make some sense of it all.

These were the first words I wrote that cold January morning, sitting in the living room of a small bungalow I was renting in Berkeley, California. My marriage had just ended, I had no friends, I couldn’t hold down a job, and the stress of being a single mother on top of it all left me isolated and depressed.

Desperate to get my life back on track, I began seeing a therapist. Mary Beth was the quintessential California girl with long blonde hair, perfect skin and teeth, and a relaxed, self-assured manner. One day we were sitting in her light-filled office when she asked me to close my eyes and imagine myself as a girl again. I hesitated at first but finally did as she instructed.

Within seconds I saw a fuzzy picture of myself standing in my foster parent’s kitchen, reading a note taped on the refrigerator. I was fifteen-a skinny, restless fifteen, and had just walked in the door from school when I saw the note:

Your Grandmother died. Funeral this Friday at 2. Miller funeral Home.

“What do you see?” Mary Beth asked.

I shook my head and started to cry.

“You’re safe here,” she said softly. “Take your time, and just start at the beginning.”

I couldn’t stop crying. All the old feelings came rushing back-the loss and the grief, the shame from cutting my grandmother out of my life, a woman who practically raised me.  When Mom was in the mental hospital for months on end Grandma would take care of me, but when she became ill I was shipped off to a foster home and never saw or heard from her again. I hated her for letting them take me away like that, and refused to forgive her. After she died I refused to forgive myself.

When I opened my mouth to tell all this to Mary Beth I couldn’t say the words. All I could do was cry.

“It’s all right,” she said, handing me a Kleenex. “You don’t have to say anything. But what I would like you to do is write about it. You’d mentioned how you used to keep a journal and how much you enjoyed writing. I think it’d be a good exercise for you. Start slow and see what happens. Just give it a try, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, reaching for another Kleenex.

“Remember. Take it slow. And just start at the beginning.”

The next morning I sat down at the computer with a cup of coffee and began to write.  And I did not stop. It was as if the words had finally found a way out and there was no stopping them. I wrote in fits and starts. Wrote until I couldn’t stand to put down another word, and then I’d sit back down and write some more.

Writing allowed me to take the pain within and make it manageable. I became a witness to my own experience, and in so doing I changed my relationship to it.

As I watched my words, phrases and paragraphs come together on the page I could sometimes feel the weight of silence begin to lift, the burden of isolation start to disintegrate. The more I wrote, the more I was able to understand  The more I wrote, the more I was able to let compassion take seed.

The more I wrote, the more I was able to put the pieces of my life back together again.

After my sessions with Mary Beth ended I decided to jumpstart my stalled career, and earned a second Master’s degree in Narrative at Columbia. Now in my psychotherapy practice I specialize in narrative therapy, and guide clients in the process of how to use reflective writing as a healing tool.

It’s important to have guidance during this process because it’s far too easy to be re-traumatized without a skilled professional to steer you away from the pitfalls. Caring for yourself as you write about painful or traumatic experiences is essential. It means getting professional support, making sure you eat nutritious food, getting regular exercise and enough sleep, and socializing with friends and family.

As you begin the writing process the first step is to honor your pain, loss and grief. Sit with it, observe it, and then describe it in detail. Denying or ignoring these feelings gives them power over you. Let your self feel the pain, and tell exactly what happened. Use all the senses when you write about it, and be specific. Remember to balance the positive and negative aspects of the event by describing what sustained you during that difficult time. Then reflect upon the significance of what happened, and how it connects to other experiences in your life.

By telling our stories fully and completely, we create order out of chaos. We begin to develop a resiliency that allows us to thrive despite past trauma. When we honor our pain and face it head on, it loses its grip on us. No longer does it have the power to wreck havoc over our lives.

Writers such as Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and Sapphire, to name only a few, have written about what they have lived through in order to heal themselves. They knew instinctively that through writing we change our relationship to the event and gain confidence in ourselves and in our ability to handle life’s difficulties.

Whether it is a past or current situation that is causing you pain, reflective writing is an important and readily accessible healing tool. The imperative to tell, to make sense of our lives and create meaning is the heart and soul of narrative therapy.

All you have to do is pick up a pen, take a deep breath, and just start at the beginning.




Author: Mary T. Shannon 

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: pascalmaramis at Flickr 

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