Writing to Heal
Last year, I fell into a very dark place. A place I didn’t want to be. Ever. I’ve been there several times before but time threw me a lifeline. This time, though, no matter how hard I tried to find the smallest positives in each day, they faded over time until I was left in the abyss of hopelessness. I felt alone. I felt abandoned. I felt like there was nowhere else to go but down.
I knew I needed to get out of that funk. Have you ever heard the old adage, “Misery loves company?” Well, I can honestly say I completely understand that now. I learned a long time ago that negativity is a killer. Being around anyone who was constantly negative killed my positive outlook on everything, especially during deployments. It was during one of those deployments in which I realized that I was so much happier when I was not around that person. So I cut all ties with her. My vision started looking up and I got through that deployment with a lot less stress. It was my epiphany for the way I needed to live my life.
But what happens when you have that negative voice inside your head screaming and bashing things about? You can’t cut it out of your life as easily as a person. Nope. Those are your thoughts. You own them.
The key comes in admitting you have them, accepting them, understanding them, and moving past them.
It wasn’t until I started doing just that did I realize exactly how the darkness took hold and dragged me down for so long. I’ve been caring for my husband through all his troubles for 15 years now, through all the issues, the problems, the trials, the uncertainty. It’s been a real rough road but it wasn’t until these past 18 months had things been revealed out in the open and I guess they affected me more than I figured they would.
I knew he suffered chronic pain and daily migraines. It was the moods I couldn’t understand. He had been diagnosed with bi-polar and PTSD, but I never knew the extent of the situations that he had gone through. He never went into detail, nor did I press him. I just loved him as best I could and waited through the terrible times. In October 2012, a claim review meeting, he went into some detail about his ordeal that caused him the nightmares. I was in tears for him. I was sure he didn’t tell me, or the VA personnel, everything due to the emotions it invoked in him. He was a wreck and all I wanted to do was fix it for him.
I dwelled on that for the longest. I thought it was my job to fix things. I mean, I was his wife, I was supposed to make him happy, right?! But then things just got worse from there. The pain levels went up. He wasn’t eating. He wasn’t sleeping. But he wouldn’t get out of bed. Then we realized with the introduction of a “new” drug, he had a severe interaction that caused him serotonin syndrome, again.
And then, he told me he was suicidal.
He reassured me he had had an epiphany one day and he would never be that selfish again. But then, the auto-thoughts kicked in. How could I be sure? Depression cycles. How would I know if he went there again? I didn’t even know it this time!
That must have been what threw me over the edge. I plunged so deep I couldn’t claw myself out. I felt alone. Like no one would ever understand. Our situation was unique. I had no joy in anything anymore. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go to work. I didn’t want to wake up. I never smiled anymore. I couldn’t even concentrate enough to work on my novel. Nothing was fun anymore. Everything was such a disappointment. My heart hurt. All I wanted to do was sleep, or run away.
I began having panic attacks for no “apparent” reason. Daily panic attacks. My writing took a turn for the worst as well. I was excited for my new story. I wrote a good outline and back story for it. I even started writing the first draft. Then the words dwindled until they came no more. I think I stopped writing back in October 2013. And that’s when the uncontrollable crying fits took hold of me.
The last time that happened, I had just given birth to my son. I had a reason last time — Postpartum Depression. This time, though, what was my reason? I had none. I just wanted to give up, quit. Because there was no hope that I could see.
I knew straight away what I needed to do but I was so scared. Scared that it would affect my family, my job. What if I lost it all? Scared that it would make me look weak to everyone around. Scared that I was a failure.
But I couldn’t keep this up. I needed help. I made a point to mention it to my doctor the next time I went, which happened to be in November. He prescribed me a mild anti-depressant. The same one I was on during my postpartum depression episode. I think it really only took about a week or two for the haze to begin to clear so I could see the light again. It was faint. But it was there. It’s what started me on my path to healing.
I began to search for help online again. Every other time I searched for help for caregivers, I always came up with those caring for elderly dementia patients. There was no way I could fit in with any of them. No way would they ever comprehend my situation, my struggles. But I kept looking. I honestly don’t remember how I came about it, but I found the VA Caregiver Support Program. It took a lot of gumption for me to call their number. I think I suffered yet another panic attack. But I called. And the lady on the other end was so nice to me. She listened. She told me about the program. She offered ways to help and even signed me up for a seminar that was happening in December, to help caregivers through managing their stress.
Follow-through has never really been my strong suit, especially when it meant leaving my husband and son, all day. I knew I needed this course, even if I already knew the information. I knew I had to go. My husband encouraged me, even. I made the conscious decision, I had to force myself to go.
It was one of the hardest things for me to do. But I did it. And I’m so glad I did because when I was sitting there, going through the class, listening to all the other ladies talk about their home life, their struggles, crying for them, for me, I realized I wasn’t alone!
During that same time, I received an email from my local writers’ group. The coordinator was having 4 different sessions throughout December where she would talk about the ways in which writing can heal. I signed up for one. And then I changed my mind and cancelled. After my VA Caregiver class, I knew this was another stepping stone in my healing journey so I rescheduled for another date. I made sure I went to that one as well.
It was a small class, and yes, I was the youngest one there and everyone else had different reasons for attending — most came because they couldn’t get passed the grief they felt from losing their spouse. Me, always the oddball.
Didn’t matter though, I got through it. It was through this course that I decided it was high time I admitted the feelings I had, not hide them away, confront them and accept them. It was causing me undue stress, mental and physical health issues, and just down right negative all the way around. I didn’t like it at all. During this class I found my coping mechanism. And rather than keep it hidden, I owned my feelings and put them out for the world to see, here on this blog. My goal is two-fold — to help me heal and to help others passing by to know they are not alone.
So, what did I learn?
I learned about the Expressive Writing Technique. It is said to be beneficial for a healthy body and mind, great for relationships, provides you with a safe environment, and is a powerful tool for stress management. It can strengthen your immune system by reducing the stress hormones your body releases. Studies have also showed how this technique can reduce the effects of a traumatic event. It is not limited to any one group. Anyone can use this technique in order to work through a really bad day at work to PTS symptoms to caregiver stress. It doesn’t matter who you are. (If you are uncomfortable with words, you can also use a similar method with painting or drawing what is troubling you.)
What is the Expressive Writing Technique?
It is personal writing that explores the feelings of the writer. Simple as that.
How do you do it?
Well, there is not one right way to do this. In fact, I’ve been doing something very similar ever since I could write. The only difference is, this course gave me structure and a time limit.
The power of words!
You know that old saying we teach our children, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me” ? Well, it’s an unfortunate LIE! Words have power. Depending on how you use those words will determine whether or not they are helpful or harmful. So, when those negative auto-thoughts pop up in your head and you start listening to them, try doing the following:
Over the next two to three days, find your most comfortable, happy place where you won’t be interrupted for 15 to 20 minutes. Sit down with either a pen and notebook, or your laptop. Some will swear by the long hand. Me, I have this thing where my inner editor hates my handwriting, so I chose the computer every time. Take that negative auto-thought and write it down. Or you can choose to write about an illness, injury, pain, trauma, loss, grief, or stress. It doesn’t matter. Just pick something and write it down. And it doesn’t have to be the same thing over the course of these few days. Also, don’t worry about grammar or punctuation or anything. Just write.
If you feel overwhelmed at any time during your writing, take a break. Return to a breathing and grounding exercise. Slowly inhale through your nose. Find the peace you know to be inside you. Recall that place. Then slowly let that overwhelming feeling seep out through your mouth in your exhale.
You do not need to share, or even read what you’ve written, although many people find it helpful to do so. You can ball it up and throw it away, or keep it to revisit later.
Write your way through the questions below, to bring the issue full circle.
Situation: What’s disturbing the peace of your heart, body, or mind right now?
Body: What does your body feel right now? Any pain or tension? Where? Has this feeling changed over time? If so, how?
Feelings: What comes up when you think about this situation? What else? How have your feelings changed over time?
Self: How does the situation affect how see yourself? What one thing could you do for yourself right now?
Others: How does the matter affect the way you see others? How has this changed over time?
Future: How does this affect the way you see the future? What changes do you see?
Add: What meaning does it bring into your life right now?
Ok, so I’m sure you want to see what I wrote for my very first exercise. I am, after all, exposing my soul and admitting and accepting my feelings. So here’s what was going through my head. Watch how it goes from negative to positive.
(remember, grammar and punctuation aren’t counted here!)
Situation: The chronic pain my husband suffers is taking a toll on me. He is constantly in pain and I haven’t been able to see any light or any way out. I miss the man I married over 24 years ago. I want a normal life a normal marriage.
Body: I’ve had a heavy chest and panic attacks. I’ve been unable to control my crying which leads me to writers block and worry that I’m making my husband worse. I think I may have exaserbated my IBS as well since I have been sick my entire vacation.
Feelings: A vicious cycle that gets my head whirling. I cant stop thinking about the future worrying about my husband. I feel guilty for taking his career — his dream — away. I spirals out of control and drags me deeper into the abyss.
Self: my part is that I have to be the strong one — the one who does everything for the family. But in reality the guilt and burden I place on myself is too much sometimes. I need to let that go. I need to stop worrying and just live. because when you worry its either about the future of the past and not the now.
Others: My husband he’s the one who experiences the chronic pain and depression. But I can’t always go to him so I am seeking out like minded people who can understand my situation and we can support each other. I’ve managed to open up more to [him] but I always worry he’s worrying about me. Luckily I’ve reconnected with [an old friend] and we can talk since her husband’s accident.
Future: The future is uncertain I hope to be stronger and not let my emotions rule me like this anymore. Live for today and when some breakthrough happens be greatful. not expect it and be disappointed when it doesn’t work out.
What did this add to my life? It gave [him] the opportunity to be a stay at home dad. it gave me security that he won’t be shipped off to war and hurt anymore than he already has been.
While my inner editor is screaming, “WHERE’S MY RED PEN?” and trying to claw at all those words that really probably don’t make a heck of a lot of sense, well, there you have it. That is my example of how I went from negative to positive. Because before I wrote that, I was all tense and stiff and panic-y. While I was writing, and breathing, I could actually feel my muscles relax. By the time I was done, I felt calmer and I could see some positive out of the whole situation again. All in the span of 20 minutes.
Have you tried this method? Do you find it helpful? What other things do you do to help with your healing process?
About the Author
Read more inspiring and supportive posts from Lady Jai on her blog, Caring for My Veteran: My Journey to Find Healing Through Writing.
Also, learn more about military life mental health issues on SpouseLink.