When Writing Does NOT Make You Feel Better


Write about a painful memory for twenty minutes a day for three days, and your stress levels will go down, your health will improve, and you’ll live happily ever after!

Myth or magic? Well, okay, the living happily ever after part is definitely myth, but the rest? Today, for me, it all feels like a myth. But how can it be? I’ve been a True Believer and a perpetrator of this advice for years. If you look at the menu bar below my header, you’ll see a link to an archived blog titled Writing for the Health of It. Hundreds studies have been done around the world validating successful outcomes for even short bouts of expressive writing. That is NOT a myth!

However, I just ran into a personal brick wall. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve spent at least twenty hours fine-tuning and polishing a story about how a nurse practitioner in a local hospital blew off my reports of pain and gave me a meaningless, fluff diagnosis. Had he asked even two probing questions instead of jumping to conclusions, surely he would have caught my predictable, textbook case of pericarditis hours after pacemaker surgery.

While I cannot prove anything beyond the words he wrote in the record I accessed through my online portal, I am 100% certain that if I’d known what I actually had, I would have avoided landing back in the hospital four months later with what became life-threatening complications. I might have had recurrences, but they could have been simply handled without more than $300,000 in medical costs and two months of non-productive time.

My anger knew no bounds when I finally felt well enough to start digging around in my records to make sense of it all and found his words there in black and white. I have filed a formal complaint that’s now under review by The Compliance Process Committee. It’s too late to change my outcome, but I hope to avoid future mishaps like mine for others.

I had also hoped to find personal peace and resolution through writing. That has not happened.

I am angrier today than I was before I
began writing. So what do we do when writing apparently fails to help?

I have a hunch that I expected too much too soon. The writing to heal research is full of admonitions about not writing too soon. We do need to let things mellow. I thought I’d done that, but now I see otherwise. My fingers began to fly the minute I read that report! I still want revenge! And that is never a good place to write from, at least for the public.

Also, my anger was amplified last week when, three days after my discovery, my husband had a completely different life-threatening experience in the same hospital. And my daughter is facing brain surgery three weeks from today (in a different hospital, than heavens!). I keep missing my supportive writing groups too.

Yes, my score on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale is currently near the top. It’s too soon for me to be writing polished accounts and expecting closure. I needed the polished account for the review process, but aside from that, I should stick to journal entries and breathing deeply. And not reading news reports about Russia or North Korea! I shall sit with my anger and fully experience it. I’ll let insights like the one about wanting revenge surface. What else will I learn?

Have faith in the process and don’t stress if it takes more than three days. And stay tuned. I’m contacting others who have survived writing trauma-based memoirs. I shall share their wisdom with you as it accrues.

And please, if you have thoughts or experiences to share, post a comment, or email me at ritergal (at) gmail (dot) com.


soulsciences said...

writing has been such a central part of my life long healing from major abuse, rape, torture, beatings, but here's the important thing: I learned early on through a meditation approach, that one or two hours weekly focus on my "little shop of Horrors" was enough. After that I took a ritual bath, standing at the doorway before I entered the bathroom and reminding myself what I just remembered is over. The bath itself was a place where I put pleasure and humour first as I consciously washed away the past.
And for the rest of the week, I focused on raising my child, taking care of business, focused on positive and pleasurable experiences and if the ghosts from those other experiences rose, I jotted them down quickly and told them to wait until their allotted time.
In this way I strengthened my conscious mind even as I dug into a very painful tomb. I hope this helps anyone who is writing, anyone who is writing under stress. Sharon, my prayers and thoughts go out to you. You sound like you know what you are doing around stress relief.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thank you for sharing your wisdom Charlene. I can imagine that bath, fragrant with essential oil and perhaps heaped with bubbles. I see the scene lit by candles, perhaps soothing music in the background . . . Ah, yes, I can grab my loofah sponge and sink into this fantasy!

Except . . . I need to clean my tub! Back to reality!

Seriously, a ritual bath sounds like an amazingly powerful way to section off a nasty part of your writing practice. Symbolic and practical, infinitely adaptable.

Amber Starfire said...

Sharon, I do think journaling is probably the best place to process what happened and your emotions about it at this time. Writing for publication (i.e. polishing and revising) engages a completely different part of the brain. And, I'm guessing that because you were writing for others to read, you held back somewhat. It's not *nice* to openly want revenge on the page, right? In your journal, however, you can get justice and take revenge and write whatever deep black emotions need to be expressed. You can scribble on the page (and BTW, when emotions are too raw for words, I think drawing and painting does wonders).

AND, of course, self-care. Taking that long bath, practicing yoga and/or meditation, going on walks in nature -- all of these things have such wonderful healing powers.

Ultimately, only you can know what is the best path for you to take, whether writing, art, or just giving it time.

My best to you during this trying period.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Amber. You are so right that so far I've been writing for others to read, specifically the Compliance Committee of the hospital with whom I filed a formal complaint. My challenge was to frame that complaint in a compellingly readable way, not just a chronological rant. It did begin as a rant, and I am pleased with the final product, which begins with some dialogue with the head cardiologist who treated me later. It organizes consequences and complaints into categories. It's well done, and I appreciate that the years I've put into honing the craft were a good investment for this purpose.

It was well done, but it was not healing. That was a secondary intention. Would have been nice if it were that simple, but now I can take time to more fully process. Even a day or two has made that clear. I love all your suggestions and hope others will also take them to heart!

BTW, knowing the offender will surely be called to account on a carpet of sorts is probably enough revenge. I'm sure he'll not soon forget!

Karen Walker said...

Dear God, Sharon, I can't believe what you have been through and are still going through. I'm not surprised that writing about your experience didn't ease your pain. That doesn't mean that writing about a painful experience can't be cathartic. Because we both know it can. It means that you haven't felt and experienced all the emotions around what happened and is continuing to happen to your family members. Perhaps once your husband and your daughter are well again, and your health is once again balanced, writing about this will have some meaning. For me, writing isn't always cathartic but sometimes it just helps me make sense of my feelings, which calms me down a bit or clarifies my emotions.
I am so sorry you went through all of this. Sending you love and light and prayers for healing for you and your husband and your daughter.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for the support Karen. I do believe you are right about needing time and reflection and fuller physical healing for all. I did not write this post as a plea for sympathy and support, though it's heartening to see the outpouring.

I wrote this post to alert people that claims about the power of writing to heal are not empty ones if we don't get instant results. Like physical therapy or rehab after a dire event, we need to stick with it and be patient. Keep the faith. You may not even keep your fingers moving in this case. Time and distance may be helpful before your write again.

Thanks again to all for suggestions and response!