The practice of writing can be a valuable therapeutic tool in the face of illness and trauma.
By Judith Hannan
We are made up of stories. The stories we tell ourselves become who we are. We are certain they are true and permanent. Then we are hit with moments that force us to change our narrative.
My story was disrupted in 2000 when my then eight-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. In the time between seconds, I was no longer the mother I used to be, traveling in a world with which I wasn’t familiar. I would need to edit old chapters and find new words if the arc of my life was going to continue moving forward. I had to write.
Unlike speaking, writing allows you to stand next to yourself as you rummage through your mind. This small distance makes it easier to move through the pain, order your thoughts, and achieve transformation. When I gathered my paper and pencil to begin, though, a piece of me remained paralyzed. I could write about IVs, scans, chemo drugs, and scars, but I wasn’t focusing on people and context. When I realized how I had been avoiding developing my own character, I swore I would meet myself on the page without flinching. But my brutal honesty just became brutal, to myself and others. I was writing without compassion and so without any hope of discovering just how I had grown and changed.
Any good narrative must have an aha moment—that pivot point when you are able to connect the before story to the after. My moments came when I stopped making myself the center of all my thoughts, when I found empathy for the people I had been blaming or being angry with. The final product, Motherhood Exaggerated, went far beyond the story of a young girl’s cancer treatment. It became a chronicle of how I had become transformed as a mother, and it could only have been written if I had examined all the old stories I had told myself over the years—about how I had been mothered, the patterns in my marriage, my personal history with depression, and my attitude toward faith, among others.
Writing about a moment in life filled with trauma and uncertainty can be daunting. What has happened is so big and life altering that we become defeated before we start. Before writing Motherhood Exaggerated, my longest piece of writing was a 3,000-word essay. I wrote my second book, The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live with and beyond Illness, because I wanted to help guide others using lessons learned from my own experiences.
Here are some pointers that might be helpful to you as you begin to write.
If you have faced a significant health challenge—your own or that of a loved one—you know that the experience includes a lot of time waiting. Whether you’re in the waiting room, the hospital cafeteria, or your own bed at night waiting for sleep to come, you’ve felt the unproductive spinning of your brain as it cycles through worry and sadness and hope and random grocery lists you don’t have time to shop for. What if, instead of repeatedly running on the hamster wheel of anxiety, you got out a notebook (or a laptop or a scrap of paper) and wrote—the feelings, the images, the wishes, and even the grocery lists? Think of the space you might free up in your mind, the peace that might emerge from the clutter.
Whether you are someone who writes regularly or are completely new to the craft, Judith Hannan’s The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live with and beyond Illness (Archer, 2015; $17.95) can help you understand the therapeutic role that writing about your experiences can play on a journey with illness and serve as a practical guide.
The book offers glimpses into Hannan’s own experience as the mother of a young daughter diagnosed with cancer, insight into the craft of writing, and writing prompts designed to inspire expression and reflection. The book reflects the author’s intimate knowledge of the many layers of experience involved in a medical journey—from coping with the physical environment and the language of medicine to processing the varied emotional responses to different stages of treatment. The result is a resource that offers anyone facing a health challenge a valuable therapeutic tool, through writing, to channel feelings and process their thoughts, propelled by a personal story that inspires hope.
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