For a long time, I felt like a victim of my own body. Struck by a debilitating case of chronic fatigue syndrome when I was just twenty, I was forced to resign from my job and eke by on welfare benefits, flat on my back in bed day after day, uncertain if I would ever recover. My journals from that time are a testament of my despair; in them, I wrote the same story over and over again: I am broken. I am broken. I am broken. After many years of this, I realized it was within my power to make another story about what was happening to me.
I still don’t know for sure why I got sick. But I believe that what happened—at least, in part—was that my stories got frozen inside my body. As a child, when faced with hardship, I bore up. I behaved like I was fine. I thought that I was fine. It wasn’t until my body broke down that I learned I hadn’t been fine at all.
Researcher James W. Pennebaker, renowned for his studies about the health benefits of writing, theorizes that suppressing stories is physiological work and a long-term, low-level stressor. One study showed, for example, that gay men who concealed their sexual orientation had more health problems than those who were open about their homosexuality. Another found that people who suffered a trauma before the age of seventeen and kept the experience a secret sought medical care 40 percent more often than those who had openly discussed their traumas.
To date, dozens of studies from laboratories around the world have documented physiological and emotional benefits to people who write their difficult stories. In one series of studies, for instance, students were asked to write about troubling or traumatic experiences for fifteen minutes on four consecutive days. Pennebaker and his colleagues found that these students made 43 percent fewer visits to the health center than those in a control group who spent the same amount of time writing about superficial, non-emotional experiences. Other studies have shown benefits that could be objectively measured by examining markers of immune function, such as T-helper cell growth.
Research has also found that expressive writing—writing meant for processing thoughts and feelings—improved lung function among asthmatics and reduced pain and disease severity in arthritis sufferers. Several studies show that students who participated in an expressive writing experiment had improved grades the following semester. And in a study of engineers and other professionals who had been laid off from their jobs, 52 percent of those who were randomly chosen to do expressive writing found new jobs within eight months; in the control group, fewer than 24 percent found work.
As a therapist and a writer and a human who has faced a devastating illness, here is something I have learned: When we don’t express our difficult stories—the parts of our lives that trouble us in some way—they get frozen in our bodies. I have a photograph I like to show to the clients who come to me for help with their stuck stories. The photo shows frozen chunks of river ice crowded together and yet each an island unto itself. I tell my clients that these disconnected chunks of ice are like the stories frozen inside them. Writing—or even telling—these stories helps to melt them, to dissolve their constricting power. When our experiences can flow through us, we can flow more easily through life.
In Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir, Jane Taylor McDonnell notes that whether or not we write, we are always constructing stories about what is happening to us and around us; we all have internal narrators speaking to us “more or less continually—sorting, arranging, interpreting, and making sense of our lives.” The stories we create are based on our own private, entrenched internal themes, or core beliefs, which we carry around with us. We tend to notice the things that fit into our stories and to ignore or forget the things that don’t. McDonnell quotes Philip Roth: “We are all writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the closest thing we have to truth.” But sometimes our core beliefs can be self-limiting, and the stories we construct in their honor can circumscribe our lives.
In narrative therapy—a form of counseling that helps people to consciously re-author their lives—we call these “thin stories.” Thin stories are narrow and one-dimensional. In therapeutic writing, we are looking for the “thick story.” We are looking for the rich details that have been forgotten or ignored. We are searching for a broader perspective.
The first time I tried to write about my illness, I knew that what I was leaving on the page fell flat, but I couldn’t figure out why. I turned to my friend Nicole Chaison, author of the graphic memoir The Passion of the Hausfrau, for some guidance. She read my manuscript over and delivered her verdict: “The problem here is that it’s missing the details,” she said. “I want to see, smell, hear, touch, and taste this story.”
The piece didn’t work because I was writing my experience from my head, putting it down as analysis rather than story. Nicole was telling me to get out of my head, to sense the world, and to write about my senses.
I said to Nicole:
When you’re sick, when you’re in pain, when you’re suffering, it’s like you get caught under a foggy bell jar. There’s something between you and the sensual world. You get caught up in your own suffering. You stop being able to see, touch, feel, hear, and taste the world around you. You’re disconnected from yourself. You’re only connected to your own suffering.
For my writing, and for my healing, I had to tell the story. I had to put down the sensual details. I had to reconnect my mind and my body.
Later, after Nicole had left, I sat down to my work, pen in hand, and waited for an image to come. And soon enough, it did. I remembered the garden I had lacked the energy to tend. Here is what I wrote:
It was a formal garden, all laid out in measured decorum inside a white picket fence. When I think of it now, I see it bursting in the violent bloom of high summer—stands of white liatris spiking the clear blue sky; gold rudbeckia, six feet tall and toppling; aphids on the helianthus; mold on the phlox; weeds overwhelming all the back beds. The garden was too much for me.
From the bedroom window on the second floor I could see the explosion of color, a cacophony of red, yellow, purple, and pink. But I rarely looked down upon the garden from the bedroom window. Because what I saw more than anything, even from that vantage, was my failure to keep up.
Focusing my attention on the potent images lingering in my memories not only made for stronger writing—it was also therapeutic. Something inside me began to flow.
Imagery connects the mind to the senses, to the body, to emotion. All of us have repetitive thoughts and beliefs that spin in our minds as we try to resolve problems—whether big or small—in our lives. But the spinning is often unproductive; it’s like we get caught in a whirlpool. I am convinced that our deliverance is in the images. Writing through the senses stops the spinning and bypasses our regular defense systems, helping us to access our internal creative healer. Our creative self is our higher self. It connects us to the God-stuff.
When we are writing—whether toward therapeutic or literary ends—we must also look for the “thick story” of each of our characters. We have to make our characters multidimensional. In doing that, we can—we have to—forgive. We can—we have to—see the humanness of all people, even those who have harmed us. In the process of trying to write well, we must reach for our higher and better selves. In this way, we can heal the wounded places inside us.
When we delve into our troubling stories, we are doing what author Maureen Freely, in her essay “Writing as Therapeutic Practice,” calls “salvage writing.” I like the term salvage—so close to its neighbors, salvation and salve, in the dictionary. In this kind of writing, says Jane Taylor McDonnell, “the narrative act is an act of recovery in both senses of the word: recovery of memories which have been lost or partly lost, and reconstitution of a lost or broken self. This self, having been in some way fragmented or dislocated, both recovers and is recovered.” Writing helps us give form to what was formless and metabolize the parts of our stories that have gotten stuck inside us.
When Pennebaker did a meta-analysis of his test results, he observed that “people who benefited from writing began with poorly organized descriptions and progressed to coherent stories by the last day of writing.” In other words, the subjects who made notable gains were those who successfully gave form to the formless. Expressive writing creates order out of chaos; it salvages what was lost; it is our salvation; it is our salve. McDonnell again:
Writing is a second chance at life. Although we can never go back in time to change the past, we can re-experience, interpret, and make peace with our past lives. When we write a personal narrative we find new meanings, and, at the same time, we discover connections with our former selves. I think all writing constitutes an effort to establish our own meaningfulness, even in the midst of sadness and disappointment. In fact, writing sometimes seems to me to be the only way to give shape to life, to complete the process which is merely begun by living.
As for me, I reconceived my illness experience as a hero’s journey. As cataclysmic as it was, chronic fatigue syndrome was my call to adventure. It took me down into a deep, mysterious, terrifying place. Eventually, I had no choice but to heed the call. I had to glean some wisdom—something greater than my own story of suffering—from the catastrophe.
What is the theme of my new story? I am healing. I am healing. I am healing.
And also: You can, too.