As I sat there in a room full of people; parents reprimanding their children, asking them to be patient, to hush; a light tension of irritation and discomfort in the air, I held my son on my lap and quietly cried. I rested his head against me, careful not to brush my hands against his cheek. I knew he was in pain, but at least he was in good spirits, all things considered. I spent my wait, wishing against hope that time would accelerate to the point that I was on the other side of it all.
I don’t know what it is about my kids going to the dentist, but nothing makes me more anxious or stressed out. Maybe it’s the fact that I know my children have to withstand something painful that I cannot control. Putting your child in the care of someone else, even a medical professional, can be daunting. I’ve been a wreck for weeks, now. I haven’t known what to do with myself because I feel like I am just unraveling. And as has happened so many times in the past, I felt the overwhelming impulse to write it out.
The piece that made itself known to me was a poem four pages long, scratched out on about twelve sheets of a delicate notepad between classes. I called it “Doctor Teeth.” I spilled all my worry, shame, and fear onto the page, and the lines kept popping up into my brain when I would get teary tucking my son in at night.
I’m sure many of you have experienced the same. You sit down to write something, maybe even have a particular topic in mind, but once you start, you realize that there is something bubbling beneath the surface that simply insists that you write it. Whatever stresses or anxieties, or even happiness and joy you are feeling are simply so central in your mind that you must address them before any other topic.
I often have used writing as a therapy tool. When I was suffering from PTSD in my late teens, I took to the pen simply to feel like in some way I was pushing the darkness out of me and transferring it somewhere else. At that point, I didn’t write with any idea that it might become a profession, I just did it for me. To help me process, and to help me (attempt) to heal.
Writing to heal is actually something that’s been researched by those in the social sciences for years, in an attempt to see what kind of quantitative affect writing can have on a person’s health and healing. And it’s not just about mental health, there are also studies on how writing can affect a person’s physical health as well. According to social psychologist J.W. Pennebaker, “By writing, you put some structure and organization to those anxious feelings. It helps you to get past them.” In Pennebaker’s study, it was found that HIV/AIDS patients who wrote about their negative life experiences showed indications of increased immune functions than did those who wrote about daily activities, suggesting that there is a stress relief that is associated with writing that facilitates a healthier state of being. A later study by Helen Marlo, PhD., suggests that the greatest benefits that come from these writing practices are achieved by being able to see new perspectives and angles on the corresponding emotions instead of just ruminating in them. So, it seems the key component to unlocking the greatest therapeutic value of writing may be the ability to closely examine one’s feelings, and learn something new about them.
And I’ve found that this was this case with my most recent piece. The day I wrote it, I didn’t feel any better. But as I sat down to edit, I realized that the truth came out on the final page. I ended the poem reflecting on how if maybe I had been a more diligent or better mother, my son might not be going through something unnecessary. It was shame.
But then the question comes, what do I do with that? I could easily get into the shame-spiral and continue feeling horrible, or I could look at it and think about how I can do better. I have to remember that I am doing the best that I can, and that things will happen that won’t always be perfect or easy. But I have to be able to forgive myself and not hold myself to some impossible standard of motherhood.
Without that poem, without the intense emotional focus that came with writing it all out, and then the ability to reflect on it through the editing process, I might not have made that revelation – or maybe I would have, but maybe I would have suffered through weeks or months of shame and negative self-talk before I did. And that’s why it is vital that I listen when a story knocks at my door.
Is there a story begging for you to write it? Take some time to write it out, and then take a look and see what you might glean from it. Where did it start emotionally, and where does it end? What can you learn from that?
References and Further Reading:
- Marlo, H.; Wagner, M.K. (1999). Expression of negative and positive events through writing: Implications for psychotherapy and health. Psychology and Health, 14(2) 193- 215.
- Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3) 162- 166.
- Petrie, K.J., Booth, R.J., & Pennebaker, J.W. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(5) 1261- 1272.