Monday, September 18, 2006

Writing Therapy

This morning I had a pleasant e-mail conversation with Rob Gierka, who wrote to thank me for my Pet Chaplain post. He's working on a book of pet-chaplain stories and would like to include mine, which of course made me very happy.

He also asked if I might want to become a pet chaplain myself. I said I'd love to, except that I don't have time and don't think I could handle the work emotionally; I can maintain compassionate detachment much more easily with people than with animals. (There's also the issue of my having dropped out of CPE, which I believe Rob requires of his chaplains.) Just writing the post about Phoebe had me in tears, and I can't read pet-loss sites without dissolving. I've comforted plenty of hospital patients who've lost pets, but I don't think I could hold it together in the presence of suffering or dying pets themselves.

Writing the post about Phoebe was certainly helpful, though, and that raises the issue of writing therapy. A lot of research has shown that writing about trauma, even for just fifteen minutes a day, helps people recover more quickly, as long as they're writing to "make meaning" of the experience and not just retraumatizing themselves. Two weeks ago, I gave my freshman-comp students this CNN article about the healing effects of writing, as a way of answering that perpetual freshman-comp question, "What good is this stuff, anyway?" I've also recently talked to several hospital patients -- one who lost a child several years ago, and another who's an abuse survivor -- about writing therapy. One of the patients said, "Hey, you know, my doctor talked to me about that, too!" The other patient hadn't heard of it, but was very intrigued and receptive.

Writing's a way of externalizing trauma, of getting it out of your head into a safe container. Writing gives you control: you were powerless when the trauma happened, but when you write, you're the one choosing what will be said, and how. Fifteen minutes a day isn't a huge time investment, and pen and paper are inexpensive, available even to low-income patients. Of course, in some cases literacy might be an issue, but I haven't encountered that yet. If I did, I might recommend some form of art therapy: fifteen minutes a day of drawing, maybe.

Last summer, PSR offered a course for people who want to use writing in healing ministries. I thought about taking it, but decided that it would be too much of a busman's holiday, and that I needed to take something that would be more purely fun. The course I took instead -- which I wrote about here, here (although a little less directly), and here -- wound up being perfect for me. From now on, I plan to take at least one art class every summer, to nourish the non-verbal parts of my brain.

But at some point, I might want to do more formal work with writing therapy. Maybe I could do writing therapy with pet owners, if I ever find myself with more free time. I've been telling people that I'll volunteer at the ER as long as I can walk, and that when I can't walk anymore, I'll volunteer at the Crisis Call Center. But the writing-therapy angle would be another option.

I guess I won't have a boring retirement!


  1. Writing as therapy, we writers all know that. Why do we keep in keeping in when it hurts so good?

    Seriously, I am absolutely convinced that expression is an immensely powerful tool to put in the hands of the (however) disenfranchised. Very many of us have it dinned into us from day one that our lives aren't worth much in the bigger scheme, and our voices aren't worth hearing. Which is pretty much of a self fulfilling prophecy, and many of us never begin to express ourselves verbally.

    Of course, that worthlessness is so much bs. After all, if we are beloved of and dear to God as indivuals, our lives must be worthwhile and our individual stories worth telling. Giving the disenfranchised to willingness to express themselves and the realisation that, while they may not be the most educationally blessed, their command of their own language is more than enough to express themselves - and if it isn't they are perfectly capable of improving it, can have the most liberating effect. People who can speak up for themselves find they can stand up for themselves. People who can stand up for themselves can take increased control of their lives. People who take control of their lives find themselves less prey to the illnesses that beset the disenfranchised. It is a virtuous circle.

    Of course, we know that self expression isn't exactly a panacea. How many of us talkers have that black dog lurking behind us?

    Nevertheless, I've seen it happen.

    So, who knows what box you're going to open with Writing as Therapy? Pandora, a role model for us all!

  2. Many people are opening the box, as the CNN article attests. Also, the kind of writing I'm talking about isn't intended as public speech or political empowerment (although if those things come out of it, great); it's a tool for self-healing. And if that's all it ever is, that's enough!


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