The practice of writing has long been recognised for its ability to aid mental wellbeing, and help with our mood. But a recent BBC article (BBC Future: ‘The puzzling way that writing heals the body’) shows that writing about one’s traumatic effects can aid physically healing, and possibly result in fewer trips to the doctor. Lagan Online definite advocates using creative writing to help with one’s mental wellbeing, but we’ve rarely considered the physical benefits as well. Below, three writers express how writing has helped them post injury/trauma.
Six years ago, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer: renal cell carcinoma. The cancer had taken over my whole kidney and had grown along my vena cava, reducing the blood flow to my heart. When the doctor told me the news, I thought my life was at an end. I sank down in the hospital bed in fear with no-one to talk to.
I had open-heart surgery, a seven hour operation to remove the tumour during which I needed three blood transfusions. I was in intensive care, then the high dependency ward and stayed in hospital for four weeks. I was told my prognosis was poor; the cancer was very likely to recur and normally had only a two year survival rate. At home I was in a lot of pain, exhausted, disorientated and incredibly anxious. A couple of months later my partner left me. I felt overwhelmed, alone and depressed.
Slowly I realised that I needed to speak with someone who could help me. After casting around for a while, I found a counsellor from Cancer Focus Northern Ireland. She reassured me that I was not alone and the complexities of emotions I was feeling were quite normal for someone in my situation.
As a cancer patient, your body has reneged on you and is attacking you from the inside. It is a disease that is extremely fearful and deeply disempowering. Incapacitated by surgery, I spent lots of time on the internet and found a blog by a man in the USA who wrote about his experience of prostate cancer. He articulated much of what I was feeling. I began an email conversation with him. He encouraged me to write about my experience of cancer. I was reluctant: cancer was the disease that most people were unable to speak about; the big bad wolf that could only be articulated in hushed tones.
Tentatively I began a blog called ‘Writing to Survive’. At first I didn’t write about cancer. I posted poems I liked and wrote mostly about writing. On the first anniversary of my cancer diagnosis I wrote about my cancer. After this, I became bolder and began to write more about my everyday cancer journey. Soon I was writing a weekly blog that spoke about my hopes and fears, the ups and downs of treatment, and so on. I got encouragement from people in similar situations who told me that they had found my blog helpful.
I have continued this blog for over five years now, through two cancer recurrences which required surgery, and have received a great deal of support and many messages of gratitude and positive feedback. It has been hugely empowering for me to have a found a voice which speaks out about such a deeply disempowering disease. I am very glad to know that this also works for my blog’s readers and followers. Indeed, despite the two recurrences, my health remains good, I am happily living in a committed relationship and I am still all clear.
Twelve days after my sister’s death I sat down and wrote how I felt.
I filled two copies over the following weeks, maybe not writing for a few days, but always returning when the grief intensified, bordering on being unbearable. I reminded myself that the next day and the days after may bring a difference, I hung on and those days got easier, to a degree.
I scribbled in notebooks, on scraps of paper. I wrote so many poems about her illness, her addiction and her death, what it now meant for me and how my world just turned completely on its head. I still look for my sister to this day. Obviously for me, truly accepting Von’s death is a long way off. I’m not ready to let her go, that’s okay.
Expressing my pain, through words and art has always helped me. Healing through creativity is how I survived, I realise everyone has different coping mechanisms, but it has and continues to work for me.
There’s a wonderful sense of being adrift with creation, a timelessness when you’re so immersed in the creative process, you can forget the sadness for a while, enabling gradual healing to begin.
Poetry, for me, is a form of translation for trauma; it is the archaeology of our perceptions and responses to pain: the means by which we can give it dimension, identity, language and, subsequently, learn to live alongside it.
I grew up in an environment where one parent experienced frequent episodes of psychosis, self injury and overdose. My earliest memory goes back as far as the age of seven, when I witnessed a particularly distressing breakdown and was sent to sit on the front doorstep with an ice lolly. I remember comparing the colour of the ice lolly to the neon yellow of the ambulance, and somehow, relating one to the other – something symbolic of innocence and childhood versus something universally associated with trauma – helped me to identify my place in that situation. Of course, I didn’t understand the mechanics of it, but even at that time I wrote constantly and fostered tiny links between the seemingly innocuous and those things which threatened to swallow me up.
Now, as an adult undergoing psychiatric assessment for my own mental health, poetry continues to provide my therapy. As a parent to a child with an ultra rare disease, as a woman who experienced sustained domestic violence, and as a person coming to terms with lifelong depression, anxiety and mood disorders, and as a poet, I am able to choose to be defined by how I write, rather than the scars I write about, and there is no greater freedom from trauma than that.