Expressive writing as a healing technique, like many scientific discoveries, began from a happenstance set of circumstances. The core observation is that all of us have secrets. Dr. J. W. Pennebaker discovered that people with deep traumatic life experience in their youth were far more likely to have life-long health problems both physical and mental. What’s most fascinating as he says later research pointed out, the health issues were not the result of the trauma but more the keeping of the secret of the trauma. Festering inside, hidden from family and friends, the secret in Dr. Pennebaker’s word becomes toxic.
Some people will be able to share their secret in therapy with another person, again the counsellor acting in a dynamic of transference, a surrogate listener, standing in for the personal family and friend in this case, a person who matters, whose sharing of the experience matters to the traumatized.
Many can’t bring themselves even to share with a therapist which is from where the surprising role of expressive writing emerged. Beginning as a kind of hunch, Dr. Penebaker studied the effects of giving people a safe tabla rasa to write out their inner thoughts where as it turned out writing about emotional turmoil could precipitate a return to health. So began the work of expressive writing.
Often people experiencing some trouble will feel great relief when finding out others have a similar experience. Group therapy, individual counselling, expressive writing or other creative expression point to the need to get something out of oneself, out into the outside world. Interesting, as with expressive writing, it seems that sharing with another person is not essential. Putting one’s imaginings and feelings on paper, from inside to the paper outside can be enough to give one perspective and with perspective some measure of wholeness and healing.
I expect as with any other preference, we all have a strategy that suits us best. Without knowing it then, I remained healthy for my life journey, it would seem, because I carried around a notebook with me, one that fit into a small shoulder strap satchel, and went everywhere I did. I could pull it out and write down my observations and in long dark nights of the soul, could write for pages. While I didn’t understand it as therapeutic over my lifetime of writing, I did understand it to be necessary, and felt in the writing that I was set free from the demands of my life. The journal for me was more holistic for it also allowed me to express my joy and delight in what I was experiencing.
I started writing in a notebook when taking two counselling courses at UVic the first summer of my study leave. I just never stopped. While for periods I didn’t write as much, perhaps I was so busy, but a journal book was always with me. At one time for a couple of years, I didn’t use the journal. It was our first couple of years of marriage when Anne and I talked together a lot. That was my outlet. We couldn’t sustain that kind of intensity for each other of course, and again the journal became my companion.
I would say then that I was able to take the journey I did, an isolated journey where I didn’t have family behind me supporting me, I didn’t have a mentor as much as I desired one, like Dr. Pennebaker’s subjects I didn’t have the wherewithal within me to ask someone for help with getting on with life, I did’t have anything but I had my journal and that was enough. Slow work, that’s true when you don’t have a leg up, just have your own thoughts to sort out.
Looking back though, I also feel more was going on. I can only understand my life as a muse showing me things. There is just too much serendipity for so many disconnected experiences to fit together so well as if a jig saw puzzle. The muse might be some inner psychological perception that can see things and connect them with the 90% of the brain that is unconscious, but whatever it is, for my Irish roots, the Celtic idea of a guardian angel that walks step by step with one through life, whatever it is my writing in a journal, my expression of my inner self, getting it outside of me, was critical to the conversation and the value appreciated in the journey.
It’s enough to have written in the journals. It’s fine that nobody will ever read them. Thanks to my reading about Expressive Writing, I am unburdened that the value in my life, the one thing I have to point to for a life lived, my journal accounts, don’t need to be public. They served their purpose of guiding me along the way and keeping me healthy.
This is a bit of a diversion from the point of this post to introduce you to the rest of the posts following in this section. I write it here instead of in my journal simply because I am writing here now and one has to write down what one is thinking in the moment or it is lost, much like catching a dream upon waking for it dissipates never to be recovered. That’s why the journal was in my bag and the bag around my shoulder at all times. I had to write just where I was in the moment.
The diversion is a reflection on my own growth from a damaged and lost life that I noticed first in grade eight through to age 58 when in a moment all the little plateaus of insight and self-discovery over the years, became a breakthrough, and that breakthrough to be followed by more little plateaus. When 58, I was given the gift of knowing the shape of the journey. In grade eight, I had this inkling that something was wrong. At 58, in a campground, standing on a Sunday morning in front of the mirror in the campsite washroom, after a remarkable weekend of theatre and hours of journalling, I was given a sight before me, looking back at me, myself looking back and I saw in that mirror, the face of a man who had just been released from prison. I had been given freedom and the next 9 years to date has been learning what freedom is. I have been blessed in my life. But the observation here is my inner experience of trauma is not one that has been the hiding of a secret that in its hiddenness poisons one; my experience is the escape from a pit, finally putting my head over the edge and seeing the light of day, what life is like, and I think that sense of travel through something than possession by something is perhaps the result of the journalling as a kind of sharing, putting it out there into the world rather than harbouring it within.
From what I have written it would seem I should first, not have felt the need to write it as the writing of its own and not its publicity is the value, and so what follows of a personal accounting of my life is also unnecessary. True. I should not be writing the following for myself even if it is about my own perception and observation; what else do I know. Writer, mystic, poet and Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, held that one goes to the monastery for a cure and then one shares the cure with others.
I am mindful of this. Performance is the way I am: the preacher, the radio host, the classroom teacher are what make sense of my life and who I am. Behind them all is a dependence on a construct of words. So what follows is the best I know to share the cure. In the spirit of a note above that a person feels more whole when their experience is a shared experience, then the telling of my insights into my journey I offer as shared experience through which if but one other can find but a fragment to help her or himself, possibly you, along your way, be healing and help in your experience, the living out of your life. May it, this writing, this your life, be a blessing.
This is for all of us to do what we need to do to express what is within. I don’t think it matters that my work here is simple, of no popular value. When I celebrated the eucharist on my own for the first time, a Wednesday morning in St Andrew’s Sidney, B.C. and I stood robed in the doorway between the vestry and sanctuary, waiting for it to be 10 AM and promising to myself in that moment that when this work becomes routine that I want to stop doing it, and then walking out, moving to behind the Holy Table, and lifting my eyes looking down at the congregation, seeing two elderly women sitting in the back of the very long nave, about as far back as they could get, rows and rows of empty pews between them and me, and for a second I thought I can’t make this meaningful, I’m going to be quitting before I start, but it came to me that my work is to not consider some notion of success in numbers of the work, some popularity as one might to affirm one’s work value, but no, that I was to celebrate this mystical act of memory, and if but one person took but one thing away that was worth it. I must always put in my best work for that one person who may need comfort or encouragement. It is not how many are there but that one person is there and I have no idea what is going on in that person but I must do all I can to not be a barrier to them from receiving the grace of the liturgy. That approach meant I never waned on that commitment, it kept me going, never ‘mailed it in’ which applied to my other liturgical work, healing work, in radio and in teaching.
As much as the great writer Bernard Shaw can say about life, I too can echo even if the scope of the contribution is a fraction of his. I too wish to say as Shaw said: “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole of the community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can.” Each of us, from our heart, we do what we are made for, do it for each other. I pray that’s what follows, not my ego but my blessing given me, shared with you.