In my last post, I talked about colouring. I explored how I came to rediscover it and the effects it has had on my mental health. In this post, I’ll discuss another tool that has propelled my recovery – writing.
Writing is a significant part of my life. But this hasn’t always been true. There was a time, a dark time, when it was essentially non-existent, both for practical and for mental health reasons.
The practical reason was this: I simply had fallen out of the habit of writing, spending my time working, taking care of a family and other like pursuits. I was busy and writing was very much an afterthought if it was thought of at all. Yet, there were times when the urge to write would compel me to create a poem or a short story. These times were infrequent, but they were not ignored. That is, not ignored until my pleasure in writing was lost.
The mental health reason was this: as successive depressive episodes came and went, activities I enjoyed, like writing, lost their allure and were set aside. The depressive episodes had taken the joy out of writing. The lack of joy made it easier to overlook and, as I was now an adult in pursuit of adult things, writing was too easily forgotten. In time, the occasional impulse to write was lost to me. The sad thing is, I never noticed this loss.
It wasn’t until I was in counselling that writing was considered once again. My counsellor noticed that I was using a notepad to organize my thinking. This helped me to make the sessions more productive. He also noticed that there were times when I struggled to put thoughts into words, a common effect of depressive episodes. To counter this cognitive impairment, he suggested that I begin a journal and use it to explore where I was, where I now am, and where I want to be, as I recovered.
I followed this advice. This advice led to my starting several journals. The first is a third person journal that allows me to explore my feelings without censorship, especially self-censorship. I wanted the journal to be raw. The second acts as a gratitude journal exploring that theme and noting the benefits of gratitude to my mental health. The third details the results of my extensive reading and research into my illness. In time, these journals evolved into my personal blogs.
There’s no doubt that my rediscovery of writing has benefited my mental health. The most obvious benefit is the ability it gives me to track my recovery. The tone of early journal and blog entries is much darker, less hope-filled, than more recent entries. Because of this, I can see the birth and growth of hope, the awakening of joy, and the movement out of despair as the entries flow from old to new. Seeing such improvement is a boon to ongoing recovery. It’s concrete, it shows improvement, it shows success.
In turn, the writing has helped assuage the concerns of family and friends about my safety. They can read my posts, my blog posts, and see my current state of mind. When there’s a pause in posting, they know to ask if everything’s okay.
Writing also helps me cope with racing thoughts, especially racing thoughts when I’m trying to sleep. At such times I’ve often found that getting out of bed and writing down the thoughts gets them out of my head. It isn’t foolproof, but it’s worked often enough for me that I do it regularly. Sometimes I read what I’ve written the next day, but most times I simply crumple the page and rid myself of it.
Another benefit is the fact that writing has helped carry me through periods of low mood, periods when I was in the midst of a depressive episode. My recovery, like that of many others, has been anything but linear. At least once over the past few years, I’ve been deeply immersed in a depressive episode. During that time my writing, primarily my voluntary obligation to write for Healthy Minds Canada, helped me to challenge the dark. It’s so important that I’m not giving in to the dark, not giving in to the loss of joy of writing.
On good days, writing can be magical. The words flow in a stream of consciousness, ideas form on the fly. It’s almost effortless. This effortlessness says much about my mental state. It tells me that the impairments of depressive episodes are missing, that, in essence, I’m not depressed.
This is less obvious than it seems. Depression is a great deceiver. It masks itself within seeming good mental health. Its growth is slow, it’s predations gradual. Consequently, often I learn about my mental state by absence – the absence of writing may suggest a depressive episode has begun; the absence of impairment may suggest a depressive episode has ended. Seeing these clues is integral to my understanding of my mental health on any given day.
On bad days, writing forms a defense against the dark. There’s magic in that too. While writing is a solitary act, writing for a blog challenges the isolation that the dark encourages. Anything that healthily challenges the desire to isolate is a worthy pursuit.
There’s yet another benefit to writing. Most important of all, and alluded to above, writing instills hope. It shows that the never-ending bleakness does, in fact, have an end. There’s a way out of the dark. There’s a light, a tendril of hope, waiting for you to grasp it. This is the key behind the website, and book, The Recovery Letters. The site asks people who are recovering to write to fellow sufferers and offer a message of hope. I read many of the letters and found them to be moving. To hear the voices of so many like myself was sobering. The pain they spoke of was so familiar. Less familiar was the hope they contained. In fact, it wasn’t until I wrote such a letter that I articulated the existence of hope within myself.
Writing isn’t for everyone. I know this. But it’s worked for me in very tangible ways. It may work for you in those same ways, or in ways that matter to you. If you turn to writing or already write, please share your lessons with us.
About John Dickson
A lifelong battle with Major Depressive Disorder resulted in a suicide attempt. That attempt taught me the danger of being silent about my personal struggles with mental health. I've had to learn to be more open about my struggle. I now choose to reach out with the hope that someone will be inspired and end his/her own silence. I'm a dad, a blogger and a new convert to the power of social media.