Therapeutic Writing

Healing Words

Writing through an illness can help bring one back to the familiar.  Illness tends to separate us from others, creating a rift between the healthy and the unhealthy.

Pain, especially, can be deeply jarring as it removes us from the present.  Elaine Scarry, in her meditation on the body in pain, observes that pain brings about “an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.”*

How then do we stay connected to the world through pain and illness?

Physicians and therapists have long acknowledged the power of language to keep us grounded in our realities, even as we suffer physically and emotionally. But writing through pain is clearly not always possible. Even putting it into spoken words may be beyond our capabilities. As Scarry notes,

“physical pain does not only resist language but actively destroys it.”

But if, somewhere on the edge of pain, it is possible to write about it, the process can help to reduce the anxiety and anger that often comes with it.

Dr. David A. Hanscom, and orthopaedic surgeon in Seattle, Washington, writes about managing chronic pain through journaling. He explains that the pathways of pain and emotion are so closely linked that they often aggravate one another.  By writing about chronic pain, Dr. Hanscom says, we become aware of how we react to it, and then we can detach ourselves from it long enough to figure out more positive responses to it.

Writing about our pain and illness also builds connections between the known self and the new self that is emerging through the medical experience.  Rather than feel a loss of identity, we can decide how this new reality will be absorbed into the familiar.

Sometimes called narrative medicine, this storytelling process often includes the health care providers and the caregivers who work with the patient.  When they all narrate their experiences, the web of the patient’s story becomes tighter, more secure.

Writing builds communities, and when there is sickness, those communities are critical to healing.

Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 4.