Averting One’s Face.

I’m spending too much time on Facebook and not enough time writing or with my partner. It’s not that I have Facebook open all day, respond to every notification or read all the articles that land on my page. In fact, it’s more about the quality of my time on line, rather than the quantity.

I joined Facebook in 2007 when a friend posted photographs of her overseas trip on what was to me the new and somewhat intimidating social platform. When I met my partner three years later and subsequently announced our relationship on Facebook, I added many of his friends and family to my growing list of ‘friends’. In the ten years since I registered, Facebook has ‘helped’ me reconnect with many family members who, for a range of reasons, were once lost to me. I admit I relished the careful refortifying, albeit mostly on line, of these precious family ties and I’ve loved seeing, in ‘real time’, several cousins and aunts, something that might not have happened without Facebook. I also enjoy the opportunity to connect with other writers and writing sites.

social_mediaOver the last couple of weeks, however, some of my friends have decided to take time off from Facebook or leave altogether. One of them explicitly cited the current political situation in the USA, and its alarming resemblance to Germany in the 1930s, as a reason for his decision.

I tend to agree with his position. We can compare, at the very least, Hitler’s appeal to sections of German society through speeches full of clichés, catch phrases and promises to reclaim Germany’s lost glory, to the emotionally laden rhetoric of Donald Trump. His promise to restore ‘order’, the way he targets and scapegoats people from different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds is terrifyingly familiar, and implies the same inevitable conclusion; to appease one group, another group must be eliminated. As described on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website,

Nazis demanded that Germans accept the premises of the Nazi worldview and live their lives accordingly. They tolerated no criticism, dissent, or nonconformity … Guided by racist and totalitarian principles, the Nazis eliminated individual freedoms and pronounced the creation of the national community, in whose name they seized every opportunity to turn Germany into a unified racial collective … Hitler’s political opponents were the first victims of systematic Nazi persecution.

Recent Facebook posts describe the potential for public servants to feel morally compromised when they implement the new policies. If they refuse, they risk losing their jobs. This and the cavalier creation of poorly conceived and potentially dangerous policies and executive orders, are two instances that, I believe, have caused several of my friends personal despair. I can empathise. The negative and destructive actions of the government of the United States, and of my own government, is indefensible; I want no part of it. I too, am considering closing my Facebook account. But is this a rational decision?

Leaving Facebook may give me more time to write blog posts, work on my novel and my collection of flash fiction. I’ll have time to read more novels and reputable, balanced news feeds that back up their content with sound research and judicious investigation. One of the problems with Facebook’s continuous news feed is deciding if the content contains carefully researched facts, mere opinion or blatant lies. Rather than an open access to the world of ideas, much of what we read on Facebook exists within a bubble we, with Facebook’s help, create. Our newsfeed is a construction that confirms and reinforces the values and beliefs we already have. Quitting Facebook might give me more time to explore issues with my friends and family, rather than working out what they mean in their posts, or what they believe by clicking on sites they share. Leaving Facebook could also  mean that, rather than lamenting the gathering dark, I will have time to volunteer for the causes I support and light a few candles to illuminate and nullify the portents of doom. It seems to me that a time is looming when we will be asked to make actual (real time) changes in the world instead being satisfied with clicking on a sad or angry ’emoji’. Is it possible that, as an answer to every tragedy, every act of treachery, Facebook’s abbreviated method of response actually stops us from getting off our chairs and making real changes?

On the other hand, if I leave Facebook I may lose the ineffable connections with those I love best; family who live interstate. Yes, we can phone each other, we can get on a plane and visit, but sometimes it is nice to log on and see that my son is relaxing with friends, my daughter has managed to find a permanent home for an abandoned puppy, my daughter-in-law has organised another fund raising event. I also wonder how my leaving Facebook will disrupt the very things that could threaten my family’s well-being. Will deleting my Facebook account mean I am burying my head in the sand, refusing to see the world’s situation for what it, inexplicably and dangerously, is? By being ‘less informed’ about the plight of innocents might I be culpable for their suffering?

I cannot possibly answer these questions until and unless I decide what to do. But in a way, leaving Facebook is not the real question here. The real issue is how can I positively influence the state of the world? Is the turmoil and strife many of us fear inevitable? What can we do to prevent it?

To resist something is to hinder or prevent its progress, to oppose, to refuse to yield or comply. Those of us nervous, nay frightened, of recent events have a moral choice. We can comply or we can resist. Either option has its consequences. At the moment, we are exposed to rhetoric that focuses on one thing: America and its interests. In a recent post I pointed out that we are a family of nations. I know from bitter experience that when the needs of one member of a family are more important than the needs of other members, the family will be destroyed.

What I don’t know is if deleting my Facebook adequately signals my refusal to accept the current status quo. If you leave a room while an argument is taking place, are you showing tacit acceptance of the situation, or exercising your right to directly resist a situation you can no longer abide?

The Art of Resilience

The reason I started this blog was to share my interest in therapeutic writing. As many of you know, this focus has changed slightly but today I want to return to a topic that remains important to me: therapeutic writing and resilience. I will begin, however,  with what creates the impetus, the need, to develop resilience: trauma and suffering.

Suffering happens. Trauma causes lasting, ongoing distress. Bearing witness to trauma and suffering helps us recognise, acknowledge and relieve the pain. Being resilient is understanding trauma, knowing that it results in alienation as well as dissociation from the traumatic event itself. Resilience is being aware of how trauma disconnects us from our self and our perceptions. Trauma flays friendships, undoes families and leaves us at the mercy of others; to advocate resilience is to acknowledge the struggle to comprehend or change the situation, to acknowledge that trauma makes us feel like ‘a nobody’.

Well-meaning suggestions about how to respond to trauma, and claims that our trauma is less traumatic than another’s, serve only to undermine our survival, suggest our story is not worth sharing or we haven’t ‘suffered enough’. Comments like this rob us of the ability to decide, for ourselves, the personal quality and potency of our suffering; they turn us away from resilience and back to the trauma.

Does defining trauma as

unspeakable [and thus] resistant to representation

silence us, leave us powerless to deal with or learn from the trauma? When trauma is endlessly reproduced and recycled by the media, either for entertainment or as ‘news’, are we being conditioned to accept trauma and suffering as ‘normal’? When groups of people are traumatised, do we know those groups, know individual members of the group, only by their trauma, only by their suffering?

Who benefits from labelling individuals and entire cultures, as ‘traumatised’? Who gains by robbing individuals and entire cultures of their agency, their ability to heal from trauma?

If we study and understand the impact of trauma, shouldn’t we also study and understand how to heal from trauma?

There are some who believe in

the transformative potential of trauma itself […] the possibilities of psychic regrowth

that is a possible outcome of trauma.

Art makes healing from trauma possible. Art is an act of survival. Art builds resilience.

Why art? Because nothing else is strong enough to contain the destruction of the self.

Art doesn’t theorise suffering, it engages with it. Trauma can not

properly be grasped in a purely cognitive manner … its … chaotic and meaningless character

must be encountered through writing, painting, music, drama and movement.

   What of the risk? What if by ‘re-creating’ the trauma we are ‘re-traumatised’? Memory, as it is newly understood, is a process of

selection, emphasis and amplification.

Is it possible that by drawing on our memories of trauma, actively choosing how to represent our trauma, what to represent, what to amplify and what to ignore, we can regain agency? Can remodelling our trauma provide us with the means to craft our recovery and learn to take control of our lives?

Therapeutic writing builds resilience. It helps us discover our meaning of the trauma, and reject meanings imposed by others. Therapeutic writing, like any writing, is an exacting art. It needs the support of a counsellor, who is also a reasonably skilled writer, to witness and guide the process of safely remembering and reconstructing the traumatic event. It needs someone who knows that resilience is flexibility, plasticity and strength. It needs someone who understands that the story of trauma inherently contains a story of survival and the story of suffering is a story of resilience.


The views expressed here are not not meant to serve as medical advice or replace consultation with your physician or mental health professional. The information contained in this blog should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem. If you have experienced trauma you should consult with your medical practitioner or a qualified mental health care provider about your personal questions or concerns.

References

Emily Ashman, ‘Psychic Resilience in the Fragile Images of A Petal: A Post-Jungian Perspective on Retraumatisation’, in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 171-187.

Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin, ‘Trauma Narratives and Herstory’ in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 1-12, p. 7.

Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery from Domestic Abuse and Political Terror (London: Pandora, 2010), p. 52.

Stephen K. Levine, Poiesis: The Language and the Speech of the Soul (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers 1997), p. 120.

Stephen K. Levine, Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), pp. 38-41

Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas, ‘Trauma Texts: Reading Trauma in the Twenty-First Century’ in Trauma Texts ed. by Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), pp. 1–8, (p. 1).

Photo Credit: Pixabay

 

Learning how to Change the World.

A little friend of mine had a big adventure last week: she went with her mother and father to a tropical island north of Australia. She travelled on a plane for the first time and is now a veteran of four flights. Each time the aircraft lifted off the ground my little friend cried ‘Wheeee’.Airplane

I have much to learn from this brave little girl.

Unfortunately, however, not everything worked out as planned. On the second evening of the eight-day holiday she fell and broke her collar bone.

Mummy and Daddy were, naturally, distraught and their family back home saddened to hear the holiday was spoiled. After receiving excellent help from the resort staff and advice from the local medical centre the family wisely chose to remain on the island resort and make the best of the situation.

Now, travelling with a three-year-old has its challenges, even with a three-year-old who loves, from the first moment, to fly. This holiday had, after the accident, more than the usual difficulties.  BeachSwimming in the pool or on the beach was out of the question. The excursion to the Great Barrier Reef was likewise cancelled; they couldn’t risk her overbalancing in the boat. Walking along the beach was fairly safe and there was a child’s activity room, but for a lot of the time the parents were faced with amusing a three-year-old while trying to contain her natural ebullience and help her understand that the sling compromised her balance and her ability to do things for herself. As any one who has had anything to do with a three-year-old knows, they have to do everything for themselves.

The result, sadly, was a frustrated little girl and a several days of temper tantrums.

Don’t get me wrong, this child is not a little angel; she has her moments. But these were serious, ear-splitting, toy throwing, hitting out, refusing to go to bed, refusing to do anything she was asked, tantrums.

Her parents are gentle, reasonable, perceptive people. This child is neither spoiled nor indulged and whatever discipline is needed is always explained, measured and reasoned. But Mummy and Daddy desperately needed a holiday, and their dream of a few blissful days with their little girl was ruined by the pain and grief of their thwarted expectations.

I’m not saying they didn’t handle it well, they did, but I could see the strain and exhaustion on all three faces when we picked them up from the airport last night.

How I wished I could have wrapped them in my arms and made it all go away.

I’ve thought a lot about what turned this usually affectionate and happy little girl into the monster her mother described to me as we trudged towards the carpark through Adelaide’s cold night.

Maybe it was the excitement of the trip, the anticipation and then the letdown of the accident and injury. Maybe it was the pain killers. As mild as they were, having to take them over several days can affect anyone, particularly a child. Maybe it was the unfamiliar situation. When we’re feeling poorly, we need the comforts of our home and our familiar toys. Perhaps it was the shock and pain occasioned by the fall; my little friend woke screaming several nights after the accident. Maybe it was a combination of all these things?

And maybe it was just raw fear. I’m no child psychologist (which is amazing, because any woman who’s raised three children is, of course, an expert on children), so I consulted Dr Google – specifically concerning children who hit out during temper tantrums. My intuition was confirmed.

We usually lash out at others when we are afraid. It’s part of the classic freeze, flight or fight reaction that comes from deep within what neurologists call our reptilian brain, an ancient section of the brain that controls our heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. The thing about three-year-olds (and most humans), is no matter how articulate, how well parented or how well behaved they are, fear inevitably triggers survival instincts and that results in defensive behaviour, in hitting out at others. There’s no irony in the fact that we often hit out at those we love, at those who hold our very survival in their hands, because we trust them to understand, without reacting negatively, our instinctive, automatic ferocity.

My little friend is probably one of the luckiest people I know. In her terror and pain she hit out at the very people she knew would cope with her behaviour. Her parents, despite being stressed themselves, found a way to understand, witness and try to soothe their frightened little girl’s inarticulate rage.

Not all girls or boys are so lucky.

I held back tears last night when I watched the exhausted father walking from the plane, holding his sleepy eyed baby in his arms. Their flights home were delayed and they’d spent the last 12 hours either waiting in airports or flying, but there she was, snuggled close to her Daddy, smiling at my partner and me, waving tentatively at us with her free hand.

Is this story a caution against travelling with children? Far from it. Accidents happen, tempers flare and misunderstandings occur wherever we are in the world. When I think of that couple alone in their resort room, relying on the goodwill of staff when the accident happened, and later receiving calls from concerned parents and grandparents across the width and breadth of Australia, I am reminded of how important family is, how we reach out to each other during times of travail and stress. This happens on a small scale, like it did this week with my family, but it also happens on a large scale.

We’ve learned, in the last dozen or so years, that there is but one race of humans and we came from the same mother. We are a very large, rambunctious, sometimes violent family and that violence usually comes from raw fear, from the ancient section of our brain that reacts first and thinks later.

My little friend is going to grow up to be an amazing woman.   P1020430 (2)She will gradually learn to moderate her reactions, to articulate her fears, to be mindful of her thoughts and, given the way her parents are raising her, to be compassionate when she witnesses another’s fear, another’s pain.

She may even change the world; she may find a way to end the fear that animates violence, because that’s the blessed potential of every child on the planet.

 

On Gratitude 01: Panic and Anxiety.

Several weeks ago I introduced Barbara, my first guest blogger. She taught me a valuable lesson about gratitude and as a result of her post I decided to find ways, through this blog, to practice her philosophy.

Regular readers will be aware I try to post twice a week, usually on Wednesday and Sunday, but I missed last Sunday. It was a busy weekend, a holiday weekend in fact. I didn’t manage to post anything by Sunday evening and we were out all day Monday. It’s that Monday, its conviviality, its treasure house of memories and its challenges, that I am grateful for. We spent the day showing interstate visitors around one of South Australia’s beloved wine regions – not beloved just because of its wines but because it is one of the most beautiful spots in Australia.

Back in the 1980s I lived in the Barossa Valley. One of my children was born there, I learned to drive along its narrow back roads and I survived several long hours one night, alone with three children under four and a dog and a goat, sheltering in our farmhouse as flood waters lapped at the veranda. Thankfully, the rain stopped and my husband arrived from out of the night, having found an alternative route that bypassed the swollen creeks so he could be with his family. I’m so grateful he didn’t turn back to the city and leave me alone with our children that wet and wild night. I would have coped if the water had continued to rise, and he knew I would, but we coped better together.

Years later, children grown and my marriage over, I was living alone and often drove for two hours to the Barossa to visit my parents, who by then were living in the Barossa Village Aged Care Facility. I will always be grateful for the care given to my parents, the gentle way the staff dealt with my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and my father, who grieved for his wife’s deterioration but who always shared a joke with the staff and tried to find a way to make their day less wearisome.

After my father, and eight months later my mother, died, I cleaned my mother’s room, said goodbye to the staff who cared for my parents, and didn’t return to the Barossa for many years except to drive through the Valley on our way north. Monday was the first time I’d been back for a whole day and now I had a chance to share the Barossa with friends.   DSC_9757The weather was glorious: the sky an uninterrupted blue; the breeze chilly but tempered by the sun; the vines golden in the glossy winter light. I was the designated driver; after all, the main purpose of the visit was to taste the delicious wines made in the Barossa, enjoy a long lunch and then visit one more winery. It’s imperative, given this, that someone abstain from alcohol and be capable of driving home.DSC_9750

There was a small hitch, however. I used to love driving, and my solo trips to the Barossa, made over five years ago now, were a pleasurable routine. But lately I’ve experienced a deal of anxiety and even mild panic attacks, many of them associated with cars, traffic and driving.  My partner, of course, was aware of this, but our friends did not realise their chauffeur was, to be frank, clutching the steering wheel as if it was a club, periodically taking long, deep breaths and telling herself she was a competent and safe driver. It was not, for me, a pleasant drive back to the city, but I did it; we arrived safely, deposited our passengers and later that evening opened a bottle of fine Barossa Riesling to celebrate.

I’m cannot say I’m grateful for the panic attacks and the anxiety. I neither appreciate, nor am I thankful for, the physical and emotional sensations the attacks engender but I suspect there is a gift, one I have yet to discover, inherent in my current affliction. Maybe these attacks are an opportunity for me to develop compassion for others who are likewise affected? Perhaps they are a chance for me to get to know myself better, or develop more refined planning and coping strategies when faced with life’s problems? Maybe it’s a chance for me to reflect on life, how precious it is, how tenuous our grasp on it is, how important our loved ones are, how strangers can become unlikely allies in caring for those we love.

Right now panic feels like the only response we’ve got to what’s going on around us. The natural, psychological and physiological response to war, terror, destruction, abuse, anger and hate is, and probably always will be, panic;  to flee, to freeze or to fight. We are after all, animals, albeit of a particular and peculiar species, and survival is our strongest instinct.

Saying, ‘Don’t Panic,’ doesn’t help. Telling us to panic more and who to blame for our fearful reaction, doesn’t help. Admitting to feeling panicked, to being anxious, to being petrified, does. When we name and accept what ails us we can address the cause of our fear and construct a reasoned response. We stop reacting and we think.  DSC_9769The reason why we are such a particular species is because we can stop and think. It’s not easy but it is the one truly powerful and positive gift we have. Our ability to think, to solve problems, to find ways to cooperate, to resolve issues is surely a gift for which we must always be grateful.

 

What do you think: Is panic something we can learn to be grateful for? What does our anxiety tell us about who we are and what we value?

Wise Words and Comforting Suggestions

I have been planning to share a range of ideas about writing as therapy for some time. The links below lead to diverse opinions concerning the benefits of therapeutic writing although none of them provide conclusive evidence that therapeutic writing is an effective therapeutic tool.  I hope you enjoy them.

cropped-to-write-224591_1920-2.jpg

  • JR White points out in this first link that therapeutic writing is useful because, ‘instead of turning to others for wise words or comforting suggestions, your inner wisdom has a chance to voice itself.’ See what else White has to say at: Writing Away Your Worries
  •  Margarita Tartakovsky’s main point is that ‘writing helps us track our spinning thoughts and feelings.’ For more information go to: The Power of Writing: 3 Types of Therapeutic Writing 
  • This article by Gina McColl points out that whether or not it is ‘the inky cousin of selfie culture or long tail of the creative writing mania, writing as therapy is having a moment.’ More about the healing power of writing can be found here: Writing as therapy: how blogs and memoirs can help the sick and traumatized. I also suggest you follow McColl’s link to Jane Turner Goldsmith’s useful summary of research into therapeutic writing.
  • Although the next article is about creative writing, I’ve included it because I’m interested in the connection between brain plasticity and therapeutic writing. While, as Stephen Pinker comments at the end of the article, ‘creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study,’ I found this New York Times article fascinating. I wonder what researchers would find if they scanned the brains of therapeutic writers as they wrote? See what you think at: This Is Your Brain on Writing
  • Finally, Tara DaPra’s Writing Memoir and Writing for Therapy An Inquiry on the Functions of Reflection is moving and beautifully written.

MES5X81ZYII’d love to know of your reactions. Do you find writing therapeutic, and how would you describe its benefits, or do you think therapeutic writing has had its ‘moment’ and is just a fad?

 

Seven Posts in Seven Days: Three

Trauma, Healing and Literary Writing

For today’s post I want to return to the original focus of this blog: Therapeutic Writing. I also want to try something new: asking questions at the beginning of the post instead of at the end. I guess it’s the teacher in me; perhaps my questions will enhance your reading, maybe you will find them irritating. Either way, please feel free to comment on the post, my questions or anything you want; just remember to keep it polite!

Here are the questions:

  • What feelings, if any, does this post provoke?
  • What problems or objections do you have with the opinions expressed here and why?
  • Is there another way of looking at this issue?

And here is the post:

I recently read an excellent article by Kelly Sundberg on Brevity, where she shared a remark an examiner made when Sundberg defended her PhD thesis, which was a series of linked essays about personal trauma. The examiner wondered whether the work was ‘melodramatic’. Sundberg was justifiably stunned by this comment. My initial response to her blog was that academia still has a long way to go before it accepts PhD projects involving research filtered through the candidate’s personal experience.

I experienced a slightly different response when, back in 2008, I started working on my thesis; someone suggested I should focus more on my trauma. I was uncomfortable with this. My experience was, and still is, powerfully personal and I didn’t want it to become the subject, throughout my candidature, of campus gossip, however well meaning. I also wanted to protect my three children and my parents, who appeared, albeit briefly, in the memoir that was a crucial part of my Creative Arts thesis.P1000499

Like Sundberg, I agree with Jessa Crispin’s misgivings about trauma as an entry into a ‘club’ of women who write about their pain. I didn’t want to join the club; I wanted my thesis to focus on well-being and  survival, which is why I researched writing as healing or, as Sundberg puts it, that ‘dastardly term’ therapeutic.

As I neared the end of my PhD the issue of trauma again raised its head. I was advised to demonstrate my awareness of ‘trauma studies’ and how I incorporated it into my research. Trauma studies, for me, examines distressing, depowering and damaging events or situations that result in the ongoing misery or suffering of individuals or groups, and which leaves them unable to enjoy or participate fully in life. Studying the causes, effects and consequences of trauma is certainly important. The danger lies in trauma defining our individual and cultural identity, and we ‘become’ the trauma we have experienced or witnessed. This risks characterising the individual and, I believe, entire cultures as victims, not survivors. It also risks ignoring the very necessary and difficult work of healing a trauma.

Emily Ashman believes in

the transformative potential of trauma itself and the possibilities of psychic regrowth that may emanate from traumatic individual and collective processes.

Steven K. Levine suggests we acknowledge trauma while fostering a creative response to it. For Levine, healing is an act of survival, something made possible through art:

expressive therapy teaches the art of survival, survival through the making of art. Why art? Because nothing else is strong enough to contain the destruction of the self.

Believe me, I appreciate the benefit of studying and writing about trauma. The problem is, focusing on trauma may mean, as Sundberg acknowledges, trauma becomes the main factor in how women (and men) are perceived. I think this ‘fetishizes trauma’ instead of addressing its causes and treatment. When trauma, but not the means to prevent or assuage trauma, is validated, we live in a culture that upholds and prolongs suffering and alienation. I want to make it clear Sundberg does not do this, quite the contrary, and I agree with her that the comment made when she defended her thesis was inappropriate. Sundberg is right to worry

about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma. I am worried about the notion that writing about trauma is somehow easier (or less than) other writing.


This is how I feel about therapeutic writing, which means I disagree with Sundberg’s comment that:

‘Like most literary writers, I do not believe that literary writing should be therapeutic.’

Why? Is it impossible to be a ‘literary writer’ and write about healing or write as a form of therapy? Good writing, which is what I presume Sundberg means by ‘literary writing’, does more than ‘tell a story’. A therapeutic writer (of fiction and non-fiction) is capable of constructing an interesting plot and creating a memorable, intelligent narrative voice that clearly portrays engaging, multidimensional characters. Therapeutic writing can also employ evocative, stimulating language that conveys a coherent, meaningful and universal theme. Therapeutic writing can likewise describe humankind’s best and worst qualities.

Instead of focusing on trauma, a better approach is to endorse and validate healing and promote healing as a cultural, and not just individual, activity. Therapeutic writing, like any other form of writing can achieve this. It only takes the kind of hard work, attention to craft and the ability to draw on one’s lived experience that Sundberg says she devotes to her writing.

What do you think?

References

Emily Ashman, ‘Psychic Resilience in the Fragile Images of A Petal: A Post-Jungian Perspective on Retraumatisation’, in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 171-187.

Stephen K. Levine, Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), p. 120.

PHENOMENOLOGY and THERAPEUTIC WRITING.

Phenomenology is a philosophy that examines and describes how we interact with our world, other people, with things that surround us, and with our thoughts and memories, imagination, emotions and desires. In ‘philosophy-speak’, phenomenology attempts to understand subjective meaning and the significance of our embodied experiences. The phenomenology of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) is the kind I am the most familiar with, although I have read only his Phenomenology of Perception so I will not attempt to summarise Merleau-Ponty’s work other than point out he attempted to analyse our perception of embodied experiences, otherwise known as phenomena. I enjoy Merleau-Ponty’s work because he believes art and the philosophy of lived experience have:

the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world…[1]

I also like phenomenology because when we think about lived experience we need to set aside, or ‘bracket’, any assumptions we have about the phenomenon we are contemplating.

Phenomenology is the basis for a method of research often used in health care that involves interviewing and observing both clients and health care workers as they provide or receive care. A typical question asked by the researcher is,

How did you experience this situation and what does the experience mean to you?[2]

A key component of phenomenology and, therefore, this kind of research, is description. My chief interest is, of course, learning about a person’s subjective perception and experience of writing as therapy. Let’s imagine I ask you to describe your subjective perception and experience of writing a short story about a difficult incident in your life. Imagine you are one of many people taking part in the research and the data I collect includes your description of how you feel. Once I have a number of responses I transcribe each one and carefully read and re-read the material until I find several themes or ‘units of meaning’ that can be linked together. These themes might provide me with information about how and why people write and, more importantly, the meaning people gain from therapeutic writing. This method has the potential to yield rich insights into not only therapeutic writing, but writing in general.

One of the problems many philosophers have with phenomenology is that it is subjective. Phenomenologists, however, believe that embodied awareness is always located in a particular time and culture and is always intersubjective. This is because our perceptions can only ever be of the world that surrounds us; perceiving (noticing, sensing, feeling) the world means we must interact with the world as is, and with whatever, or whoever, appears to us. Because of this we cannot help but interact with the world and, yes, this confronts us with our inherent subjectivity. It also confronts us with the subjectivity (bias, prejudice, partiality) of others. In other words, if we really take notice of what is going on around us we can’t help but notice what is going on for the people around us. By listening and paying attention to the person we are with, we gain an enhanced awareness of his or her perceptions of the world; we ‘experience’ another’s perceptions.

My father used to tell me that I should never judge another person until I walked around in their shoes. When I studied Merleau-Ponty I realised both he and my father were onto something. One of my favourite Merleau-Ponty quotations is this:

solitude and communication cannot be the two horns of a dilemma, but two “moments” of one phenomenon.[3]

I think what he means by this is that we are essentially ‘alone’, in our heads, in our own little world but the elusive ‘two moments’ can occur because the embodied experience of being always and only our self is, at the very same time, never fully the self as we perceive it; it is different from the self as perceived by another. In other words, we are at the same time subject and object. It is a bit like sitting opposite a person on the bus and thinking ‘I am me and you are you’ while that person, at the very same time, thinks, ‘I am me and that person opposite me is ‘you’, which means they are definitely not me!’

Padurariu Alexandru

How do we escape the lonely trap of ‘me’ as subject and ‘you’ as object that causes us to question whether we will have anything in common with another person, particularly one who is a different race (or gender, religion, sexuality), from us? We could try and think of every encounter with another person, either a fictional character or the person sitting across from us at the breakfast table, or on the train, as a chance to seize one ‘moment of time’ and convert it to two moments of one time and allow ourselves to experience a phenomenon from two different perspectives.

I think in order to achieve this we need to practice being reflective, conducting:

a dialogue with the self […] a critical enquiry into our own thought processes, prejudices and habitual assumptions about […] power and authority, professional role, diversity and the match between [our] values and principles.[4]

In other words, we need to ditch our self-importance and give the other people in our life a little more space to be themselves. Is it possible that people who read a lot tend to be better at critically inquiring into their thought processes? Is it is easier to put aside our habits, assumptions and prejudices about a fictional character than it is with the people we love?

Does this mean we should try to ‘read’ our friends, family and workmates as if they are a character from a book? I wonder what would happen if we tried? What could we learn about ourselves and others? Have you ever experienced one moment through two different perspectives? What happened? What did it feel like? What did you learn?

I also wonder if, as well as experiencing the perceptions of another ‘real’ human being, a writer experiences an intersubjective relationship with a character they create. Could writing fiction, where fictional characters experience events (or phenomena) based on the therapeutic writer’s life be more healing than writing autobiographical material? What do you think?

 

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by Colin Smith (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), p. xxi.

[2] Linda Finlay, Phenomenology for Therapists: Researching the Lived World (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p. 8.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, p. 418.

[4] Gillie Bolton, ‘Who is Telling the Story? The Critical Role of the Narrator in Reflective and Reflexive writing’, Educational Reflective Practices, 2.1, (2012), 35-54 (p. 46).

An Ocean of Writing

I have been reflecting on the difference between therapeutic writing and creative writing. They are not the same but they swim together in the ocean of our psyches, that dark-light place where we must learn to breathe differently.

Creative writing is delivered via the clefts and crannies of literary genres and styles.

Therapeutic writing defies genre and abhors conformity; it reveals what is hidden in the crevices of our heart.

Creative writing is not only alert to a reader’s tastes and aversions, but also to a publisher’s predilections, predictions and perversions.

Therapeutic writing is nothing less than a writer’s lesions, lacerations and longings.

Creative writing is exhaustively edited and intimately connected to history, elitism and the infallibility of tradition.

Therapeutic writing is unalloyed, the past is only a concern when it can be changed; it is classless and unerring in its quest for revolution.

Creative writing is an exhibitionist; its performances justify its originality, it panders to television, the stage, radio, podcasts, computer games, rappers memes and even graffiti.

Therapeutic writing is private, introverted, reserved, internal and timeless,

Creative writing is plays, poetry, creative nonfiction, flash fiction, short stories, longer stories, novels and words written in the sky. It is epic, it is lyrical, it is rhetorical.

Therapeutic writing is a list, a letter, a memoir, an autobiography, a fragment of a dream dropped onto the page. It is the snatch of a conversation. It is literal. It is intimate. It is discreet.

Creative writing is a school bus yellow Butterflyfish serenely displaying its primary status.

Therapeutic writing is a cerulean, spike-bladed, fin-spined Surgeonfish with impenetrable boundaries.

Creative writing and therapeutic writing are alike even as they are different; they dwell together in the swell and billow of our imagination, they drift in the medium of our emotions. To bathe with them is to be cleansed by their truths and their lies.

Therapeutic Writing: The Power of Constructing a Story.

As I mentioned in my last post, James Pennebaker was one of the first to research (and confirm) the positive benefits of therapeutic writing. He has written or edited ten books and authored or co-authored over 250 articles on the subject. It is little wonder he is considered to be the founding father of the field, although in recent years his research had shifted to analysing the power words have on people and politics.

Pennebaker’s initial work tested the value of ‘expressive writing’. He started by asking participants to:

  • Write every day for four days about an upsetting experience, major conflict or other stressors. Participants could write about the same issue every day or focus on a different situation
  • Explore, through writing, the feelings and thoughts that emerged about the situation
  • Explore, in the writing, how the experience was connected to their past, present and future identity.

Along with the benefits of therapeutic writing Pennebaker discovered that difficult feelings emerged, either during the writing process or shortly after the writing session. He believes this is similar to the experience of ‘seeing a sad movie’ and should diminish after a few hours. If the distress continues, the writer should stop writing and seek immediate support.

The writing activity Pennebaker set for his participants was ‘free writing’, or what I called in my second post ‘raw material’, unedited emotional writing that has, for the most part, informed decades of research into therapeutic writing. It should be noted, however, that Pennebaker did not discourage working on and editing the written material although he did not promote it.

While there may be several problems associated with Pennebaker’s research methodology, I want to mention just two:

  • A large number of participants in his early research were young, healthy university students who volunteered to take part in the study
  • The written expression expected of the participants may have been too brief to yield conclusive, long term results into the usefulness of expressive writing.

Both concerns have been addressed by numerous studies and, in clinical terms, therapeutic writing is now an accepted, multifaceted treatment where an individual takes part in either an ongoing period of regular writing, and discusses it with a therapist, or a group writing session. Both individual and group writing sessions demand specific skills on the part of the therapist or counsellor. This ‘writer/counsellor’ needs to know how to help the therapeutic writer with the creative process of writing and to work through the initial trauma or reason for therapeutic support.

The Writing Cure is a book of essays acknowledging Pennebaker’s contribution to therapeutic writing and examining more than two decades of research into it. Jeffrey Berman‘s review of The Writing Cure laments the lack of input from the arts and humanities on therapeutic writing. Because I am interested in the therapeutic benefits of creative, sustained and edited writing needed to produce and prepare a short story or poem, I agree with Berman. The psychological underpinnings and positive benefits of therapeutic writing need to be considered but the effect of reading, rewriting, editing, proofreading, and above all, sharing creative work should also be studied. Perhaps the arts and humanities need to join with psychology and science and discover what happens when a writer sits down and writes?

I am among the several million humans who have, over the years, needed to consult a therapist or counsellor. When a member of my family married overseas I had counselling to discuss my fear of flying so I could travel to the wedding. I have never, however, been treated by a counsellor who used therapeutic writing as a healing tool. I used my journal for that. When I returned to university and started writing short stories I started to feel more confident and more capable than I had in years. Yes, I enjoyed being a student again, meeting new people and learning new skills, but submitting assignments on time and juggling study, work and family was stressful, so why was I feeling so good? Was it because I was turning personal material from my journal into third-person-narrated-stories and sharing them with my classmates? This question drove my PhD research, so imagine my excitement when I read this comment from Pennebaker:

Movement toward the development of a narrative is far more predictive of health than having a coherent story per se. The construction of a story, rather than having a constructed story, then, may be the desired endpoint of writing …

What did he mean? Was my experience typical? Why is the process of narration more helpful than a pre-formed and rehearsed story about an incident? Could creating a narrative while writing about disturbing experiences help change behaviour?  Could others benefit from this information?

Collecting statistics so you can understand how an essentially creative pursuit like writing is therapeutic, is like catching rain drops during a storm. I understand the need for objective, primary data but can we assume there is a ‘universal truth’ that fits all cases? How do we deal with bias in designing the research question and interpreting the results? What about differences in the writers’ backgrounds, education and resources? When and where does the writing occur? What about the context of the writing experience? Is cathartic free writing the only way to write our way into well-being?

By 2008 I had my Creative Arts degree and had enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing. I wanted to research therapeutic writing that goes beyond ‘raw material’. I did not have the skills or resources to conduct quantitative research so I decided to take Pennebaker’s work into account but explore the potential of writing for therapy using the elements of story: character, plot, dialogue, setting, theme, point of view and narrative voice. It turned out there were other people exploring this form of therapeutic writing and I will discuss them in the next post.

References

Pennebaker, James W., and Janel D. Seagal. ‘Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative’, Journal of clinical psychology, 55.10 (1999): 1243-1254 and Graybeal, Anna, Janel D. Sexton, and James W. Pennebaker. ‘The role of story-making in disclosure writing: The psychometrics of narrative’, Psychology and Health 17.5 (2002): 571-581.

How can research help us understand therapeutic writing?

Once upon a time, only people like Aristotle, William Shakespeare and Graham Greene knew that writing is therapeutic. ‘Give sorrow words.’ Shakespeare told us, ‘The grief that does not speak/Whispers the o’er fraught heart, and bids it break.’ Centuries later Greene added that, ‘Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.’ But how do we know therapeutic writing can help us feel better about ourselves and our world?

James Pennebaker and Sandra Klihr Beall are the heroes of this story. In 1986 they realised that not talking about personal problems or trauma added to the stress caused by the trauma. They wondered if writing, instead of talking, about the situation would help, so they measured the effect writing about a problem had on a person’s mental and physical well-being. The results confirmed that ‘expressive writing’ helped alleviate the stress caused by trauma. Pennebaker and Beall’s initial studies were repeated and in the late 90s and the early years of this century independent researchers combined the results of all known research into therapeutic writing. These studies (known as meta-analyses) corroborated nearly three decades of research; writing about one’s troubles can soothe the hurt. Pennebaker and Beall were the first to prove what Aristotle, Shakespeare, Greene, and many others, knew instinctively.

While Pennebaker continued his research, writing groups designed to help people deal with trauma (or to support personal growth), were developed. Many of the facilitators were trained counsellors, some were writers interested in writing as therapy and all wanted to support people interested in writing as a healing tool.

This is where things get interesting. The two methods of investigating and practising therapeutic writing are fundamentally different. On one hand, pragmatic, quantitative trials measure the effect therapeutic writing has on large numbers of people, and allow researchers to draw reasonable conclusions about the reliability of therapeutic writing as a healing tool. These trials can be repeated and a range of variables can be controlled. On the other hand, therapeutic writing programs focus on writing techniques and an individual’s experience of telling their story. Workshops rarely produce hard numerical evidence and most researchers are nervous about things like creativity and imagination, variables with the potential to skew or influence the results of an investigation.

Do we have to choose between workshops that support writers striving to portray Greene’s madness, melancholia, panic and fear, and randomised, scientifically constructed trials? Don’t both methods prove writing is a form of healing? Is it time to change our focus and do more research into why therapeutic writing is helpful?

I believe the power of story can help us understand why therapeutic writing works. Stories are everywhere. Many blog posts relate stories of loss and suffering, resistance and hope. Novels, television dramas and comedies, movies, plays and even successful advertising campaigns are all stories. We are immersed in story; we create meaning through story; we create relationships through story. The next time you meet a friend for coffee you will probably tell each other stories about what has happened since you last met. Brian Boyd believes stories are an evolutionary necessity, part of an ancient need to ‘understand ourselves, to think—emotionally, imaginatively, reflectively—about human behaviour.’

If therapeutic writing is another form of story making then maybe it works because it helps us to:

  • Organise distressing events into a coherent, lucid narrative,
  • Share how we overcame adversity, or imagine how we can overcome it,
  • Reflect on how we dealt with our problems (or how we can deal with them better),
  • Understand how a challenging situation changed us,
  • Understand and reclaim our inner world, and
  • Understand the meaning of human suffering.

Writing therapy is ‘story therapy’. Writing our stories empowers us, particularly if they contain symbols, heightened language, metaphors, interesting characters, dialogue and plot. Stories can be a balm for the troubled soul; they make even irretrievable loss bearable. Researchers like Pennebaker, Beall and others handed therapeutic writers a potent weapon for personal and universal change. When we write our stories, we honour the work of these pioneers.

Do you think therapeutic writing can help us feel better about ourselves and our world? Why do you think it works? I look forward to reading your comments.

Those of you who have started following this blog (thank you) will have noticed I post new material at the beginning of the week. Next week’s post will provide more detail about Pennebaker’s research, and the following week I’ll discuss qualitative research into therapeutic writing.