- Childhood diaries
- Introspection without understanding
- Writing to change your perspective on the world
- Writing in the immediacy of the moment
- Publicly sharing immediate experience
- Writing with perspective – ‘looking back’
- Making discussion of mental health more mainstream
I’ve always used writing to know and to guide my mind in one way or another. Usually, this has taken the form of a diary or journal. In thinking about the part that writing has played in managing my mind, I had an interesting evening going through my old diaries and notebooks. The entries were initially quite amusing and nothing but a day by day record of what went on.
‘’Today Richard got his new high chair it was white with blue stripes and the seat dad got was the same pattern with frills round the edge and mum said she didn’t like it. Me and Paul might be able to have the box” (3rd Feb 1992)
“I dumped Simon today. He practically ignored me all the time. I did it nicely. I haven’t seen him since I did as he is in a different technology group. Had lots of fun second lesson of technology”(28th March 1996)
However, it wasn’t long until they became more difficult to read. This still one causes me pain, and shame at how I treated my parents when I was down.
“Mum says if I treated my friends like I treated my family, I wouldn’t have any. Why do I have such twisted anger and tension in me I have to take it out on people and get in moods” (1999)
In fact, that one was an interesting example of more perspective and self awareness than I often showed. Looking back, I can see my increased worries in weight coming from a particular few events that I record in great detail but without understanding of the impact they had on my confidence. Instead, I’d use my diary to make exercise and eating plans which I hoped, this time, would be the answer to my unhappiness. Unable to recognise that often the depression and irritability I felt was down to hormones or chemicals, I would write long lists in different coloured pens of ‘reasons not to be sad’ – and feel like a failure when I was sad anyway. These diaries became so introspective that I stopped writing them completely in 2000 for the entire of my A level years. I wasn’t using writing to help me – and I think this was partly because I didn’t realise that I could. I felt like the world was wrong, the world was making me sad. By recording how the world was making me sad all I was doing was dwelling on it.
It was since I restarted writing in 2003 that I slowly became more aware of how writing might not change the world (not the writing I was doing anyway!) but it could help change my perspective on the world. Which, when managing mental wellbeing, is much of the battle.
I read a book called The New Diary, initially written in 1976 but republished in 2004 with a forward that recognised the beginning of how the internet was going to affect the sharing of personal experiences and writing. The 1976 forward talks about the need for total privacy for journalling as ‘therapy’ to be effective – but the new one recognised and predicted that the internet would cause a increase in ‘personal’ public writing of various kinds.
For me, the division is between writing ‘in the moment’ and writing afterwards. I’ve done both and I love doing both but it feels as if they serve different purposes.
Writing in the middle of a depressive period (trying to make sense of emotions, feelings or situations I can’t seem to get my head around) is still very private. That privacy allows more freedom; you need not worry what others will think nor how they might be influenced. Writing doesn’t have to represent the truth of you – many people write out their anger in unsent letters or use their writing as a place to explore sadness that can then be set aside as a result. Writing in private means you don’t have to feel the need to balance these, to create an ‘accurate’ picture of your life for others.
Writing in the moment like this started to help me gain perspective and explore emotions and feelings about the world. Roselle Angwin puts it well in her column ‘Writing Your Self’ in Mslexia – in a quote I cut out and stuck in my own diary.
“Journal writing can be a profound tool for entering a more conscious relationship with the way we live our lives on all levels…. it’s a friend and confidante, repository of thoughts and feelings, and it’s where I work the greater picture of my life out”.
Writing, instead of being aimed at a product – a finished diary entry for example – became more of a process – an action in itself. Over time I have written letters to people who I wanted to feel closer to who were far away, letters to help me work out what I wanted to say in person – and what I didn’t need to. I’ve stuck in letters from others to my diaries to give me a sense of who I am in the world and remind me of those who love me. I’ve written in third person which takes me outside myself gives an interesting external perspective on things. And if you know why you’re doing it, there is a place for lists of positive things in your life; five things a day that make you happy can help you find and focus on those parts of your day than might otherwise go unnoticed.
One time, when my head felt like it was bouncing and spinning with thoughts I could neither from nor make sense of, I took a bunch of post it notes to the park with my journal. I just couldn’t start a proper entry, so instead I ‘caught’ the thoughts one by one and wrote them down on post its which I stuck somewhere on a page. Gradually, as I almost pulled them out of my head and onto paper, they began to run in some kind of order again. That day I managed to make sense of something that still sticks with me. I think it was one of my the most valuable times I’ve spent with a diary. The last post it note reads “Step quietly and gently. Enjoy friends and everything that makes you happy. Appreciate everything going well, don’t expect anything or think it has to happen a certain way”. A simple sentiment but with the weight of the clarity of thought the session had given me it was one that felt embedded and enabled me to get on with the next thing feeling calmer.
Another useful technique is something The New Diary calls ‘free writing’ – just putting pen to paper, without thought and seeing what comes out. I think that externalising thoughts and pinning them to paper with a pen, even in a jumbled way, can sometimes help me to see more clearly that important thing we so often forget – thoughts are not facts and we too often treat them like they are. On paper, it’s easier to see thoughts as just thoughts – and when they’re written down exactly as they come into our heads, easier still.
These journals feel much more meaningful. Some, particularly when I’m lonely, have been a comfort in themselves in the way they come to represent what it is to be me, even when I’m not really feeling like myself. Often, regardless of what I actually wrote, just the process of writing in something that had so much of me within it bought me back to myself. It’s interesting to note that I wrote more and regularly when I was less settled – my diary was my foundation in a time spent moving around and making lives in new places.
Not everyone writes privately in the moment. The internet in 2012 allows an incredible level of sharing – of experiences going on in the mind and outside it – as they happen. The details and impact of this is a topic for a book rather than a blog post, but in brief, it feels like there are both positives and negatives to real time sharing of immediate personal experience. Discussion forums provide a place for people to rant and to write down everything that is happening for them, in that moment and you can see some incredible journeys, changes and realisations in the people who use them – over the course of individual threads, months and years.
Users are writing for someone else, and receiving questions, suggestions, support and new perspectives from others in return. It’s as if this helps people to gain from writing that which I couldn’t when I was young. For people who are not ready or able to use journaling or writing therapy by themselves, one of the ways they can use the forums is to somehow externalise this process. To use writing as therapy effectively there is a sense in which you need to be able to separate the parts of yourself feeling the emotions from the parts of yourself looking more rationally – to literally ‘read’ your mind and make decisions based on this reading. Instead of doing this whole process themselves, involving others enables the person writing in a forum to gain similar benefits.
The nature of what someone wants to share in the midst of an experience can of course be untamed by perspective and hindsight – a raw outpouring as they try and represent what or how bad they feel. And this has the potential to be damaging to others. We as moderators have to ensure that posts that could trigger others to feel or act in a damaging way are controlled. Two examples of things we might edit out are graphic details of self harm and the ‘numbers’ within weight and calorie counting – which often leads others to judge themselves or to compete.
I’ve seen this sharing used in what feels like a dangerous way elsewhere too. Pro ana websites have always existed, but now there are more and more twitter accounts illustrated with a picture of an underweight body, with the vital stats in the ‘info’ section and used to share the tiniest of daily calorie intakes and endless amounts of exercise taken. Instead of just reading a site, and looking at pictures, users use these accounts to advertise their eating disorder and get real time validation from others about their body and their weight. The damaging thoughts that cause the disorder are being discussed and further embedded as ‘facts’ in their mind. In the past, these updates about food and exercise might have been confined to a private diary or notebook. Now they are responded to, encouraged and reinforced and so entrenched even deeper. It seems ‘journalling’ publicly can be dangerous too.
This is where I come back to the fact I am writing publicly right now. For me, making personal writing public is something I want to do after the fact – when I have had a chance to gain some initial perspective and tell a fuller and more interesting story about an experience. At TheSite we often had people contacting us who wanted to make something positive out of a bad experience by sharing it with others. This can help those still struggling in the midst of a difficult time benefit from the insight of the hindsight of others. I wrote a longer piece here about stories and support; how they can create emotions, help people understand and share emotions, communicate emotions and inspire action. I’ve had people contact me when reading this blog and telling me that reading about a process of recovery has given them hope. I could never have told these stories whilst in the midst of the hardest times – and if I did, the pieces I wrote would have had a very different impact on others
But (perhaps selfishly!), it’s not just about helping others. Writing publicly like this seems be, in itself, a way of improving my own mental wellbeing – a different way to private journalling, but a way nonetheless. There’s the enjoyment of creation, exploring new ideas and thinking about things in new ways. There’s the excitement when things link up and ideas flow as I’d like them to – and of course the buzz when someone tells you they like it, that it strikes a chord with them or gives them hope.
And finally, by sharing some of my writing and being open about my experiences, I hope that we can help make discussion of mental health and emotional wellbeing more mainstream. Maybe everyone’s writing together can change the world, as well as our perspective on it!