Last week, through the magic of social media, I made contact with a penpal I’d last written to over a decade ago (she has since written a wonderful piece on catching up with old friends here).
Exchanging letters is a wonderful way of making and cementing a bond. You share a little bit of yourself on paper and then give that unique incidence of it away to someone else. There were no ‘sent mail’ folder or saved files back then.
From one meeting (and exchange of postal addresses) on a boat when we were 7 or 8, a friendship grew in letters that survived well into our teenage years, through cross country visits to each others houses and now to brunches in London as we approach our thirties.
Arranging to meet this weekend has necessitated the use of faster forms of communication and it was in an email this week that Bee told me she still had all of my old letters. I’m excited and a little nervous about reading them.
I expect that they will take me right back to the time when I was writing them (dotting the i’s with stars or smiley faces of course), drawing in the margins, writing the address (I can still almost remember it now) and putting them in the postbox across the road from the bus stop. Not just the details of life aged twelve, but back into a sense of what it felt like to be me when I wrote them. Luckily, we were writing before the particularly difficult mental health years kicked in so I don’t expect them to be painful reading – but I expect the physical reality of a letter, the feel of the paper, the biro scored into it and the handwriting upon to make it clearly from another place, another time and another ‘self’.
Google searches reveal lots of information about writing formal letters and structuring cover letters. There’s lots of advice on how to write letters (or emails) which are effective in getting you what you want. What is not immediately evident is anything on the letter as a creative and personal tool for communication, self guidance and exploration of thoughts and emotions.
The dictionary describes a letter as ‘A written or printed communication directed to a person or organisation‘. I think that part of the power of a letter comes in that word ‘directed’. Unlike a diary, a letter is written ‘to’ someone or something. There is an assumption that you are, in some way, giving the receiver new information, thinking towards them. As a result sitting down to write a letter necessitates a clearer explanation of your thoughts, actions and ideas than a diary entry might require; even one which starts ‘Dear Diary’. It feels as thought there might be a lot of ways that letters and letter writing can be used to understand and manage mental wellbeing.
I recently wrote a piece about mental trickery in mental health which described depression as an island.
“It’s as if my depressed mind and my healthy mind are two totally different islands. I don’t live on just one island where sometimes it is sunny and sometimes it rains. That is the island of someone without depression, someone who in the normal course of life sometimes feels happy and sometimes sad. That is the island I inhabit when I’m not depressed. It rains sometimes too, but I can remember what the sun feels like when I’m there.
My depressed mind is not an island where the sun used to shine but now it is raining. My depressed mind is an island where there is always dark fog and rain….When I am an inhabitant of depression island I can’t even imagine the sun. Something or someone external tells me that there is an island where I usually live where the sun shines.But while I have become someone that has always felt the rain and seen the fog, I can’t know what sun even feels like. It’s hard to trust in something you can’t feel. Trusting that you will feel better in a way you can’t imagine now is hard.”
The piece goes on to talk about ways that you can communicate between the islands in an attempt to remind yourself what the sun and the light feels like. In turn, this can help you to recognise the depression for what it is – not your reality but a temporary, if currently all encompassing, state.
Recognising this when you’re feeling on top of things is the first step and reminding yourself when you’re feeling low is the second. Who better to remind you than yourself? In your handwriting and on your paper you could recognise yourself. Even if you can’t ‘feel’ it you might be more likely to believe in what your other, happier self, might be saying.
On the last session of my MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) course we wrote a postcard sending a message to our future selves reminding and encouraging that self to continue with, or restart the mindful meditations. We handed them in and they sent them on to us three months later – recognising that hearing from ourselves might work better as a reminder than a note from them.
So how should you start? I’ve explored the benefits of journalling a lot. Letters are a wonderful way of getting starting with the often alien but ultimately fantastic process of playing with words and putting them down on paper in a way that may well be purely for your own eyes.
I’m tempted to say start with a nice book. However I tend to find that the nicer the book the more reluctant people are to actually get started. I would say write your letters on loose leaf paper. Then you can rip them up, start again, throw them away, send them or bundle them together as you please. There’s no right or wrong way of doing this after all.
Write a letter to your depressed self – Send a letter from the sunny island. When you’re feeling good, sit down and write to yourself as you are when you’re depressed. Remind that self how you feel when things are going well; try to describe the positive and hopeful feelings, the things you take pleasure in and the things you are looking forward to. Recognise that your depressed self is going to be unable to really imagine any of these things but remind them that, like before, things have changed and improved in ways that they can’t imagine when caught up in that negative fog.
Write a letter to your happier self – One of the tricks the mind plays is that of ‘discounting the future’.In general, being happy in the present (today, this week, this year – depending on the time scale) seems to be typically more desirable than the prospect of being happy in the future (tomorrow, next week, next year).But it can be more difficult when what you are discounting is a period of depression. Sometimes we need something of the memory of depression when we’re feeling good to help us manage it. So write a letter to your happier self, reminding yourself how bad feeling depressed feels. The idea is to motivate your happier self to keep doing those things that keep them well – be it eating well, getting enough sleep, mindfulness, exercise or controlling your alcohol intake. You might even find that the process of sitting down and writing a letter when you are feeling low helps take you out of yourself and gives you some perspective on your current mood.
Write to or from your future self – If you’re feeling low or lost a good exercise can be to imagine what your future self might look like. What goals might they have achieved, how might that feel and what will that look like to others? You could write to your future self, explaining where you would like them to be and how you would like them to feel. Or you could put yourself in the shoes of your future self and write back to yourself now, letting you know how things are going and what you have achieved. This is a nice way to pin down your goals and start to solidify what feeling happier might look like for you and how you might start to achieve it.
Write to your past self – It’s become quite common for celebrities to publish a letter to their sixteen year old self, passing on some insights from how their lives have developed. It’s a good opportunity for reflection on where you are now and what you now know about yourself, your moods and the world. In the same vein, what advice might your future self give to you now? You might find reading some other peoples’ published letters helpful too.
Unsent letters – When out and about getting on with our lives, we often find ourselves thinking to people – having conversations with people in your head and thinking through what we might say to them. The act of writing a letter can help pin down these swirling thoughts and ruminations. It can help you clarify this these thoughts, working out if what you’re saying is what you actually feel.
If you have a difficult conversation ahead, write it all in a letter first – and then work out from that what actually needs to be said. If you decide it all does, you can give it to them in full. If not (sometimes leaving a letter overnight, or until you feel calmer can change your viewpoint considerably) you can pull out the key important points. Choosing to share your letter could also be very helpful in making sure those who you are receiving help from – be it a GP or a counsellor, really understand what you need. When I finally decided to seek proper help for my mental health at uni, it was a letter which I shared with my parents, tutors, friends, boyfriend and GP which explained how I felt and got the process started.
Sent letters – So far we’ve been looking at letters as a creative tool for reflection and personal support. We’ve explored the types of letters you might write to your other selves. But letters that are actually sent can inspire the thoughtful honesty and clarity that nurture and improve romantic, friend and family relationships. As I say in my piece on managing depression and anxiety in a relationship, putting something down in words to someone who you see every day can feel weird but the odd exchange of letters can help give you the space to spend time framing things exactly right, clear your head and share your state of mind.
If your friend or partner suffers from depression, a letter of support encouraging them to open up to you might help them get started.
This post has been focussed on handwritten letters and the impact that something in your own handwriting and written to you directly can have to remind you of your other selves when you need it – but of course many of these exercises can be done online too. I’ve explored writing more generally and the role it can play in helping you manage mental wellbeing here. What do you think? Have you ever written a letter to yourself or someone else that made a real difference?