Peeling the Onion
Writing for Well-being
Psychotherapy and other techniques that bring repressed emotional material into consciousness can also heal, both psychologically and physically, by helping us to achieve peace of mind. One interesting series of studies by psychologist, James Pennebaker and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser asked twenty five adults to write down details of disturbing life experiences and to describe their feelings about them. A control group of equal size wrote only superficial topics. Blood tests showed strikingly improved immune function among the emoters, who also made fewer visits to the doctor, but no improvement among the control group. Six months after the experiment was over the emoters still showed positive health effects.
Dr Bernie Siegal notes that by "focusing on events that most people forget as quickly as possible, the emoters allowed themselves to express their feelings and hence gave their bodies 'live' messages. It seems that the act of writing down events allowed the emoters to rethink them. In other words they engaged a simple form of cognitive restraining. The events themselves remained the same but lost their destructive power,
Such mind altering techniques can make us less susceptible to disease, or better able to turn it around if we are already sick. By helping achieve peace of mind, they give us access to our body's healing system. It takes more distress and 'poison' to kill someone who has peace of mind and loves life."
My work as a teacher of writing has demonstrated the therapeutic benefit of writing. I have been privileged to receive many pieces of work which demonstrate the power of this creative medicine.
One of my Year 10 students wrote this piece after completing a guided imagery in class.
'As I sit on the soft warm sand I watch the waves lap up on the sand. The seagulls fly above and I know that this is a beautiful place. There is a beach that goes on as far as I can see - a place where I can really be just me, and sit and think about everything. I often come down here, just to sit and think when I am scared , sad and lonely. Although I am surrounded by many people I feel as though I've escaped the problems of the real world.
As I sit here looking out to sea my mind flows back to a day almost two years ago. May 21 was a dark, sad, gloomy day. I was taken out of fifth period to the Principal's office. At the time I was hoping I wasn't in trouble; looking back I wish I had been.
As I entered the room with a desk, a few filing cabinets and a couch I saw my father and immediately knew something was very wrong. He told me he had some bad news and that Pa had died. It did not hit me at once and I thought it was just a bad dream. When my sister entered the room and Dad told her I knew it was true. I started crying and I had so many questions I needed answered: When? How? Why? None of this made sense.
We arrived home to see Mum. As expected, since it was her Dad, she was very upset. I went and laid down on the couch. No matter what I did I could only see one face and that was the face of my beautiful Pa.
He was a frail man who was once very big and strong. Dad answered two of my questions. He told me when and how but no-one could answer why.
That night the phone rang constantly with friends saying we were in their thoughts and we had their deepest sympathy. Big deal I thought. It wasn't going to bring my Pa back. The funeral was a few days later. It was a nice service and to close the ceremony they played the Essendon Football Club theme song - a song Pa loved.
After the service everyone came back to our house. I really felt like telling them to leave. Everyone was happy; eating and drinking. What did they have to celebrate? Nothing! My Pa was dead and they were celebrating!
Everyone finally left and I was happy to see them go. I went to the comfort of my bed and cried myself to sleep. Things didn't get any easier after the funeral. I missed Pa like crazy and for nights on end I cried myself to sleep for him. But still no one could answer the question of Why?
As the ice cold water hit my toes I woke from my daydream and smiled. Although I miss Pa, for the first time I understood why he died that day. He was saved from suffering in the future and I was spared the pain of seeing him go through it.
As I slowly got up and left the beach I knew Pa was happy now wherever he was. And I knew I would be back again when I was scared, sad or lonely. I know this beach is a part of me that no-one can ever destroy or take away; just as they can't destroy or take away the memories of my Pa."
When we started the guided imagery Kerry felt that some of the writing activities were pretty stupid and was not slow to tell me so. It was not within the realm of her understanding to sit and write the first things that came into your head. But grief had made her dysfunctional during the year her beloved Pa died in Year 8. She did take my advice and turned to her journal for solace. It was two years later, back in my English class that the real breakthrough happened. She participated in a guided imagery that commenced in a wheat field. She found herself on the seashore daydreaming.
She later told me that it was as she wrote that she came to grips with her Pa's death and found the elusive answer to why her Pa died on May 21. Kerry included this piece in an Album of Memories that we worked on throughout the term, carefully surrounding her piece of writing with pictures of her Pa and the Essendon Football players her loved.
The calm she felt after completing this piece, along with the altar in her album is a sensation she has not forgotten. Her writing not only comforted her but assisted her mother who, Kerry confided, cried when she read it. Tears came to my eyes too.