Recently I read an article that got me thinking about the role writing has played throughout the different stages of my life. One of its most interesting statements explains that writing about emotionally charged memories is good for the writer’s physical, as well as emotional health. Processing one’s stressful life experiences by writing about them again and again eventually changes one’s thoughts, or cognitions. This is called “cognitive restructuring”; it turns out that the act of writing about our most upsetting memories repeatedly, from different angles, affects not only the way we think about these memories in the present, but how our body feels as we remember our past.
As a girl, reading books and writing in my journal were my coping strategies; though I didn’t know it at the time, reading and writing helped me manage chronic stress that often threatened to drown me in sadness, anger, and confusion. Even before my father’s suicide when I was age ten, our family was not thriving. The most frequent communication pattern was either silence or anger. My mother struggled mightily to tolerate her own fears and insecurities without translating them to rage or brooding. My father’s dramatic mood swings, due to his undiagnosed bipolar disorder, confused and unsettled me. Whether he’d arrive home from work and go straight to bed or read me a bedtime story was never predictable. And my brother’s untreated emotional challenges wreaked havoc on his sense of worthiness as a member of his adoptive family constellation.
For years, my journal entries were filled with accusations and insults – most often towards my mother, whose shaky self- esteem worked like a poison infecting the emotional health of everyone closest to her. How could I have known that these cathartic rants would serve me well as an adult? And in ways I couldn’t possibly have fathomed at the time they were written? Or that my feelings towards her would alchemize into a blend of curiosity, affection, compassion, and even admiration decades later, when I took on a caregiving role in the last ten years of her long life?
Through my life-long poetry and prose writing on the topic of my father’s fateful decision to end his life on August 10, 1961, I have journeyed with him, toting my own range of emotions — from deep sadness, agonizing regret, debilitating confusion, to eventually compassionate acceptance. The article I mentioned earlier states that writing is just another form of problem solving. Without realizing it, writing the story of my life again and again over the years has been just such an attempt — to solve the existential problems I have confronted as a child and adult, or at least to understand them from a prism-like perspective. In so doing, I have finally discovered the treasure so long buried from me — trustworthy peace of mind, spirit, and body. Sometimes I name it a remarkable redemption.