The Healing Power of Creativity

The ability of creativity to transcend the patient identity

Posted Jan 16, 2012

     I started writing my first memoir "Penetrating Madness," about my long struggle with severe and persistent mental illness during my last psychiatric hospitalization — in early 2007 on an eating disorder unit. Usually when I was in the hospital, I kept a journal, but during this hospitalization, journal writing had become repetitive and mundane. I needed more from my writing. Wanting to share my story, I wrote so others wouldn't feel as alone as I was feeling, and because there was a desire from the writer within me who was struggling to emerge.
      Writing longhand with a pencil on a yellow legal pad, I started scribbling what would eventually come to be my first published essay titled "Sharp Edges" detailing my extended battle with anorexia. I sat curled up in a corner of the unit's common living room — we weren't allowed in our rooms during the day for fear we might exercise or purge — writing and erasing, and reading aloud to myself what I had written in the midst of the chaos that made up a psychiatric floor.
     I was discharged from the hospital and I enrolled in a memoir course given at a local writer's center with a wonderful instructor. We read our work aloud in the class and received hard but practical criticism; we listened to our classmates' work and gave back also what was hopefully helpful comments. In Julia's* class "Sharp Edges" took form and shape and more importantly, without realizing it, I tentatively began to develop an identity that would transcend my illness. I wrote honestly and graphically about the anorexia, but Julia and my classmates remained non-judgmental and encouraging.
      Julia prompted me to submit "Sharp Edges" to an anthology with the theme of illness and healing and the essay was accepted. An acceptance on a first try is unusual and when I received the confirmation via e-mail, I was flying. I realized that I didn't need cocaine or cutting, starving or fantasizing about suicide to experience a high — the process of writing, of putting words down on paper, of finding my rhythm with language — this was a very different kind of high, but in a way, it was better, it was enduring.
     That summer I attended my first week-long writer's conference, "Writing the Medical Experience." Designed for those in the medical field — doctors, nurses, therapists, and even patients, I had to submit a writing sample to be accepted and I even got a scholarship. The conference was one of the most exhilarating, exciting, and exhausting weeks I have ever enjoyed. During a discussion with one of the authors, I asked, "How do you know when you are a writer? I have published an essay, but I still don't feel that I can say I'm a writer."
     The author, who had published several books answered, "Just start saying, ‘I am a writer.' You write therefore you are." It took me a while, but I continued to publish and now I can say with confidence "I'm a social worker and a writer," and I don't feel as if I am being deceptive.
     After "Sharp Edges" was published two other local authors (who had also published in the same anthology) and I were invited to give a reading. The reading was to be held at the writer's center where I was taking classes. It turned out to be a snowy Sunday evening in February and as we set up the room, we had our doubts about the turnout. But the room filled up and after all three of us finished reading, many people from the audience came up to speak to me, wanting to talk about their own experiences with eating disorders, be it themselves or a sister, a daughter, or a niece.
     Writing honestly about my illness has been cathartic for me. I write for myself, but I also write to give mental illness a voice and tell the world that recovery is possible. My psychiatrist and therapist, Dr. Adena* told me that I would be willing to give up the patient identity when I had something to take its place. I remained puzzled by what she meant; my ability to comprehend continued to be oblique for my patient identity had been all I had known for the past twenty years.
      Slowly, over the course of the past five years I've learned to use writing to soothe myself. At about the two year mark I acquired a laptop so I could make my way to a local café to write. Writing had the potential to have developed into a solitary experience if I had let it. I took my laptop to this café and sat among the other writers, students and business men and women, and felt the shared desire for companionship as we all typed furiously at our keyboards. Once in a while a couple of us shared a hushed conversation and made a connection — something that wouldn't have happened within the confines of my living room.
     I keep a stash of notebooks in my file cabinet at work as well as copies of articles on the healing power of journaling. When patients ask what more they can do to help themselves heal between sessions, I introduce the idea of keeping a journal. I tell them to write whatever comes to mind, feelings, thoughts, even doodles. I tell them that it can be theirs and theirs alone; they don't have to share it with anyone if they choose, or if they want, I would be willing to listen to whatever part they wish to tell me.
     I reach into the drawer and pluck out my pile of notebooks and let them pick one. Some of them have designs on them, some of them sayings, but most patients appreciate that I am giving them one; that they don't have to make the effort to go out and purchase it. They can begin journaling now, anytime. If writing is not their technique of choice to express themselves, I suggest they draw in the notebook, or fill it with a list of their favorite songs, or recipes if they enjoy cooking, or come up with their own way to use it.
      The notebook acts as a transitional object; my patients are bringing a part of the therapy session, a part of me as their therapist along with them in their outside lives. I hope that my giving them this small reminder of myself helps them get through the week until we meet for our next session.
     I'll never forget the time when I was struggling in a day program, the director brought me a tiny stuffed moose for no reason other than she knew I was having a hard time. After I was discharged from the program, and decided to attend graduate school, she became my mentor. She has since passed away, too early for such an extraordinary woman, but I still have that stuffed moose which sits on the desk in my bedroom at home. Whenever I get down it reminds me how far I have come from that time in the program and how proud C. would be of me.
      As Dr. Adena had promised becoming a writer gave me the opportunity to replace my identity as a "professional patient" — with twenty-plus hospitalizations that label definitely applied to me, though it hurt and evoked shame. It was a slow process to let the patient identity go, just as it was a slow process to declare myself a writer — I was fearful of giving myself a title that I didn't deserve.
     The first step of merely putting the words to paper satisfied me only for a short time. The act of sharing those words — whether it was through being published or giving a reading imparts the words with their power. I find that many of my patients, despite their initial reluctance to do so, eventually share at least part of their journal entries or drawings with me. The sharing is a non-verbal attempt to communicate how much they are suffering, how much they are hurting. "Listen to me," the words scream. "Hear me."
     Such vigor, such energy in the process of creativity. The path to creativity has the ability to heal wounds, to soothe pain. I remain indebted to this course of action set in motion by that shy woman who sat on the couch on the unit known as Seven South, scribbling her heart out.

* Names have been changed