In the Blog
Writing: A Potent Healing Modality
Illustration: Erin McPhee
A few years ago, I quit my job and moved back to my hometown to do an eating disorder treatment program. I’d had enough of hating my body, feeling vaguely anxious and depressed, and I just wanted to fix it and get on with my life. I set my mind to just doing it—whatever “it” was that would solve this cycle of anxiety and depression, which always resulted in unhealthy coping mechanisms.
While I was optimistic about getting treatment, I ultimately found the experience disempowering. The three months I spent in the outpatient rehabilitation program were maybe more depressing and anxiety-inducing than the previous three months; my nutritionist didn’t really seem to get why I was there and my counsellor couldn’t really answer the questions I was asking. What was “normal,” exactly, when it came to eating and lifestyle? What exactly is the end-goal of this treatment? I felt like my whole life was this guessing game I just couldn’t find the answer to while everyone around me seemed to get it.
I followed the Canada Food Guide pretty much to a T. That was what I was told to do, but I knew that I needed more than the Canada Food Guide and nutritionist guidance to treat my anxiety and depression and the chronic migraines they led to—all of which made me feel unable to “be” myself. I had so many questions that I didn’t know how to ask, because I felt like they were impossible to answer. Mostly, I didn’t know why I couldn’t stop hurting myself even though I wanted to.
When I told the experts I was working with that I didn’t think the food guide alone was enough to help me, I was made to feel like the eating disorder made me unable to trust my own judgment. It was as if it was this thing in me that meant I was fundamentally flawed. If I felt powerless before treatment, I really felt powerless now.
With a bit of time and perspective, I realized I’d never want any of my friends to feel helpless when it came to their health and their body like that. So I quit the program and decided I had to shift my focus away from all the confusion instead of trying to figure it all out and try to become a different person—that way just felt impossible.
I enrolled in a creative writing course, because that’s what I knew I really wanted to do at the very end of the day. Through writing and sharing with a super supportive, creative community that embraced the messy process of creating, I gained so much. I wrote a version of the story of my previous three months in treatment from the perspective of myself far off in the future, and in doing so, I was able to remove myself from my thoughts about it, take them out, and look at them for what they were. I got to see it from a totally different perspective, and I didn’t feel so “in it” anymore.
From that place, I was able to build up the confidence to talk about my problem in a way that I knew I needed to. I just had to get clear on what my end-goal of treatment was. I had to realize my own reasons for wanting to get better, what it was I wanted to use my health and my life for. At the end of the day, I just wanted to be part of a creative community that was interested in effecting positive change. I could have control over my artistic contribution, as opposed to my body, something I have come to see as trivial. I couldn’t give myself to any system and have it do the work for me. I had to learn how to listen to and trust myself, and believe that I had a unique perspective to offer. That took looking inward.
I wish that folks with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue struggling to express themselves can find ways to feel empowered to understand their issue and to understand themselves as separate from it. Writing is a really helpful way to initiate that empowerment, alone, or with a community.
Here are a few resources I think are tops for supporting the healing journey through writing:
Kelly Ann Maddox’s Journal Prompts – Choose from many inspiring journal prompt questions based on different themes like Self-love September, “Heal, Reveal, and Get Real,” and more, from this heart-centered small business owner.
Rookie’s Creative Prompts – This tag is a collection of weekly instructions for creating art like a kid, meeting your fictional alter ego, exploring your dreams, and more, from the Rookie team.
Danielle LaPorte’s The Desire Map – Create your own “map” to get clear on how you want to feel in life, and what you need to do to achieve it. This self-help book is about goal setting in a perspective-granting, enjoyable way.
Top Ten Art Therapy Visual Journaling Prompts via Psychology Today – If you’re a visual learner, follow one of these art journaling prompts to help heal from trauma or release stress.
If you haven’t yet tapped into the awesome built-in healing tool writing can be, and if you feel disempowered or alienated by (or not quite ready for) the care you may already have access to, check out any of these prompts. I hope they help you on your journey.