A recent CNN.com article discusses the use of blogging as a form of therapy. Apparently this is true not only for the writers of the sites but the readers as well, as the piece talks about how people's messages on blogs can be particularly affirming because the material is public. It's essentially group therapy.
Writing as a therapeutic device is not a new development. Some therapists ask clients to simply journal their thoughts and share what they feel comfortable with in session. This can have a cathartic effect. I rarely ask my clients to write in a free-form style, but more often to jot down specific thoughts that are associated with negative shifts in mood. More often than not, patterns in thinking emerge, which we work together to alter. When that happens clients often see a vast improvement in their feelings.
Some people have written to me, asking if I use ShrinkTalk as a form of self-therapy. Generally speaking the answer is no, even though one individual wrote on another site that ShrinkTalk is simply a way for me to "therapute myself." I laid out the goals for the site here and I still see the site as serving these purposes.
Because I don't consider myself much of a self-healer I decided to turn to Erin Tyler, author of The Bunny Blog, to expand on the CNN.com article. Erin is a brutally honest writer who always struck me as trying to work through some painful past and present. I asked her a few questions about her site and what, if anything, comes from the writing:
This is a difficult question to answer, I think, because it deals with the stuff we're not good at discerning and describing as a people, the emotions. All that ephemeral stuff. It's vital, of course, to pay attention to it, but it's the immaterial stuff, so I think it's easy to say its not there, shove it aside, or shove it down--that certainly has been my problem in life. So I think, to grant any sort of validity to therapeutic devices such as writing, you have to explain the before, and then explain the present, and if there's value in the writing, then those two things will be very different, and the present will be the better of the two.
And so, here is my before: I started writing ten years ago in October. I'll explain where and why and how in a bit. I should first tell you what I thought of my life at the time. I was graduating college in the upcoming spring, Rochester Institute of Technology. I came from a decent family; had two loving parents who'd been raised in stable homes. My family was good folk. Hardworking folk. German and Irish immigrants mostly, with a little bit of Iroquois. My parents had been married 30 years and I had an extremely close relationship with my mother. I probably hadn't had an idyllic childhood, but that was my own fault, because there was something inherently wrong with me at my core, from birth, and that was the reason I was suffering. I was too stubborn, too sensitive, too selfish. Nothing particularly bad had ever happened to me; I was merely inferior to everyone on earth, and there really wasn't anything good about me. Because of this, I was eating disordered, in and out of controlling and abusive relationships with jerks, addicted to a handful of different substances, alcohol, pills, sex - anything that would put me out of myself, to be honest. Not to mention, I was at war with a depression that had gripped me since before puberty, the source of which was just...fate, I guessed. I was in a lot of pain, and I had tried to commit suicide twice the previous winter. Because I was bad at everything, I failed at both attempts, but I was pretty certain I wouldn't be alive much longer. I couldn't take the hurt because I was weak.
So October of 1998, my family gathered to bury my uncle Mark, who at little over 40, had sold all his belongings, run a length of pipe from the tailpipe of his car through a hole he had drilled in the wall between the garage and his bedroom, filled his bedroom full of car exhaust and died. We were shocked. We had no idea why he did it. He left a note and in it was an explanation--something about him feeling inherently inferior to everyone.
There I was, hovering over my uncle's corpse, disturbed, shocked and grief-stricken, thinking all sorts of things: he was a really good guy, how did this happen? What about my cousins? They're alone now. How can I help? What can I do? All the things you worry about when something tragic happens--and I stopped for a second, and had, maybe, the first selfish thought of my life.
It came in an odd way: the image of Uncle Mark puking behind the garage at Christmas. It had happened, and everyone had seen it, but where did the thought go when I filed it away in my brain? Why was it suddenly back?
This lead to a questioning of Grandma's strange and invasive relationship with all of Uncle Mark's girlfriends and wives. This is ordinarily that part where my brain involuntarily responds with a blocking of some sort, a stoppage, a wall, and then quickly changes subject. But there was my uncle's dead body right in front of me, and the wall didn't come up. I thought, who the fuck does she think she is? It was refreshing, freeing, and after that came an image of just one of the times I saw Uncle Eric be a brutally condescending prick to Uncle Mark.
And it was if somebody had turned on the light inside of me and my brain was full of roaches. Patterns emerged. Nasty ones. For generations on both sides of my family, the sensitive one with the unusually close relationship to his/her mother, the one everybody relentlessly "teases"...dead, usually while young, and by their own hand.
And I had a selfish thought: I am next.
I left the calling hours, and walked past the quarter mile long line of crying people who loved my uncle to a convenience store, where I bought a notebook and a pencil. I wrote a poem. It wasn't good, but that didn't matter. It felt amazing. I began writing stuff down all the time. The indecipherable, indescribable stuff. The haunting stuff. Whatever I could get out, really.
And so, now ten years have passed. I am not the same person. There really isn't anything about the real me that resembles who I thought I was back then, and the real me is the truth.
I cling to the lowest rung of a deviant, hierarchal structure of power addicts who project their angst and self-loathing onto their nearest inferior. It's a lot like growing up in a cult, only at the top of the cult, there's Grandma instead of David Koresh. I am at the bottom, so I do not have anyone but myself to abuse, and I have done this faithfully since before puberty. My mind and identity have never belonged to me. I am just now gaining control over them. If I still had a relationship with my family, the family would decide who I am, implant false memories of a nice childhood during which I was not abused, but was an awful, selfish and spiteful child who was inherently evil and hopelessly incapable. My parents have never been happy with me. They have never been happy in their marriage. My mother is an extremely troubled woman, whose moods are so changeable, and at times violent, there are large parts of my childhood I don't remember. My father watched my mother abuse me and said nothing. My parents watched me abuse myself and said nothing. My parents both ignored and publicly humiliated me, and I was little more to them than an inanimate substance. A drug.
I grew up a Catholic. I grew up a bisexual Catholic. I grew up in a low-income, Catholic neighborhood full of troubled Altar children, a neighborhood full of sexual predators. I was repeatedly sexually abused.
That's different, no? Better? It doesn't sound better, but it is. My, God, it is so much better. The pain, and the self doubt, and the self destructiveness is melting out of my life, more so with each passing day I sit down, write and commit to belief a little bit more of this person that I am and have always been, which is a good person from a sick family. A smart person who works really hard.
Its difficult for people to understand how you can think you are a bad person when there is no evidence supporting that fact--I got straight A's and no detentions, and truly believed I was a bad kid. But you're brainwashed. Your ability to self assess is taken from you, and feelings are not allowed. No one can feel. If they did, they walk the fuck out, so it's declared selfishness to feel things. Moreover, the message is: you do not matter as a person, beyond the material, or your ability to sacrifice for the family, and so you further suppress feelings. Sit on them. That's a dangerous way to move through life, particularly if you're seeing things through as cracked a prism as mine. You gobble up all the booze, and drugs and sex you can get your hands on.
Writing gave me license to feel things. My journals were a private place I could spit anything I wanted. I laid down all these suspicions I had. I made them real, every day, and through the years, I pieced together an autonomous me that was off limits to anyone else. I wrote a real me.
I know, and not at all casually, that had I not found writing, I would be dead. You can call me overdramatic, but where is my uncle? Where is my cousin Jimmy?
Q) Does that fact that it's a public forum, as opposed to a private diary, bring anything additional to the table, as the CNN.com article suggests? Do readers' comments, emails and feedback, especially if they share similar experiences, contribute further value to your writing? In other words, do you feel any sense of community with your readers, especially when you discuss emotionally laden material?
I wrote about three different answers to this question, mostly because the reversion back to the party line of "You are inherently bad" is still so powerful in me. My first answer was something like, "I get bad feedback and everybody hates me and thinks I'm a histrionic attention seeker." That's not true, at all, but that's what I had been holding in my mind.
Yesterday, I did a little exercise. I went through the email I've gotten as feedback from my site since August and collected it (half of it I hadn't even allowed myself to read). I pasted the feedback into a word document that ended up being twenty-eight pages long, and there wasn't a single negative email. I was shocked. How was I shocked? It's my email. I check it every day. How do I not know people read my site and like it?
My point is: I don't write publicly to connect with others. Its pretty humiliating to think even one soul is reading my archives. Have you read them? They're a bit nuts, and really drunken. In fact, I don't see myself in them at all any more. I see an alcoholic, crazy person who sees dead people and thinks her BFF is a narcissist who calls her "psycho bitch." Someone who is not winning at life and desperate to think one good thought about herself. I can't help but be embarrassed it was me, but it was.
People tell me I should take those stories down, but I never will. The symbolic gesture means too much to me. I was wrestling with an identity crisis, and my mind was not mine. I had no idea who I was, so I bared my soul to the whole world, and if they wanted, they could come inside and read my every ugly, humiliating private thought. Out of that gesture, I ridded myself of the false history I'd inherited from my family. If I had just let it be, it would've killed me, but I didn't. I screamed about as loudly as one can "This is the real me, nakedly, and I'm hurting, and I'm vulnerable. And these are the things I think, unabashedly, without edit, without censor." I publicly admitted things people aren't brave enough to admit to themselves at night, alone, under the covers, in their PJ's with their Teddy. That took balls, and its something I'm proud of.
I'm writing a book about all this, of course. It's taking forever. I'm still in that angry victim phase, which means I haven't fully processed the situation, and the anger is making things difficult to see and understand. There's no vantage point in the middle, you know? More a glob of gory details, making writing all the more important. Not to mention, cobbling together a true sense of self out of a thirty-year long identity crisis is a slow endeavor. To write about it eight tenths of the way through the process is to rob the story of its potential authenticity, and certainly its humor.
I think people expect I've given up because I've kept the majority of my revelations and breakdowns to myself these past few years. Not true. I've really done nothing but write for ten years, and I mean nothing. I've lived like a monk. I write everywhere, at all times, and when I sleep, I write, because I get up every morning and write down my dreams. I'm obsessed with writing. I don't stop. I am going to figure out why I got so sick, exactly what happened and why it worked, and I'm going to make sure it never happens again. In fact, the only part of the false history of me that remains is stubbornness. I am one stubborn motherfucker, and I'm starting to realize that's a good thing.