Our group of six women sat around the conference room table of Waverly Hematololgy and Oncology, the place where I’d received my chemo years before and now participated in the first Expressive Writing Group. Mary Barnard, Office Manager and poet, was our group leader and was certified in teaching the Write to Heal program created by James Pennebaker. Based on thirty-three years of research, the program had proven to transform the emotional lives of trauma survivors. We were provided the opportunity to participate in the group through the Waverly Survivors’ Community.
We had an inital go-round of introducing ourselves and sharing some of our hopes for being in the group. Then Mary gave us an overview, discussed confidentiality, assigned a brief warm-up writing exercise, then led us to the first writing session.
“I want you to write about one of your most traumatic experiences,” she instructed us. Mary had set up the group, with the safety of boundaries and optional sharing that are essential for a trusting environment.
We had fifteen minutes and I had no problem writing continuously for the entire time. The traumatic event for me was my experience of working in that toxic research job at the same time as going through cancer treatment. While the breast cancer experience was difficult, the impact of the job that ended with being fired, had been much more damaging to my self-esteem and my professional confidence.
I wrote rapidly, with penmanship only legible to me, as I tapped into a deep reservoir of shame that had remained inside for fifteen years. Blaming the three people who made that work environment so pernicious, I recounted ways they’d misled me about the job, as well as their unprofessional behaviors at that ‘Mom and Pop’ clinical trials company. I’d written about that experience in the past, so it surprised me how much anger I still carred after so many years.
When our writing time was up, Mary asked, “How did it feel to write about the traumatic event?” Some of the participants shared about their emotions, their physical sensations, and pulling up forgotten memories. For most of the women, they had not written about their cancer experience but another trauma in their lives.
We completed a questionaire ranking to what degree we expressed our deepest thoughts and feelings, currently felt sad or upset, felt happy, found the writing exercise meaningful or valuable. Then we wrote reflections for five minutes about the experience of writing YOUR words in YOUR uninhibited language.
I’d signed up for the Expressive Writing Group, partly to support Mary’s efforts, since we were on the planning committee for the Survivors’ Clinic. I thought because I’m a writer and have journaled most of my life, that I already knew the benefits of putting my feelings on the page.
Mary moved on to the second session.
“Now I want you to write about the same traumatic experience for fifteen minutes,” she told us.
I continued to put down my angry feelings about the company, but gradually I exhausted that well of resentment and transitioned to writing with more control, less intensity. Tired of my harsh judgements, I moved on with how that traumatic experience, simultaneous with my cancer, had forged a new courage inside me. I’d been more honest in that final confrontation with that company than I’d ever been in my life. That dysfunctional work family had fueled my writing and had allowed for that serendipitous trip to Sedona that was the seed that gave birth to my solo journeys.
We completed the fifteen minute session as we had the first with answering the self-reflective questionniare and writing for five minutes.
While previous writings about that trauma had been solitary journal entries, the third session in this writing community, was about to move me forward from where I’d been stuck.
“Now I want you to write about the same traumatic event, but from a different person’s point of view,” Mary told us. “It can be anyone– for example your friend’s, God’s, or even an imaginary person.”
I wrote from what I imagined as God’s POV. In my scribble I said, “He loves me and knows my heart. I trust his omnipotent point of view in being fair.” Gradually, I brought up ways that I had contributed to the problems– something I couldn’t concede to before. Feeling the love of God who knows my weaknesses, allowed me to let go and acknowledge my part, to gain a more objective, less-victimized perspective.
I ended with, “God’s point of view is merciful. While he didn’t cause the trauma of being fired after I’d just been through cancer treatment, he is omnipotent and allowed what transpired. All of that became a ‘Refiner’s Fire’ that ultimately helped to make me who I am.”
That first group meeting ended with all of us feeling a sense of shared relief, walking out to our cars a bit lighter than when we arrived.
I didn’t realize then that those writing sessions would help prepare me for that year’s solo journey that was four days later. I traveled to Kentucky for a two-week stay at a writer’s residency. My goal was to rewrite my memoir.
During those days of reworking my memoir while sitting at that farmhouse table, I realized that my first time writing it I’d focused on my cancer. Now I had to go back and tell the whole truth– the simultaneous struggle with the research company that ended with me being fired. Now, I could admit to that buried shame, and be honest with my readers about all of my life.
How About You?
What buried shame do you have that needs to be dug up?
How can you examine it from a new perspective, a different point of view, so that you may heal and move forward in your life?
If you’d like to read about the Write to Heal program by James Pennebaker see this article in Survivors’ Review at http://www.survivorsreview.org/writenow.php?v=2
Mary Barnard may be reached for questions at firstname.lastname@example.org