"At forty I hit the wall. I couldn't keep going. I quit my job and began to write. Somehow I had to deal with the sadness that sat at my core and grew heavier...When I wrote, I let my thoughts flow unchecked...Only through writing could I come to appreciate my life's complex tapestry; only through writing could I get to a place where I embraced my life and everything in it..." - Susan Zimmermann, author of Writing to Heal the Soul.
Susan Zimmermann experienced a devastating loss when her first child, Katherine, developed a neurological disorder that left her unable to walk or talk. Faced with her daughter's disability, Susan struggled with fear, denial, guilt, bitterness, and despair. She began to heal only through writing. Working through conflicting emotions with paper and pen enabled her to transform her sadness into acceptance and even joy. Her first book, Grief Dancers, allowed her to reach some resolution in her sorrow over her daughter's developmental disabilities owing to Rett syndrome. In Writing to Heal the Soul, which won the Colorado Book Award, she uses anecdotes from her life and the lives of others to introduce writing exercises designed to help us resolve our pain and transform our grief into words of hope and healing.
In the introduction to Writing to Heal the Soul, Zimmermann stresses the importance of silencing the inner critic that says you aren't a "good enough" writer, or that your words aren't worthy. She also points to research and several simple techniques to help us reap the healing benefits of our writing:
- Write about your deepest thoughts and feelings.
- Write in a place where you will not be interrupted.
- Write frequently-daily, if possible-not less than three or four times a week.
- Write for yourself only, not for an audience.
- Seek professional help if you are wrestling with severe depression. Writing might well be one part of your broader therapy, but don't rely upon it alone.
Susan has generously offered to share several of her inspiring exercises with the readers of the Survivor's Review.
Exercise: The Turning Point
There is a point when you realize your life will be forever changed. When did you get the phone call, the diagnosis, the pink slip? When did the severity of the prognosis sink in? Go back to that time and place. It seems impossibly difficult, but it is where we must start. Shakespeare said, "Give sorrow words." That is what we are doing. Capture the scene. Where were you? How were you dressed? Who else was there? What did the place look like? How did you feel? What did you do? When did the fear set in? Did someone let you down? Who? How? Write down all the details. Let your hand, not your head, be your guide. Be specific. Don't strive for perfection. Be as negative, angry, frustrated, aggravated, whiny, ornery, disgusted, disdainful, despairing as you wish. Don't Hold Back (DHB). Begin with "I remember..." Keep your hand moving for fifteen minutes. Cry. It's okay. It's good. Tears release our pent-up emotions. They bring them to the surface of our lives and let them flow out. They are healing waters. Write through the tears.
Exercise: The Unfixable
We live in a fix-it culture. We want quick solutions to complex problems. But what happens when something that we don't choose, chooses us? Is there something in your life that you can't fix? Write about it. Write about all the things you did to try to fix it. Write about how you felt about not being able to fix it. Did you get angry, bitter, numb? There aren't "right" ways to respond to a life loss, but you do need to be honest and look deeply at how you chose-and are today choosing to react to the circumstances thrown your way. Begin with "I tried everything in my power..."
Exercise: What you Can and Cannot Control
Change gears. Now write about what is/was in your control and what is/was not. (I can look for a new job, get excellent medical care, go to family counseling, create a support system; I cannot cure my husband's cancer, force my lover to get therapy, fix my child's brain, stop my company from downsizing.) Begin with "I can...." List everything you can do. Then shift to "I cannot..." List everything that you cannot do.
Exercise: Forward and backwards
We go in circles. We get better. Then we're undone by a memory. We think we have put the pain behind us. Then some little object or event or picture jogs our memory, and it's as if we've made no progress at all. The pain spews, like lava, to the surface of our minds. That is the nature of memory and the nature of pain. It is important to spend time thinking and writing about those things that don't pass; those things that continue to bubble up to our consciousness, though we've accepted our changed life and have, in many respects, moved beyond the heartbreak. We must honor the pain that remains and explore the images that surface. Let's take a deliberate step: Write about the one thing that is hardest for you to deal with. Begin with "I have come a long way. But I can't stop thinking about..."
Exercise: Staying Open
It is easy to be immobilized by pain, to believe that our lives are over and there is nothing that can help us. We're numb and we're convinced we always will be. Yet there are surprises around every corner. When we have been wounded one of our greatest challenges is to move far enough out of ourselves that we advance beyond our sorrow to a place where life has flavor and can be savored once again. There are opportunities for each of us to step beyond our usual boundaries. These "creative moments" abound if we keep ourselves open to them. We had lots of them as we were growing up. It is part of the reason we remain nostalgic about our youth, because of all the new territory we charted-first kiss, first car, first formal, first bra, first lover, first paycheck, first plane ride. Write about a time you remained open and tried something new or took an unexpected journey. This can be something you did yesterday or twenty-five years ago. How did it make you feel? How do you feel about it now? Write about what it meant to your life then and what it means now.
Exercise: I Want To
List fifteen things you'd like to do that you've never done: take a boat ride on the Seine through Paris, sing backup for Fleetwood Mac, beat Bobby Fischer at chess, hike into Grand Canyon, learn to tango, see Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas. Just thinking about things you'd like to do awakens you to life. And remember, there is no better time than NOW to try something you've never tried before. This is an active exercise. We need action language. Begin with "I've always wanted to..." and follow that opening with a verb: run, write, dance, eat, skip, bounce, race, climb, tour, etc.
Susan Zimmermann is also the author of Keeping Katherine, Grief Dancers: A Journey into the Depths of the Soul and coauthor of Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop and 7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read and Get It! She speaks throughout the United States on the healing power of writing, the value of our individual stories, and ways to deepen reading and writing experiences for adults and children. A graduate of the University of North Carolina and Yale Law School, she practiced corporate law prior to cofounding and serving as executive director of the Public Education and Business Coalition, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes business support for public schools. A wilderness buff and believer in the transformative power of the outdoors, she has served on the Colorado Outward Bound board and as the board chair of The Women's Wilderness Institute. Susan, a mother of four, lives in the foothills west of Denver with her husband, Paul Phillips. Learn more about her at: www.susanzimmermann.com.