Words, Words, Words

The catharsis of writing

by Tara Labovich

In the past two years, I’ve filled five journals with poems, short stories, “brilliant” ideas and daily entries. I’m on my sixth one now.

They live on a shelf by the door to my room. Visiting friends have an uncanny habit of tracing their fingers along the worn, sometimes torn, bindings. The confident ones are brave enough to slide one or two off the shelf and tell me which cover is their favorite.

To see another person hold those journals can be unsettling. They contain my secrets, fears and longings between their covers, and it is all accessible with the twist of a wrist and the flipping of pages.

I’ve kept diaries since I was a child. I was pretty bad at it though; I felt obligated to write interesting things and tell thrilling stories I would want to flip through later. Unfortunately, grown-up Tara isn’t excited about reminiscing about a terrible haircut or a second grade love triangle. 

Although I no longer feel a need to write to an older self or pretend I’m in a movie, there is still a tangible urge to write. 

One of the most fundamental reasons why I write is to just get it out. If I don’t clear my thoughts, they start to decay and rot and stink up my mind. When I write, I have a clean slate. Because I write, pieces of unformed ideas and awkward poems don’t come tumbling out at inopportune moments.

In my writing, I have the freedom to explore that which I would not typically reveal to the general public. In the “real world,” I probably wouldn’t dramatically proclaim to a romantic interest how their gold-flecked eyes remind me of Sif’s golden hair. Nor would I describe in detail to my mom how I cried and screamed when my heart was broken. And I would definitely not feel comfortable divulging any of this to a stranger. 

But I can do all these things with poetry.

However we might try to avoid or conceal them, these thoughts and events do occur within our personal worlds. By writing and creating art, we put the events of our personal life into a form that becomes accessible to the public. Even if we don’t share our journal entries and songs, the creative process—transforming the intangible to tangible—is affirming as well as terrifying. Art is the bridge between the public and the personal. We begin to reveal ourselves. This can help us understand our basic needs, desires, and fears and sometimes even uncover what path is necessary to address personal issues. 

Art is the process of recording our innermost worlds. It can be healing. 

In fact, there have been several studies showing the benefits of journal writing. When dealing with emotional turmoil, Dr. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist, recommends journaling for 15 to 20 minutes a day for four days. He says that this practice has strengthens immune systems and improves grades.

I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for the majority of my life. When counseling and medication didn’t work for me, writing was one of the few things that helped me recover.

Initially, the things I wrote explored the impact and experience of these mental illnesses. They were raw, written in classrooms and in cars, but mostly in tears. 

The sentences were long. The words were sharp. My usually soft handwriting turned pointed, forced and shook in time to my breath. I often couldn’t leave my notebook until I had finished writing what I started. 

“Maybe I should untangle my contorted self away from the door and let the knives of their words spiral and twist into my mind until it gives up and stops sending those signals to my heart that tell it to keep on hoping and loving, and then my lungs will quiet and begin to savor the rancid air and my body will stop shaking and my legs will relax and stretch out their tense muscles and my tongue will sing with happy silence, my eyes will stop seeing all the bad world and my ears will close to the terrible ballads and my mind will become silent.”

I wrote that a little more than a year and a half ago.

My writing was primarily concerned with feeling things, even if it was just feeling pain. Depression had numbed me to the point that it felt like my emotions were swarming on the surface of my skin, unable to penetrate any deeper. They were outside of me. 

Everything felt disconnected. Conversations swept around me rather than through me. I would sit for hours, unable to move. I felt like I was shrinking into myself, and the distance between the world and me was growing.

Oftentimes, writing was the only way I could experience and connect with reality. This kind of writing plunged me deeper into it all. However, it was from this dive that I was able to breathe again. I was able to finally look up once I had stopped looking around. Self-denial, or worse, self-pity, wasn’t an option. 

When there was a moment of hope, I wrote about it. When I felt like I was slipping back down, I wrote about it. Each poem or reflection was a landmark, and from there, I was able to draw a map to follow. When I had recurring panic attacks in the middle of the workday, I would scribble down the experience on a sticky note or a napkin. Holding my words in my hand allowed me to believe that I could take control again. 

All of these little moments and thoughts were collected in my journals. So, when someone picks one of those journals off of my dusty shelf, I wonder if they realize exactly what they clutch between their fingers. 

Through writing our stories down, we can begin to understand ourselves and heal. And there is nothing shameful in revealing that to other people.

I used to hurriedly grab them back, nervous that someone might read something revealing. Now, I let them flip through.