Writing to Heal Abuse Works
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After neglect, sexual and physical abuse, wholeness is possible. Christine “Cissy” White of Weymouth has transformed fear and secrecy into a vibrant love of self and others. The act of writing aided her triumph. An activist for other survivors, she founded Heal Write Now, which shares recovery from the inside out through writing.
Writing to heal is documented. In a 1998 study, researcher Dr. James Pennebaker confirmed that writing 15 to 20 minutes for four consecutive days about one’s deepest feelings or negative experiences can lift stress, boost the immune system, and strengthen the mind. Study participants had suffered trauma or catastrophic illness. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it’s been a very beneficial experience for them,” said Dr. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, which conducted the survey.
As a young woman, Cissy White, was diagnosed with PTSD, the after effects of her childhood. In her 30’s she took Nancy Aronie’s writing program on Martha’s Vineyard, and discovered a new road to wholeness, empowered by writing, and said, “I’m the author. I’m the storyteller. I’m not a character in somebody else’s story, it puts me in control. I’m not the victim anymore.”
Interpreting her past pain was key to recovery, as Dr. Pennebaker’s research shows that venting on paper is not enough. Healing is gained through exploring and learning from one’s written emotions and experiences.
White, now 48, shared her lesson, “People in my life who were abusive or neglectful were not capable of loving me better because of the ways they were hurt when they were young. They acted out instead of transforming their pain.”
White is transforming her pain into purpose, to show others that joy and wholeness are possible. Survivors often feel bitterness, revenge, fear or shame. The past cannot be changed, but one’s reaction to it can be. For example, White nurtures her “inner child” with love and patient attention. Her past does not define her, and writing liberated her from a shame she never caused. A work-in-progress, she said, “While I do consider myself whole, I do not consider myself cured, but writing has helped me so much.”
Sharing one’s writings is not necessary, according to the study. However, for White, the community with other writers is powerful. “I’m just like everyone else, writing a version of my life. Suddenly I don’t have to sit at the table for ‘damaged people.’ I’m not more damaged than anybody else and all my life I thought I was. I’m just a person who has a particular story. It was comforting.”
To create meaning from tragedy is a spiritual act, and White said, “I have no control over what people have done, but I do have control over what I do with it. If we know things are wrong, we have to take action to make things right. We have to break open these difficult conversations.”
This column appears nationally through GateHouse More Content Now, 8/25/2015