By Madeline Strong Diehl
Editor’s note: Madeline Strong Diehl is an award-winning poet and playwright who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband. Her therapeutic writing programs are designed as peer-to-peer workshops, integrating her knowledge and skills from more than three decades as an essayist and professional magazine writer and editor, along with her 20 years of lived experience as someone with a diagnosis of mental illness. For more information about her workshops and coaching, see www.madelinediehl.com.
I have been using therapeutic writing since I was eight years old, though it didn’t have that name back then (ca. 1960s). I grew up in a highly dysfunctional, chaotic family. My father was a submarine commander and spent six months out of every year away from home, leaving no forwarding address. My mother was left mostly alone to raise us five kids. Whenever emergencies happened (and they did!), she was unable to contact our father, though she was allowed to send him cheerful, perky letters. There were always lots of secrets afoot, and a child can sense that. Not surprisingly, our mother was often depressed, and I, too, felt depressed, anxious, lonely, and isolated — partly because we moved every year or two, and partly because I was much younger than my four siblings. I learned that I could hide under my bed and write about my feelings and all the confusing things going on, and no one would bother me. I also discovered that all the stress and tension building up inside me would melt away whenever I wrote about my feelings after hurtful things had happened to me. I even learned how to put a positive or even humorous spin on events so that I did not feel oppressed by them, and I guess that was how I developed the skills of a humorist.
Over time I learned that the words that I used in my journal affected my mental attitude and my emotions and mood. We are constantly telling stories to ourselves and others about who we are and what is happening to us. If we feel anxious and depressed, we are probably telling ourselves that our life is a tragedy and that we are the trapped and helpless victims of outside forces we cannot control. But we can write that narrative over and over again until we turn our story into a comedy that ends on a high note, almost no matter the circumstances. We can work and work on our story until we become the hero of our own lives, making active decisions about how to make them better. We are literally the authors of our own lives — we shape our story with every action that we take.
This is in essence the fundamental approach of “therapeutic writing,” though I did not learn its name until I had already designed and led an 8-week therapeutic writing workshop for seven veterans with mental illness as part of a VA hospital outpatient program during winter 2016-2017. My students constantly told me that I was changing their lives, but I reminded them that they were changing their own lives by becoming the heroes of their own life stories. The therapists with whom I worked urged me to teach therapeutic writing as my profession, and I have been building up my business since then. For six months beginning in the spring of 2017, I lead a semi-weekly workshop for vendors of the street newspaper “Groundcover News,” most of whom lived in unstable housing. This experience led me to have great admiration for my students and their faith, integrity, and strength of character.
Freewriting is the central activity of my workshops, where we focus on just moving our pen across the paper for 15 minutes without trying to control the process. My students from “Groundcover News” and I were amazed at the treasures that just dropped out of their minds once they had the time, space, and peace and quiet to write — indeed, several wrote their first poems in just 15 minutes during their first freewriting exercise, and these poems were remarkable for their unique perspective and expressive power. Several of these poems were published in “Groundcover News,” and my workshop students gave at least five public readings of their work in fall 2017 to full houses and much applause at bookstores and cafes in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Many of my students from this workshop told me that writing in their journals helped them believe that they could chart a better course for their future and make better decisions for themselves and their lives.
Because therapeutic writing has made such a difference in my own life, I wasn’t all that surprised when I found that it could make such a big difference in the lives of veterans and people with unstable housing — two groups of people who are at highest risk in our society. But I was surprised when I led a regular writing workshop for about 10 professionals and discovered afterwards that they were eager to then participate in a therapeutic writing workshop with me. I realized that I had stereotyped this group of people — which included advertising reps, accountants, and engineers — by concluding that they earned so much money that they couldn’t possibly need the extra emotional support of therapeutic writing. This was an important heads-up for me. Pretty much everyone right now in our society is under tremendous stress, and now that organized religion has lost much of its credibility, many people feel like spiritual orphans, groping to find meaning and community in a world of paradoxical communication overload.
A May 2018 article in the online publication “Science Alert” provided some objective perspective on this, beginning with the ominous title: “America Really Is in The Midst of a Rising Anxiety Epidemic.” It reported that fully 40 percent of survey respondents said that they felt more anxious than the year before, and this came on the heels of a 36 percent increase between 2016 and 2017. The survey showed that people were particularly anxious about “health, safety, and finances.” Also, according to the report: “While anxiety over politics and its impacts on daily life is less common, it’s still a source of stress for more than half of Americans (56 percent of respondents).”
Many mental health professionals and researchers believe that the incidence of anxiety disorders and depression are probably underreported. People from every background and walk of life seem to be under untenable stress right now, and that’s why therapeutic writing can offer such a powerful antidote. It’s very affordable and accessible to all, practically without exception. All you need is a pen and paper and an openness to see yourself and your life in a new way — as someone with the power to change your life and reclaim your dreams.
I design and lead therapeutic writing workshops because more than 200 scientific studies have proven that therapeutic writing is highly effective in helping people maintain and enhance their physical, emotional, and psychological health. I have also observed remarkable positive changes in the mental health and outlook of the dozens of people who have participated in my workshops over the past three years.
One of the first tools I teach my students is how to construct positive affirmations in order to turn around any negative thoughts and/or memories. We also list our blessings to anchor ourselves in the positive. And we learn mindfulness skills through these and other activities. Mindfulness, in turn, promotes health of every kind, and it is the same with dreams. Many of us set aside our dreams in the hustle and bustle of our lives, but it’s our dreams that nourish our spirit and keep us whole, body and soul. By returning to and recovering our dreams, we become grounded in what is most important and lasting in our lives, and less vulnerable to the rampant materialism and alienation in our society that has become so soul killing. Since ancient times storytellers have been the healers of a society, and it’s time we took back the power of words and learn to heal ourselves.
Following is an excerpt from the “Science Alert” article Diehl references in her essay:
“America Really Is in The Midst of a Rising Anxiety Epidemic”
9 MAY 2018
New survey results show Americans’ anxiety levels experienced a sharp increase in the past year, with almost 40 percent of respondents saying they felt more anxious than they did a year ago.
That’s a pretty big spike – following on the heels of a 36 percent jump between 2016 and 2017 – and it means this year’s national, averaged ‘anxiety score’ has tipped over halfway on a 100-point scale: it’s now sitting at 51, with a five-point increase since 2017.
“This poll shows US adults are increasingly anxious particularly about health, safety, and finances,” says American Psychiatry Association president Anita Everett, whose organisation sponsored the survey.
“That increased stress and anxiety can significantly impact many aspects of people’s lives, including their mental health, and it can affect families.”
This year Americans reported feeling more anxious across the five key areas of the poll – health, safety, finances, politics, and relationships.
Anxiety over finances saw the greatest increase since 2017 levels, with people concerned about having enough money to pay bills and other expenses.