Monday, June 25, 2012

The limits of “therapy”: Some writing on not writing

I left the Air Force, I moved across the country, I enrolled in grad school, I started a blog to write about war. But I never said writing about war was easy.

I said it was therapeutic. And it was. Until it wasn’t.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when that shift occurred – I think it’s been shifting for a while – but it manifested itself in a very unattractive emotional breakdown last week. In the midst of my crying/nose blowing/self-pitying incoherent sob-infused mumbling, I had an epiphany: writing about painful experiences is painful.

Okay, that wasn’t really an epiphany… it’s pretty self-explanatory: Writing a personal account of a traumatic event means reliving, re-engaging, re-imagining said event. Of course it sucks! But writing also means processing, intellectualizing, making peace with the event, essentially ripping off the Band-Aid and exposing the raw wound so it can be treated properly. So you can heal.

Writing is proven effective in promoting healing after trauma – proven through my personal experiences and through legitimate scientific and psychological research. Cognitive Processing Therapy, one of the main methods currently being used to treat PTSD in military veterans uses writing as a key component; it’s a direct antidote to the PTSD tendency of “avoiding people or experiences that remind you of an event.” (My boyfriend, Colin, chronicles his personal experiences with Cognitive Processing Therapy in a blog series for

What I realized, though, as I writhed on the floor of my boyfriend’s car (seriously), is that there’s a limit to how much healing can take place within the delicate balance of reimagining and intellectualizing. Too much of the former too soon following the event, or within too short of a timeframe, and the brain can’t progress to the latter.

Looking back, I think I tipped the scale during my final assignment last semester. I wrote a piece about my first experience with death in the military; a friend was killed when the aircraft he was piloting crashed in Afghanistan. Understandably, it was a hard piece to write. But the event had been gnawing at me . . . I knew I had to process it, and writing was the best way I knew how. It was painful, but I had a deadline, so I gutted it out, vomited everything up on paper. As happens with vomit, the result was a bit messy.

Armed with feedback from my class, a few weeks ago, I set out to clean up the mess. But I couldn’t. Literally. Not only could I not write any more about the event, I couldn’t even think about writing without feeling physically ill. When I wasn’t feeling ill, I was feeling terrified because I was reminded of the last time my psyche forced me to stop writing – In Afghanistan, when I slipped into my own version of the Dark Ages and wasn’t sure I’d ever find my way out.

The emotional breakdown came later, when the same ill feeling crept into other efforts at other pieces. From there it was a short leap to doubting the validity of my future plans, cursing my lack of focus/motivation/organizational skills, the malicious cycle of getting upset over getting upset, dubbing myself a failure, writhing on the floor of my boyfriend’s car.

They say if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what if you don’t like lemonade? What if you’re allergic? What if you can only drink small doses and life just so happens to give you a crapload of  lemons?

Maybe I need to wait for my lemons to ripen a bit (though patience has never been my strong suit). Maybe I should just throw some away, try some apples instead.

Maybe I shouldn’t be mixing school (or indeed, my future livelihood) with “therapy.” Maybe I shouldn’t put so much pressure on myself to be productive (and gag the inner voice that keeps telling me it’s the whole reason I’m here!). Maybe I need to stop defining productivity in terms of numbers of pages – and numbers of pages that directly apply to my now very scattered and incoherent thesis project idea (see previous parenthetical).

Maybe I should forget about maybes and what ifs, have a glass of wine and go to bed.

If it was that easy – if anything was – this blog would be pretty lame. 


  1. Hey Lauren, I have to say that I truly enjoy reading your blog. I'm no writer, but as a psychologist-in-training with a few known writing skills, I can admire both your talents with drawing your audience into the raw truth of your experience and your brave choice to go there in the first place. It's not my place, but since I am biased, I might add that doing PTSD exposures on your own (if that's what you're doing) is really hard to do, and you might think about having some outside help with the process so you don't have to become a puddle in your boyfriend's car just to get an essay written.. Then again, I've known a few writers, and I get that sometimes becoming a puddle is a welcomed part of the process...
    Anyway!! Great blog. -Jen

    1. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful feedback, Jen! Puddling is definitely not a welcome thing for me, but I dare say it's somewhat necessary at times... I understand now why writers tend to be stereotyped as a bit neurotic and/or overly emotional. I'm actually going in for an initial Cognitive Processing Therapy consultation later this week, so hopefully that will help push me through this barrier, and minimize future puddling. I'm sure at least my boyfriend's upholstery would appreciate that =)

  2. I know what you mean. The last story I wrote was one I started in April and finished about a month ago. I haven't been able to focus on anything since. So I've written or re-written just two pages of a new piece almost every day for the last week, looking for someplace to go, but I keep going in circles. I know what I need to write through, but I just can't process it. What's more is I'm terrified that once I head down that road, I won't be able to make it back. All I know how to do is run. I'm tired of living my life crumbled in puddles on the floor.