By Janet Reynolds, Creator of Write On!
I was in second grade when I got my first diary—with a lock!—and began chronicling such critical events as where Michele and I rode our bikes and whether or not my mother let us stay outside late enough to play hide and seek in the dark. Fast forward to some 20 journals later and I still keep writing.
While I have made my career as a writer, editor and teacher, the reason I keep journaling is simple: Writing is how I make sense of my life. Or to quote author Flannery O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
It wasn’t until our son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, however, that I realized how writing down my thoughts was my own lifeline to sanity. That it was through words—sometimes chaotic, sometimes lucid—that I could make sense of what was otherwise a completely non-sensical moment. Writing down my deepest fears and feelings enabled me to let go of the panic and anxiety I felt virtually all the time. It alleviated some of my feelings of helplessness. Looking back over past writing eventually also enabled me to remind myself that we actually had made progress even when the slog of our daily lives seemed to suggest otherwise.
And so I kept writing. I wrote about my pain; I wrote about my fears. I chronicled each horrific day, reliving each moment. And, over time, I began to feel just a little bit better. At a certain point, our son jumped into the project with me, organizing his thoughts on paper at a time when organized thoughts could be a Sisyphean task.
In part, it was that exercise of writing myself and watching my son and collaborating with him, that made me realize more completely how words really can help heal. I decided to create Write On! with Mental Health Connecticut to provide people, young adults in particular because they often get overlooked once their initial crisis is over, with a plan for how they could incorporate writing in their continued recovery process.
The class meets weekly for 8 classes, culminating with each student performing a piece they’ve worked on in the class as part of a Family and Friends Night. The class is simultaneously a writing class, discussing what comprises good writing and storytelling, as well as a primer for how to dive deeper into their own personal stories. Is there a story they’d like to change, a story whose ending they’d like to rewrite? Someone they’d like to forgive?
During the 8 weeks, we also work with our local comedy improv group, Sea Tea Improv, on social and presentation skills so that the students are ready when it’s time to read their final piece. These are recorded and become part of the Telling Tales Podcast that we have created for these stories.
While I intuitively knew that writing can help us all, we got scientific confirmation last year. A pilot study of the program last year by the University of Hartford’s Center for Social Research found that participants had increased levels of hope for the future and lower levels of self-stigma after taking the class. Self-stigma can undermine the recovery process. According to the study’s findings: “Interventions targeting self-stigmatizing beliefs can potentially break the chain of negative events. The Write On! Workshop is one such intervention.”
I also continually get direct feedback from my students about how writing and storytelling, and this program in particular, impacts their lives. Lauren, now a Write On! Alumni, shared her experiences in a detailed letter, and included this insight:
“Write On! gave me the confidence to write without judgement. It taught me how to be a better public speaker and performer. It gave me a beautiful support system, and helped me heal old wounds. After years of putting myself down, Write On! helped me reconnect with my love for writing. It has helped me to find my voice, and for that, I will be forever grateful.”
The impact of the students’ stories goes beyond the students, however. Audience members at the Family and Friends Night unanimously note how much hearing these stories gives them a better understanding of what having a lived experience can mean. And that can help end the stigma around mental health.
How writing heals is different for each person, of course. And the role writing can play varies from day to day, depending on the day. But a few overarching themes have stuck with me in my own journey navigating mental health and writing. I offer them in case they can be of help to you.
The journey is not linear. It sounds pat but accepting this can enable us to let go of days when we feel as if we are either standing still or sliding precipitously backwards. A sideways walk for a bit is not a bad thing unless we see it that way. All movement has something to teach us if we’re open to looking at it.
Sometimes the only way out is through. Sometimes you just have to keep moving. The path may be hard to find, your steps unsure and uncertain, but sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the other and trust that at some point the path will make sense.
This too shall pass. When I am at my lowest, I try to remember that nothing is forever. In 20 minutes, I tell myself, things will be even just the teensiest bit different. It may not feel much different in 20 minutes but it will be that much closer to being resolved. And we can all do anything for 20 minutes, right?
Janet Reynolds is an award-winning writer and editor and former high school English teacher. As a seasoned editor and marketer who understands how to tell a story and how to get that story out to the world, she is currently writing a memoir about her family’s journey with schizophrenia. Reynolds holds a Masters in English Literature from Trinity College and lives in Canton, Connecticut with her family.
Want to connect with Janet and the Write On! Community? Join the Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/writeonmhc, and follow Write On! on Instagram: @writeonmhc