memoir

Mem-oir noun: a written account in which someone describes past experiences.

Memoir, Maybe?

Even though I’ve journaled on a daily basis for 37 years, I still find that certain events in my life require more than just a journal entry to make sense of them. Yesterday we learned about the health benefits of journaling as a way to achieve mental wholeness. Today we’ll talk about what to do if journaling doesn’t provide relief or growth.

I discovered that after my husband recovered from cancer, it seemed to take me a very long time to return to normal. When we experience frightening events, our bodies produce adrenalin to help us cope with the situation. For those who experience trauma over a period of time, the body becomes habituated to producing adrenalin on a constant basis to deal with each event.

In my case, my husband’s catastrophic illness caused a series of traumatic events that spread over a 10-month period. By the time he received his stem-cell transplant, I had started to exhibit signs of chemo-brain by proxy. As he recovered from his cancer treatments, I entered a state of depression.

If I would have understood what was happening (caregivers can experience a type of PTSD), I would have sought help. I figured I needed extra sleep because I had lost so much whilst taking care of Pedro in the hospital and at home.

When I read over the symptoms of PTSD and depression, I realize that I suffered from some form of both. The symptoms (both emotional and physical) would flare up when I experienced emotional angst: Friends of friends died in a plane crash, a really stressful argument with a co-worker or Pedro, physical exhaustion from holding down a full-time job and a part-time job.

The Secret to Healing

I discovered the secret to healing when I discovered that someone else had gone through a similar caregiving journey. We started to write about our experiences in a series of short stories. Time after time, as we exchanged stories, we both felt known and understood for the first time.

As I wrote about my experiences in story form, I came to understand and identify the feeling that I had at the time. Once I understood my feelings, I could process them and decide what I wanted to do with them. I journaled regularly throughout Pedro’s cancer journey, but I wrote very little about the actual events and how they affected me.

Research backs this up. Susan Lutgendorf, PhD, of the University of Iowa, along with her doctoral student Phil Ullrich, studied the effects of journaling on those who experienced trauma. They discovered that just writing about traumatic events might make the person feel worse. But when study subjects focused on meaning, they experienced positive effects.

“You need focused thought as well as emotions,” says Lutgendorf. “An individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”

Although Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘memoir’ as writing about past experiences, everyone knows that the meat in memoir comes from the universal lessons that the author learns from his or her past experiences.

Maybe You Have a Memoir in You

memoirJournaling can start you on the road to mental wholeness. It gives you a forum to express your gratitude, gripe about petty annoyances, and talk to a disinterested third party. I discovered that when I wrote about my past experiences with intent, the results changed, too.

By delving into how Pedro’s cancer affected me and my family, I began to understand both the annoyances and the miracles. I saw his journey differently—and I now know that God blessed us through each trial. I also learned a valuable lesson about how to survive traumatic events. Writing about them helped me to make sense of them.

Three years ago, we almost lost our youngest daughter to an undiagnosed mental illness. It took a year to find her help, and I experienced some of the same physical ailments that I experienced after Pedro recovered from cancer. This time, I made a point to process the experience through writing about it.

Writing a memoir doesn’t mean that you have to have it published. Memoir writing means that you intentionally write about past events in order to understand them better. In the process, you’ll find healing.

Writing a #memoir doesn't mean you need to have it published. It's more about making sense of your memories. Click To Tweet

Getting Started

    1. Read a memoir or two to see if you can relate to that way of processing emotions. I suggest The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls or Atlas Girl by Emily T. Wierenga (affiliate links).

  1. Check out websites that explain how to write a memoir. Marion Roach Smith has a great one. The Write Life has a helpful article, as well.
  2. Just start writing. Pull out the typewriter, blank sheet of paper, or fire up the computer and just start writing. Try to write to an audience and show how an experience changed you. Remember that good storytellers show, they don’t tell.
  3. Set it aside. After you write a draft, set it aside for a few days or weeks. Go back and look over what you wrote. Your insights might surprise you!

Nurture Yourself Takeaway #4: Writing focused stories about how past events impacted you can help you achieve mental wholeness.

Come back tomorrow to learn how self-help books may help you achieve mental wholeness.

17 Comments

  1. I think this is why I have this desire to write about my deployment experience. It was really hard and really shook up so many things in my life and then when I came home instead of coming back to what was normal my husband had moved across the country and life was so different. I don’t know if I have really recovered from leaving my home to come back to it being gone (even though just all my stuff was moved). I didn’t come back to anything normal. That made it hard to adjust back to normal life. Thanks for sharing. i never really thought of that before. Blog post idea??
    Amanda recently posted…Living and Surviving in Harms Way: Kapisa PRT, AfghanistanMy Profile

  2. This is a great idea, Anita. I started keeping journals years ago when I first started homeschooling. Sometimes it’s hit and miss, but I’ve got several journals now that help to bring back memories. But the writing is also healing as I’m able to get things out. A few years ago I thought about writing a memoir and maybe I should get back to it. It’s easy to think that no one would be interested, but maybe someone else has gone or is going through the same kinds of things and can use the encouragement.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Blessings to you!

  3. Wow, Anita! You and your family have been through the ringer! I’ve never really thought about how a spouse’s serious illness could cause PTSD in the healthy spouse, but that makes total sense. I’m pinning this post to my PTSD board and would love to have you share a link at my linkup at messymarriage.com. This is a very well written and inspirational post that I hope helps many who face similar struggles in life.

  4. I agree, this sort of writing can be so helpful. Like you, I have journalled for several years but two years ago for Write 31 Days I wrote my story in a more structured way, including the lessons I’d learned along the way. It was really helpful in making sense of things and seeing God working through events in a way that I hadn’t really appreciated at the time.
    Lesley recently posted…We Are The Fellowship Of The BrokenMy Profile

  5. As a life long journaler –you KNOW I love everything about this! And I LOVE love love that you point out that writing a memoir doesn’t mean it needs to be published! So good, my friend!

  6. i love this anita! i have heard of the book by Emily Wierenga but not the other one. i guess I need to get moving:) Thanks for the help. I notice that my feeling, based on many events of my early childhood, has been, Why waste your emotional energy reacting to what is happening now? These short term problems may all get resolved and it will all be fine.

    it doesn’t do much for long term emotional health for sure! Thanks for this.

  7. Anita, I am excited that I “discovered” your blog. As an author only since 2011, I enjoy learning more about writing. You are on target in this article! I am a retired educator who wrote A Promise Kept, my caregiving memoir, and self published it as a way of collecting my emotional thoughts and experiences for my family. Realizing that many others could be encouraged by the memoir, I went public and host events in my community to encourage other caregivers. I am sharing your link for them. You have some good suggestions for people to work through life events. Thank you.

  8. There is definitely a memoir in me. Really writing out the effects of my daughter’s passing away and all of the other trauma from that time is something I’ve done in fits and starts, but never a comprehensive memoir. I agree it would be of great benefit to me. Now I just need to start.

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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