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.

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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.