The Grit and Grace Of Personal Writing
With a personal inquiry as to how much is okay to reveal when writing about the difficult stuff in your journal Psychologies Life Lab expert Jackee Holder reflects on the death of Psychologies columnist Sally Brampton and the challenge of mental health care and funding in modern day UK.
I have been writing a journal for over thirty years now documenting the ups and downs of my life. My journey with my journal has been intimate, thought provoking, revealing and sometimes upsetting when the truth of what I feel or am not facing looks up from the page at me in black and white and holds nothing back. Most of the time I cannot argue with what is before me. It is my hand that wrote the words and my subconscious that has spoken. But herein lies the challenge whatever gets deposited in your journal is not the whole and absolute truth.
Lately after years of extolling the many psychological benefits of journal writing I found myself at a cross roads in my journaling practice - what if all this deep penetrative writing about all the woes, worries and concerns about life have had too much attention paid to them? What if all those years of engraving the negative line after line, over hundreds of thousands of miles of paper has given me the opposite of what I so desire, peace and harmony? This question has been haunting me since the start of the year when I experienced an existential crisis of my own.
I became curious about whether I needed to find more balance in writing about the good stuff despite the onslaught of often difficult material and content there was available for me to write about. This question - How could I get more of a balance between what I call the grit and the grace on the page has been badgering me for some time?
This inquiry question as we call it in coaching became even more poignant on hearing about the death last week of former Elle magazine editor, agony aunt on the Times newspaper and in more recent times columnist for Psychologists magazine, Sally Brampton.
Her column in Psychologies magazine was brutally honest, funny and sometimes sad. Her writing was a double bind, a breath of fresh air giving voice to the harsh reality and bountiful beauty that is life. Sometimes I would hear myself as I read her column positioned as the last page in the magazine, gasping, not in judgement but in wholehearted connection to what she wrote. So much of her pain could have been mine, and no doubt this was the same for hundreds of readers who digested her monthly columns. Her column in Psychologies magazine where I first met her on the page was raw and edgy. She wrote about the things many don't even talk about with a best friend.
I felt each month I was given a rare peep into the most intricate feelings drawn from the depth of her depression, which I having not been there could not always fully fathom. Even with my fair share of difficult times I had not walked in the shoes Sally and millions of individuals like her suffering with the same type of mental health illness have. In her obituary in the Guardian newspaper reference was made to the possible impact writing and baring her soul in this way may have on her.
This question of how much and how far one should write about the difficult stuff is one I care deeply about. How far does one need to go to balance the books between how much we write about the shadow side of our interior lives and the positive stuff. Carl Jung famously said, "Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose it’s meaning if it were not balanced by sadness."
Professor James Pennebaker in his pioneering research about the benefits of expressive writing made famous the psychological, emotional and physical benefits of writing in a controlled way with structure and time limits over four days about traumatic events from childhood or earlier life. This has helped me on many levels deal with some difficult stuff over the years through a regular practice of journaling.
We also know from the work of researchers Laura King, Joshua Smyth and Pennebaker that writing about our best selves has positive benefits too as does writing about the meaning of our experiences using words like 'and' 'because,' words that help to mine meaning and understanding from our experiences.
Recently as I reviewed my long history with journaling I noticed how in my own journaling practice I generally tend to miss out on documenting the good stuff in the same qualitative detail as I do when writing about the stuff that is a challenge. In fact I often find myself writing prolifically when things aren’t going smoothly. Many people I have worked with have similar experiences.
Researchers and Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman et al carried out research on the practice of gratitude, and the value at the end of your day of writing down three good things that happened. The findings indicate how individuals experience happiness immediately afterwards, as well as one week, one month, three months, and six months later.
Where is all this taking me? As a point of inquiry it all feels like the inquiry is still emerging. Perhaps then it is more about the questions being raised than the answers? The treatment of mental health is complex and multi-layered requiring a combination prescription of medical, spiritual and existential work. Treating one without the other misses an important link. None of this is easy work and as Alastair Campbell was quoted in Sally's obituary in the Guardian newspaper as saying, "Sally Brampton fought so hard for herself, and for others. For herself to stay alive, and for those who don’t get depression to understand it.”
Sometimes depending on the severity of the mental health condition medication is the treatment needed and even then it has to be carefully monitored. There have been some startling examples of the downside of some medications that are regularly supplied by doctors.
Other times it is intense and regular support, treatments in therapy, hospitalisation or witnessing and listening of the highest degree from friends and family. Community is sacrament to the healing of mental health.
Mental health is an illness that cannot survive a quick fix. It is in many ways an invisible illness with 1 in 4 people in England estimated to experience a mental health problem in any given year. We need an NHS that recognises the growing severity of mental health and seeks to invest even more into it’s care from the perspective of the mind, body and spirit connection.
Sally has left behind a blazing body of work and legacy of writing including words that have soothed and comforted and accompanied many during difficult and desperate times. By writing her truth her legacy will live on inspiring many in a similar place as she found herself to make it through to another day.
In the meantime I am looking forward to placing more emphasis over the coming months on what is good and meaningful no matter how small with the intention of boosting more of the positive experiences that get recorded in the blank pages of my notebooks. As I finish here with a view to further contemplation the words of the American novelist Ernest Hemingway echoe in my ears, “The world breaks everyone and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” May we all remember we can be and are stronger and wiser at those broken places.
In Remembrance of Sally Brampton 1955-2016