Alive, Not Silent: Writing as Self Care

By Caitlin

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say?
– Audre Lorde

I am not alone. Whatever else there was or is, writing is with me.
– Lidia Yuknavitch

Something very profound about the synthesis of my being: how only writing composes it: how nothing makes a whole unless I am writing.
– Virginia Woolf

June 2006. I am sixteen years old. My father has been dead a week. One night, I start to write in my journal. It’s a habit I’ve had for years but now trauma adds a sense of immediacy and necessity to the act of writing. I slip into a trance-like state and begin to write to the rhythm of my own pulse; this is writing with blood in it, it flows, gushes, it’s astonishing how much comes out and how free I feel in the purging. The words cannot resurrect my father but they can bring me back to life, and they do.

As the years pass more people die. I keep writing in journal after journal. I fill one up each month and store all of them in boxes in my bedroom closet. I bring them out when I need to know who I was and how I survived such devastation; I feel the electricity of the past on the pages as though I can touch the moments the words preserved. I can live them again.

I can’t tell you much about my life from memory alone. Only my journals know what I experienced. When I do think back on my life what I’d like to remember most—besides the memories of my childhood and my father—are the times I spent writing. I can see myself in the act of writing: the pen in my hand, the journal balanced on my lap, the intense look on my face as I lose myself in the words and find a way to keep living.

For me, self care is about creating ways to survive within an environment that actively seeks to destroy you. This is why writing is so crucial to my ongoing survival. Those forces against you thrive on your silence. Silence fuels shame, hopelessness, and despair. If I write, I am breaking the silence I have struggled with for most of my life.

When I was a child people used to ask me if I was mute; they questioned if I had a voice at all. I had a fear of vocalizing words because once they left my mouth I no longer controlled or possessed them.  I began to wonder if I’d ever escape the fear not only of speaking but of being heard. For years I could not properly articulate my inner self to the outside world because of this fear.

I started writing in a journal in my early teens. Finally, I could speak through language; I had a voice, even if I was the only one who could hear it.

And what did I hear? I heard someone in search of clarity and understanding, a voice that was fragile but infuriated, someone who had thoughts and passions and visions, a voice that could not be contained or silenced any longer. I heard my plenitude, my richness, my essence. I listened to that voice, and chose to cultivate, nourish, and honor it.

When I am writing I am caring for myself. I am nurturing the parts of myself that no one else can see or know. I am fully connected to my mind and my body when I am writing. I’ve always felt untouchable because of this. I’ve felt that I do not need anyone’s approval or validation. When I take a pen in my hand and revel in that complete liberation I am affirming myself in a way that no one else can steal, disparage, or violate.

The writing reminds me that I am here, I am alive, I am not silent, I have not been destroyed, I have something to contribute, I am worthy, I am loved, I am words, and words are life and breath and salvation.

There is nothing more powerful or more frightening than being alone with your own mind. Writing forces me to confront pain, grief, loss, and my own mortality, but it also forces me to be conscious of what is left in the aftermath of tragedy. For me, writing is ultimately about preserving life, capturing it in all its nuance and complexity and contradictions. That night six years ago was about death and darkness but now I see that it was also about love, love for words, love for people who I continue to live for. What I know now is that writing in my journal was not just an essential catharsis, it was also—and continues to be—a process of reconstructing and transforming myself.

This is not to say that writing makes everything easy or that it is a cure for depression, anxiety, and other things I struggle with. Even with my journal, it must be acknowledged that life was and still is difficult and unbearable. Nothing brings back the dead. Nothing heals me. Nothing relieves me of the terror of dying and losing more people. Nothing changes the fact that I will mourn my father for the rest of my life. But writing in my journal gives me a way to endure, to remember, to bear witness, to say “this was my life, this is what it was, what it felt like, looked like, tasted like; this is what I had and what I lost.”

Only words diminish some of the aching inside me, only words give me a sense of power and meaning. So much is gone but so much remains.

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Caitlin is a contributing writer at the Ellipses Project. She is currently an undergraduate majoring in English and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her academic interests include feminism, women’s literature, fat acceptance, class, and embodiment. Of particular importance to her is how art and writing can be used to cope with grief, trauma, and mental illness. She has a penchant for Pre-Raphaelite art, British detective shows, and old Hollywood films.