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4 Ways Writing Can Be a Form of Self-Care for Chronic Illness

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“Self-care.” It’s a term I had never really heard of until graduate school, and then, suddenly, I was hearing it a lot. You see, I have a master’s in Divinity from a school that trains ministers, counselors, and social justice workers and it seems that people in all three of those fields can be really, really bad at taking care of themselves.

We are often asked what we do to take care of ourselves. For some of us, it is difficult to come up with an answer, while others have long lists of hobbies.

I fall somewhere in the middle. While I don’t have a long list of hobbies, I do have several things that work consistently to provide solid self-care, and one of these is, and has been for many years, writing. Specifically – long fiction writing. For almost as long as I have been able to read, I have disappeared into my own little world to write stories. I wrote my first novel while in the second grade, and though I bet it wasn’t any good, I have been a regular C.S. Lewis (although, admittedly, probably decidedly worse) ever since.

Then, I got sick. Admittedly, I’ve never really been healthy. I don’t think a year went by in any grade of school where I didn’t miss the maximum number of school-days of because of illness. But there was never a time I didn’t write. Even at my busiest, I always took time to have a novel brewing on that back-burner. It was my favorite hobby, and while I may not have learned the words self-care yet, it was self-care. Writing sustained me. It helped me stay sane. It helped to keep my anxiety in check. When the real world got stressful, I could retreat into writing a novel.

I was almost done with my master’s degree, and I was about to be (incorrectly, I would learn later that year) diagnosed with fibromyalgia (a misstep, but an important misstep on my long chronic illness journey). I had a two year old daughter, I was working, and I just didn’t have time to write. I would quickly learn that thinking I didn’t have time to write was a mistake, because writing wasn’t just a hobby. Writing is how I take care of myself. And if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of those I love either.

The Mighty is aspiring to make 2017 the year of self-care, and they’re doing so by promoting twelve 30-day challenges. I thought it was super fitting that the first challenge was to journal for 30 days, since writing, at least to me, is such a powerful and natural form of self-care.

For me, journaling has never really been the kind of writing in which I have best expressed myself, and I think that’s OK. I’ve dabbled in a number of forms of writing — blogs, lists, social media posts, posts to groups, free form scribbling (which is kind of like journaling, I guess…but feels looser to me). I’ve created poetry and my favorite – creative writing, which usually takes the form of extended pieces like novels, but can be shorter stories too. Writing of any kind is a wonderful tool to express oneself, so find the type that works best for you.

No matter what kind of writing you do, here are a few of the most elemental ways that writing can be one of the best kinds of self-care:

1. Writing for thankfulness.

Writing can be an excellent way to express one’s thankfulness. Often if I force myself to sit down and write things that I am thankful for. I become a lot happier, and I am able to think of a lot more things than if I had let my thoughts quickly and idly pass by without taking the time to write them down. Writing them, whether by handwriting on paper or typing into a phone or computer, is very powerful! I also find that expressing my thankfulness to others is a surprisingly wonderful way to care for myself.

When we take time to take care of others and express our gratitude to them, we end up feeling good ourselves. When I take time to pause from obligations, stress and to-dos and write out a thank you card that I don’t have to write, it’s a wonderful way to bring joy to someone else and care for my own soul, too.

2. Writing as a form of escapism.

One of the reasons fiction writing is one of my favorite forms of writing is because for a while, I don’t have to be me. I don’t have to be in my hurting, sore body; reconciling my chronic pain with working, parenting, and living my life.

I can go live in another world, I can move around as characters I know as deeply as myself. The feeling people get from diving into books and escaping into another world is the feeling I get from writing, and since I can keep making it up, the story never has to end. If I want to, I can write side short stories for characters I particularly like that don’t have to be part of my novel, I can write them just for fun. They’re my characters and my stories—I can write them however I want. I know my characters deeper than I know myself, and unlike my life and my chronic pain, my writing is something I have complete control over. It’s such an intensely freeing and powerful feeling!

3. Writing as a way to find your voice.

The flip side to escapism is that writing fiction is also extremely real to me. I have been able to write about issues that I had no idea how to tackle in my life by having my characters go through things before I knew how to process them myself. Having fictional characters deal with things we don’t know how to process in our own lives can be an incredible tool for self-help. Can’t make a decision? What would your fictional doppelgänger do? How would they deal with a chronic illness, an obstacle or conflict? Other types of writing are a way to speak out too. There are many venues for one’s voice to be heard, especially online. Discovering chronic illness blogs was an incredible way for me to understand that I wasn’t alone, and to learn that there were people like me, facing the same hurdles I face with incredible bravery, hope, and perseverance.

4. Writing to tell your own story.

I believe most importantly, the thing that brings all of these elements together is that all forms of writing are ways that we can tell the bits, pieces, snippets and chapters of our story. Even fiction writing contains pieces of ourselves. I see my characters as pieces of myself — oftentimes they are based on myself, my friends, the things I experience or see in the world, feelings I have or places I’ve been. One of the greatest things about stories is that when you’re writing your own, you can control how it’s going to end. And if things aren’t going well, you can say — this isn’t the ending to my story. Or you can say — it’s going to be OK in the end. You can decide that you’re going to keep fighting and reframe your challenges into something positive. Writing your own story gives you power.

No matter who you are or how much pain you feel, you are important, and you have a story to tell. Find your voice. Find it word by word and page by page.

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images.

Originally published: February 7, 2017
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