How Going Old School Helps My Chronic Conditions
The twists and turns of life have a peculiar way of revealing themselves to you over a lifetime. Pay close attention to the patterns that show themselves in your life, as those are usually the things that will either heal or challenge you.
I have a lifelong friend who I have known since we were 3 and 5 years old — I’m the older of us. We have talked repeatedly over the years and laughed at the fact that we can go for long periods without directly communicating. Yet, when we convene again, it is as if no time has passed. We giggle, vent, dance, and talk — lots of talking — together.
Although we aren’t always present with each step of our lives’ journeys, we nearly always have bizarre parallels. I’m immensely grateful to have her in my life…then, now, and always.
My relationship with this particular friend got me thinking about other things that have been in my life for an eternity and have also been helpful in dealing with any woes I’ve faced in my life. There have been many — many woes and many things (and people) who have helped me cope.
Today, I’ll just focus on one – writing.
I have been a writer, lover of words, and expressive creator for as long as I can remember. I started a “diary,” now more commonly called a journal, when I was around 8. I was in second grade. My mother, an avid reader who passed on that love to me, gave me money to buy some books at my school book fair. It was always one of my favorite events of the year, and I was always one of the last kids in my class to be done at the fair… I often spent a lot of time in the library with our librarian.
I recall that year, I had chosen a diary before the book fair even started from the advertisement that had been sent home. I don’t recall how long it took me to fill it, but I still have it on a shelf, with all the other journals I’ve filled over the years.
No one else in my family kept a journal. I fumbled through the practice on my own for many years. Still, it was a way for me to creatively express my feelings, which my Midwestern family usually did not welcome. Often through tears, I scribbled out words of heartbreak, anger, and sheer emotional pain. Sometimes the words wouldn’t come, and I would just scribble in a section or draw unflattering pictures of the event that upset me.
As I reached high school, writing became a regular practice in my life — on many levels. However, my Paideia (aka critical thinking) education that I received from seventh through twelfth grades, included a weekly double bell writing lab. It was always one of my favorite parts of the week.
Eventually, I also sought out and even bought books about journaling and used them as a guide to help me develop my journaling skills and even guide my own self-help and healing journey. I had never had access to a mental health practitioner due to a lack of insurance and/or coverage.
When I reached age 25, my father began experiencing health issues, and I gradually took on a larger and larger role as his caregiver. In 2008, he passed of “natural causes,” but likely either a heart attack or stroke. I journaled vigorously through those years and several after he passed. It helped me process my grief and depression. Nearly 15 years later, I still immensely miss my dad regularly, but journaling helps me get through the rough moments. 2
Then, in 2016, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 40 years old. I was pissed — I had fought for a diagnosis and been repeatedly brushed off for over two years. I was devastated ‚ even though I knew that cancer wasn’t necessarily a death sentence, my first thought was, “Oh my goodness! Am I going to die?! I am not ready to die yet! I have too much I still want to do!”
In between periods of foggy stupor from the pain meds I had been prescribed, drug-induced sleep, and being doubled over in pain, I journaled while waiting for the treatment plan from my care team. From start to finish, treatment was overwhelming at best. I experienced a lot of really traumatic events from that in a short period of time. My brain was spinning so much that I couldn’t focus on writing for the first time in my life.
When I was almost three months out of treatment, I found my brain clear enough to put pen to paper again. It was freeing, and I could begin to process everything I had gone through. I haven’t stopped writing since, even if I haven’t journaled regularly… I always seem to manage to get words out of my head and either onto paper or an electronic file.
To reiterate, I’ve always been a writer. While most people in my family were not writers, at least in my lifetime or memory, many did have love of words in other ways. My mom’s side of the family had several avid readers. My paternal grandmother religiously did word searches and crossword puzzles.
I remember always asking my family who didn’t live near us to write me. I loved holidays and birthdays because the floor of cards would come in the mail. My maternal grandmother noticed this and reminded my mother of her childhood hobby of having pen pals. By fourth grade, they had figured out how to connect me to people my age to correspond with. A section in one of the magazines my mother subscribed to had free advertisements for kids looking to have a pen pal. My mother also ordered some Christian children’s magazine with a pen pal section. I connected with a handful of pen pals through those two magazines and got to work writing.
I quickly became obsessed and started asking for stamps, stationery, and stickers as gifts from everyone. I would rush past my parents to check the mail for years to come. In the summers, I would sit on the porch reading or writing as I waited for the mail carrier to come before I would go off to play with my friends for the day.
My group of pen pals grew. By one point in high school, I had nearly 60 pen pals at once — worldwide. More than a few of those relationships have been maintained even to this day. Several of those people scattered around the world I now consider family despite the oceans and continents between us.
Unfortunately, since the age of internet and social media, letter-writing and the sheer magic it brings to a mailbox are fading. Many kids don’t realize how mail comes or that you can get anything except bills, junk mail, and advertising from the mailbox. Even my tried and true pen pals usually communicate with me through social media, email, or electronic communication apps much more than we send a good ol’ fashioned multi-page letter.
I recently realized how much I missed sending and receiving snail mail. I’ve been struggling with some mental and physical health challenges, so I decided that I was going to reconnect to my letter-writing self. I got out cards, bought some new ones, stocked up on domestic and international stamps, and started writing.
In the last nine months, I’ve probably sent out 250 cards and letters, quite possibly a lot more. I’ve sent thank you cards from when I went through bladder cancer treatment, I responded to cards and letters I’ve received but never had the mental or physical energy to respond to over the last six years. I asked new friends that I’ve only connected with virtually if I could have their addresses because I wanted to send them cards.
It’s taken time, but I’m getting back into the habit. Besides talking about things we could talk about by other means, I’ve been letting the people I care about know how much I care about them and how grateful I am to have them in my life. I’ve gotten various responses in various ways as people are receiving the notes. They are all heartfelt. Some of the notes I’ve sent out have resulted in me also receiving magical snail mail in my mailbox again. It reminds me that sometimes you just have to put things out in the world for the things you want to wander into your life.
Regardless of whether I receive responses, just writing those thoughts and feelings down has given me so many benefits. I’ve been able to work through some things, and the joy the act of letter-writing brings me has helped me pull out of a depressive episode. Letter-writing has allowed me to reconnect with writing and inspired me to write much more than letters. It has also started inspiring me to work toward other goals in my life, and the domino effects have started.
After a significant dormant period for self-expression through writing, reconnecting to it immediately helped me mentally and emotionally. I’ve been unplugging from electronics more and connecting pen to paper again.
It reminded me of a lesson I learned when I was younger: there is no greater emotional release than expressing yourself through written words. Even if you never publicly share anything you write, even if you never mail a single letter out, you still reap the benefits.
So, if you’re feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or depressed, turn off the electronics for a bit and let the ink do your talking. Let me know how you feel afterward.
Getty image by vatrushka67