How Writing Helps Me Heal

therapeutic journaling poetry
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Once again, I find myself awake at an ungodly hour reaching for my pen.

No, I’m not sure what woke me up. A car alarm? Possibly. Or maybe the consistent hum of highway traffic outside of my window surged just long enough to wake me. But that seems like an unlikely culprit at 4 A.M., even in Los Angeles. And yet, here I am. Mind spinning, wheels turning, heart racing as though some hidden threat hides between the dark corners of my room and the early morning shadows. I can’t count how many times I have had a day begin this way. 

From a young age, I figured my schoolmates didn’t feel as sad, nervous, or simply as ‘off’ as I did. A little voice inside religiously fought to remind me I held the potential to be as happy-go-lucky as my friends though I hardly understood how to get there. Age has shown me that it is possible some of them carried the same burden I did. Depression looks and feels different for everyone. 

In my experience, a day can seem as though it will be a sunny, smooth 75°. Then a little cloud appears in the distance. Depression creeps in slyly like a small, abstract, gray puff in an otherwise crystal blue sky. The cloud might shrink away out of sight or call in a few friends to hang around just long enough to darken the afternoon hours. But the third possibility is what haunts me as I try to enjoy the sun.

There is a chance the cloud will swallow the sea of blue and leave me under a concrete sky, blocking me from the sun’s warmth until it chooses to release its grip or I fight my way free yet again. Regardless of the outcome, I live understanding that some days I am at the mercy of the clouds. This is when the anxiety kicks in and I’m suddenly here, brutally scribbling into these pages at four in the morning.

It took twenty years and one of those can’t eat, praying for sleep, cry until your soul begs for rest breakups for me to finally learn the name of the beast I had been living with. My dad called me every day while I was away at school to check-in. However, this particular week his daily calls concluded with the same final question, “have you worked out today?”

Each day I’d roll my eyes, reluctantly admit I had not and pull the sheets a bit tighter growing more frustrated. My dad’s always been the rare kind of human that runs five miles, swims, lifts and finishes breakfast before anyone else in the house has even woken up. His active lifestyle was always inspiring… until the fifth day he asked.

“I’m not gaining weight, I’m hardly eating. I’m just taking a week off from working out. Stop asking,” I snapped and hung up immediately. 

Of course, he called back and calmly asked, “Kelsey, how do you think I was able to survive traveling and being so far away from you, your brother and your mom?”

“I don’t know. Because it’s your job?”, I replied.

“The gym. I workout. I have dark times too, similar to what you’re going through now. But I always find my way to the gym when my head gets too loud or things hurt a little too much.”

He was an officer in the Navy which led to him being gone pretty often. Though he has always been a superhero to me, I knew there were times even Superman needed help clearing his skies and easing his mind. Now, I understand why. 

The following eleven minutes were spent discussing this beast called depression. It turns out he had always seen and recognized the tougher feelings I had growing up because he had been there too. Twenty years of feeling alone, plagued by this inexplicable fear of my own mind eased by a quick phone call on a bright afternoon in March. We ended the call once I promised to head to the gym. But first, I went straight to my pen and paper. That was when I discovered writing was how I cleared my skies.

The afternoon slipped into the night as I revisited old poems, unaddressed letters, diary entries, essays and a few attempts at songs that were amateur at best. Each piece, a breadcrumb dragging me further back in time. They reintroduced me to a frizzy-haired girl who sat alone in her purple bedroom wondering why she never felt as carefree as her best friend down the street. It was all there. The hurt, loneliness, confusion all laid to rest in multicolored inks frequently smudged by tears. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that for every piece I had on pain, there were five more on love, joy, lust, liberation and grace. 

Writing has always healed me. Putting my favorite fine point pen to paper has never failed to guide me back home no matter how dark the day may have seemed. Each story I assumed would burden the ears of others, my journals hold safely. The feelings and thoughts too big to bear, my pages help me carry. Each heartbreak and let down I can finally set free here. And as for the days when I succeed in keeping my skies clear, sunny and perfectly 75°? I document the way the relief feels as sweet as a kiss from the breeze so I can always remember having a calm mind is in fact possible for me. 

If you have read this far you probably know the feeling (hi friend, I see you). Maybe some divine force woke me up at 4 AM because it was time to share this story with you. I’m not here to discuss the weight of depression but rather because I want you to know you are not alone in this battle. That seemingly inconvenient phone call from my father helped me recognize our support system is always closer than we think. You never know who may be experiencing crazy lows and praying for beautiful highs so they can finally catch their breath the same way you do. The important thing is that we continue picking up the phone and putting our pens to paper even on the days we would much rather stay buried under a mountain of sheets.

Seven years later I lay here awake before the rest of Los Angeles, still writing to free my mind from the darker clouds. No, maybe we can’t always stop the clouds from rolling in and polluting our perfect days. But I know with absolute certainty that you are capable of chiseling away at the concrete skies until you feel the warmth of the sun again.

For my father, the clouds fade with each step of a run. I have learned I can force my clouds to pass as swiftly as I can make my pen dance across these pages. Maybe you heal through movement, writing or some other wonderfully different way. Whatever your medicine may be, I encourage you to find it and embrace it. Let your medicine sink into your bones and allow it to become as second nature as breathing. Once you find it, allow your medicine to help you chip away at the clouds, piece by piece until the sunlight shines fiercely on your skin once again.

Photo credit: Baptista Ime James on Unsplash