“You are the author of your own life story,” the skinny strip of green bubble letters outlined in neon pink promised. It used to hang above the chalkboard on the far wall of my classroom.
Back then, I believed in that language arts message as hallowed inspiration.
Now? Teacher-catalog bullshit.
Only recently, I had become a character in my own life, and I didn’t know who was actually authoring the story. The story I was sick of telling. The story that delivered the same embarrassing reaction.
I was almost killed in a car accident. The other driver was under the influence. He died. I had to be resuscitated.
Yeah, I was recovering from a heart attack that had happened five months earlier.
A heart attack. Yes, only forty-one years old. I know, crazy. It was stress. I had just told my husband of eighteen years that I wanted a divorce.
Up next, pity: “That’s horrible” or “I’m so sorry.”
And then a final shrug or pat on the hand to quickly to end what could possibly turn lengthy if left unchecked, I suppose. “Well you look great anyway.”
I’d had two brushes with death, made it through The Trifecta of Shit, and I “looked great anyway.”
So they said.
But the reactions and sympathy weren’t enough.
I had recovered physically, yes, but my spirit, crushed between major life-changing moments, had shattered into countless irretrievable pieces, and I couldn’t make any sense of the mess. Guilt from ending my marriage and guilt from a young man’s death (survivor’s guilt?) haunted me. I wondered if I’d had a mid-life crisis. I wondered if God had sent that car into mine to punish me for the divorce. And I worried that it would define the rest of my life.
I needed the randomness of The Trifecta to have meaning. I needed to understand my survival. And I knew I was the only person who could put me back together again.
The Process of Healing through Writing
When I returned to school six months after the accident, I discovered that my classroom was just what I needed. I was back in my comfort zone surrounded by teenagers, once again fueled by their energy. I sat in a chair at the front of the room, relishing in being alive and back in my classroom.
When I continued a takeaway strategy from my writing group I had started a year or so before, I found myself writing “into the day” alongside students every class period. It was the first thing that we did, a way to warm up our brains, and no matter what prompt I gave, my writing always returned me to the Trifecta in some way, shape, or form. Before I knew it, I had a small collection of words that attempted to process what had happened to me. I shouldn’t have been surprised—writing was what I had always done as a teen when I wanted to organize the thoughts or solve a problem in my head.
Then fate and circumstance stepped in. I learned that a local university offered a master’s program in creative writing, and I decided to apply immediately. Earning my graduate degree had always been a goal of mine, but to do so in writing sounded like a dream. I could use the two years of courses to write about and process my circumstances, and hey, maybe I’d have something publishable at the end. It couldn’t hurt to try.
Maybe I’d also find some peace along the way, like the answers to the questions that haunted me: What had happened to me? Why was I still alive? And, who was I now?
I felt like I might already know them, but they were just outside of reach, tangled up and twisting around each other. So I kept writing.
Soon, through the regular rhythm of working events out on paper—or laptop screen— I saw my story unfold. Yes, it was messy, disjointed even, but I finally had an outlet for my grief and anger. Sometimes, random bits of the story came out of me at odd moments on scraps of paper, or a line would form in my mind while I vacuumed. Other times, I could sit down and write a part of the story with such clarity and insight that I shocked myself.
My story finally started to make sense.
What I Learned
Writing became my therapy, the words on the page a clear and thoughtful intervention. Soon I could even see the real-life, true-gold, only-can-be-gotten-from-almost-dying (twice!) wisdom I’d gained along the way: hard-earned lessons—they must be shared.
1) Don’t take anything for granted. Not Clifford the Big Red Dog stuffed animals or clean, cotton sheets or walking, one foot in front of the other. Not steamy, hot showers, your raggedy blue baby blankie or breathing, as deeply as you want, whenever you want. Not hugging your children, playing catch with your pup or sleeping in any position your body likes. All of it matters.
2) Embrace the power of simple gestures. A get-well card in the mail, a bouquet of flowers from someone who’d survived his own trauma, or an already prepared meal of chicken fettucine and garlic bread can give life purpose. Return the favor when you can. Or better yet, pay it forward.
3) Let others in to help you heal. My mom, dad, brother, sister and children were the caretakers and supports that kept me from falling apart, from completely losing myself. And when I wanted to close myself off from the world that seemed just beyond my reach, visitors—whether my writing group or teaching colleagues or former students—kept me grounded and open enough to attempt optimism. Eventually, because I allowed people to surround me, I became well enough to return to school, where my students turned in to my therapists, whether they knew it or not.
4) Draw strength from nature and all of your moments with it, whether planting herbs, flowers, and vegetables outside in the spring, having someone take you for a drive just as fall leaves are turning colors, or hiking a path to pick black raspberries in the humidity of July. Watch the sunset from the wicker chair on your front porch every single night, even in the frosty cold of winter, and stargaze from your driveway whenever you can. Nature presents its own healing—its own reason for being.
5) Life can change, or even end, in a moment. It cannot be controlled. That’s just the way it is. You can try to guide it, making choices or even setting a direction, but most of the time, that will be knocked out of your hands unexpectedly. Sometimes you might get the control back, but other times—in fact, a lot of the time—you just have to wait. And either way, you can only control yourself—no one and nothing else. Life, no matter who’s writing the story, just happens. And you can’t get out of the way or hide or run from it. You just live it, one moment at a time, making your way through, one challenge at a time, attempting to live with courage, accepting each moment gracefully. That’s all you can do.
The Big Picture
According to Dr. James Pennebaker, a pioneer in studying the healing nature of writing, expressing what happened to you through words on a page allows you to organize and understand your experiences and yourself. This, in turn, provides a sense of control, something you most likely lacked during the traumatic event(s) that led you to need to heal in the first place. When the writer has given the traumatic experience a structure and meaning, not only are the emotions drawn from the experience more manageable, but the story most likely then has a resolution, or ending, which eases the trauma.
Writing your story could provide the therapy necessary to feel whole again.
I know because I am no longer a character in that old, sad story, defined by trauma. The process worked for me.
Turns out you really can be the author of your own life story. Why not try it?
*Pennebaker, James W., and Janel D. Seagal. “Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 55, no. 10, 1999, pp. 1243–1254., doi:10.1002/(sici)1097-4679(199910)55:10<1243::aid-jclp6>3.0.co;2-n.