Write To Heal

This fall, in conjunction with our Trauma and Resilience Studies program, ACAP sponsored a Write to Heal expressive writing group that met for 14 sessions.  The group was facilitated by Nancy Gerber, PhD, an advanced clinical candidate at ACAP, who received her doctorate in English from Rutgers University.

Expressive writing offers powerful opportunities to re-integrate a fragmented sense of self.  James Pennebaker, PhD, an early pioneer in the field of writing and healing, discovered that people who use writing to make sense of trauma are less anxious and experience improved immune function.  In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker observes, “The mind torments itself by thinking about unresolved issues.  Writing is beneficial because it promotes self-discovery and self-understanding.” Sharing one’s writing in a safe, supportive, group setting can reduce feelings of isolation and establish a sense of connection to others.  The writing group functions as a healing community.

Expressive writing is a mode emphasizing spontaneity, emotional authenticity, and liberation from “the inner critic.”   Its goal is to enable participants to find their unique, genuine, creative voice, which may have been silenced over the years by insensitive or critical interactions.  Our Writing to Heal sessions began with a five-minute writing exercise, in which participants freely recorded their thoughts and ideas, without regard to the strictures of spelling, grammar, or even punctuation.  The creative liberation provided by this exercise often produces compelling images and metaphors that may inspire poems or longer narrative pieces.  Writers read their work aloud but it was not commented upon in order to preserve the safety needed to do this kind of imaginative work. Writings were just heard and appreciated.

After the free writing, participants were given a prompt and 15 minutes in which to write a response.  Prompts included the story of one’s name; scars both visible and invisible; a question one wished one had asked a grandparent or significant other.  Writers were encouraged to read their work aloud (though reading aloud was always optional) and received feedback from the rest of the group.  Participants were encouraged to respond to what they found interesting and memorable.

In five short weeks, group members formed bonds with one another, received support for their writing, and expressed a desire for the group to continue.  The overwhelmingly positive response confirms our hypothesis that writing about painful, traumatic experiences is a therapeutic tool that fosters resilience.

This workshop will be offered again. Call 973-629-1002 or email events@acapnj.org to register.


A World Has Opened

My writing is becoming meaningful and inspiring to me.  I don’t write at home, but when I come to the Writing Workshop and start writing, I realize how much I miss doing it, I wonder why I don’t write more frequently. The writing awakens something inside of me.  Borrowing from C.E., which I may do frequently in this piece, because what she said seemed to be coming from my heart and mind when she said there is so much in her head, I felt that, because I seem to have lots in my head that wants to get out in the written form.  I don’t stop and take the time to put thoughts on paper or on screen, but I know that my innards or my soul wants to express itself.

I now want to write as much as I want to read.  Reading is essential to me, if someone were to tell me I could never read another book, I would feel they were imposing a death sentence on me.  I can feel the writing becoming that essential.  There are so many books and not nearly enough time to read them all.  I am now recognizing that there are so many subjects that I could write about to express myself.  Everything from items in the news, such as the six or eight year old boy suspended for kissing the girl on her hand (sexual harassment) to looking at the snow on the ground, the bare trees, which look beautiful, but does not make me like the cold weather any better.
Yeah, writing is life giving – I am glad it found me.

— Charlene Mason-Reese

Pearlie Mae

I was a blessed child. I not only had a maternal and paternal grandmother, but I had a paternal great grandmother. All lived within walking distance and were very much involved in my life.  We all went to the same church.  Out of the three, it was definite I had a favorite, maybe because, nah, I won’t try rationalize it, she was my favorite always – Gramma Johnson, my mother’s mother.  When I got older I would mess with her by calling her Pearlie Mae.  I can still feel, see myself entering her building, walking up the four steps, going down the long hall – yelling as I take each step – – “ Pearlie Mae! Pearlie Mae! I’m coming.” As a little girl, it was, “Gramma, Gramma, Gramma here I am,” running as I would hear her say through the open door, way back from the kitchen, “come on Charlene, I am waiting for you.”  I knew she was walking toward the door.  I knew she had the black hair net on her head, the print apron tied around her waist (not a nice new apron, mind you, because all the new aprons we bought her for gifts were in boxes in her bottom drawer, neatly kept, never used).  Gramma Johnson was the most important person in my life (sorry Mom, sorry husband), until the birth of my son, whom she met and spent several years taking care of. 

Even today, with her gone since the eighties, when something important happens in my life, I immediately think of her. I think of going to pick up butter pecan ice cream and going to Gramma Johnson’s house and sitting down at her kitchen table and talking to her.  She is still the all and all to me, my guardian angel.  I consider her the good part within me, the kind side of me.  I only hope that I can be the grandmother to my grandsons that she was to me.

— Charlene Mason-Reese

In the Attic

In the attic of my mind, everything gathering dust that I’ve stored away, not wanting to deal with. Not organized, in labeled boxes, but helter skelter in a mix of emotions.
Boxes of bric-a-brac left, perhaps for the next generation to deal with.
Passing on not only unresolved conflicts, but the abandoned cabinets of memories long forgotten.

Until a breath of fresh air blows through to clear things out.
Like when you throw open the window of the musty attic and let in the air and sunshine and deal with your long-held possessions.

–Eileen Erbeck 

In the Attic 2

No attic in my contemporary home
No crawl space
No hiding place for old trunks
Full with dress up clothes
Old wedding gowns
Secret letters from past loves
Brooklyn Dodger game programs.

Childhood in Michigan
All houses had attics
Small dormer windows
Looking out on neighbors far below.
Ours a playroom with dolls and toys
We’d escape from kitchen brooms
Vacuums and Mother’s big band albums
Broadway show tunes of plays
She had never seen that
Conjured dreams
Sounds of music in the alps,
Washing that man right out of her head
Trouble in River City.

My sister and I played house
Fisher Price oven baked our cakes
Served on little girl china tea set
We drank with pinkies raised.
In my mind’s eye it looks idyllic
Then the stronger memory takes over.

Uncle Don, my favorite
Staggered up to see us
Bailed out of the drunk tank again
Taken in by his sister.
Should have been at a detox center, but
Maybe they didn’t exist in 1957.

What did we know
About alcohol and its affects?
He just seemed a bit shaky
And weak to us.
We invited him to sit
Share our tea and crumpets.

One minute he was fine, the next
All our toys were splattered with blood
We were screaming,
Thought he was dying
Vomiting, retching
Crazed on the floor.

He recovered and recovered
Lived with us again and again.
The attic though lost its magic
Horror remained too real
Bloodstained pink-flowered wallpaper
Never replaced.

— Rosemary S. McGee



And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to blossom.
Anais Nin

A synopsis of my life? no, scratch that,
experience? no, scratch that,
breakdown? no scratch that
Of my struggle, inner turmoil?

Letting fear,
knowing that the fear that grips me so tight
must fall
off of me
like a silk blanket
loosening the muscles in my back,
the ones that squeeze with the tension that feeds them
and removing them carefully,
finger by finger as
from a fist turned white with anger
that it’s ok not to be this way
for accepting, too
that I can feel joy in my life

For this fear is too powerful for me to hold alone
it has clenched my ribs
twisted and contorted them
pain stabs me every minute of the day

It is ok for me to breathe
it is ok for me to let go
to reach out
and accept that
I am not alone….

— C.E.

                        Prompt: The scar at the bottom of the ocean

How can I see that from where I am?  Don’t you remember? I’m way down here in this barren land!! Even the moss has withered and died in its home on the arched doorway.  My thirst is immeasurable, insatiable, unquenchable.  And you want me to see the scar at the bottom of the ocean?  

Well, perhaps it’s much the same as mine to the other extreme.  While mine continues to tear through this drought, I can only imagine that the ocean’s is filled with life abundant in colors. It holds for us treasures lost and people sinking in death.  It holds their weight in secrets, it sticks to the bottom of the ocean like velcro spinning around the globe like parasites and barnacles.

But here…sometimes I think that I am the parasite sinking down, down…
Then I realize they are on me
and I am one in the same?
I don’t know. I suppose I have stuck to people I have depended on
like a parasite
and my own continues to suck me dry

How much longer will it do this?
How old will I be when I am finally free?
I need to be filled with new life water
a transfusion of sorts
out with bad
in with the new

Do you know that salt water from Sandy still fills the tunnels and stations of the PATH train?
Workers are flooding the station stops to get rid of the salt.
the salt that burns thru the earth
like a canker sore

But there is none here with me
dim light
no sun
no salt

— C.E. 

Group Poem:  The Attic of My Mind

The good girl and the yes girl
I longed to be the star
At times I am wiser
In my dreams.

The trunks, Victorian dolls
I’d saved every scrap
Bizarre ghosts, conjured dreams
Boundaries sewn together.

Children do not live
In democracy.
I brought you here,
I will take you out.

Fear falls,
A silk blanket.
We must trust
So we can heal.

— E.E., C.E., S.P., R.M., C.M.R.

Note:  The above pieces are original work and may not be reproduced without the author’s permission.  For more information, contact acap@acapnj.org