Writing Through the Hard Stuff
When my mother fell down the stairs and sustained a traumatic brain injury six years ago, there was a lot I didn't know. If she'd make a full recovery, whether she'd be able to walk again or go back to work, what the future would look like for our family. The one thing I did know was how to write. Two weeks after the fall, when she'd been moved from the ICU to a rehab facility, I was up for workshop with my writers group. I considered backing out, but I thought the distraction and normalcy would do me good. Besides, writing was the only way I knew how to process things. So I wrote about it. I knew when everyone in the group had read it, because they all reached out to see how I was doing. Right before the group met, I visited my mother in the hospital, as I did two or three times a day. She seemed in a good mood and mentioned that my friend had stopped by to bring her flowers. She was still a bit foggy at this point, so I couldn't discern whether or not that was true. Turns out, my friend Patrick had hand-delivered roses from the group.
When we sat down to discuss my piece, my friend Shelagh said, "You know, you don't have to submit an essay to talk to us." In that moment, something in our group shifted, at least in my mind. We became more than a writing group; we became friends. These are people who were at my wedding, who've seen me cry. Writing was my way of handling what I was dealing with, but it also brought me closer to other writers, to a community I desperately needed at that time.
When something big happens in my life, I write. Usually total crap at first, and probably for a while. It's often not until much later, after I've had some space from something, that I'm able to write something I actually want to share. But those early emotion dumps into my journal or scattered notes aren't worthless. They're just the beginning of something.
Nearly five years ago, I had a very traumatic experience. I had a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy and had to have emergency surgery. The experience itself was painful enough, but the ensuing depression stopped me in my tracks. I spent a lot of time that winter in front of the woodstove in the cabin in the woods of Starksboro, Vermont where I lived with my fiance at the time (now husband), completely numb. A year or so later, I wrote a poem about watching the fire, which even included a reference to the woodstove as a womb, which I thought was clever, but was just for me. I didn't expect anyone else to get those references to my experience, which I did not intend to write about, or at least, to share with anyone. It felt deeply personal and I had the idea that no one would want to hear about it, or worse, that they wouldn't understand why I had these overwhelming feelings, that they would somehow diminish them. When my writers group got a look at the poem, they said the language was lovely and all, but what was it about? Where was I in the poem? Why did this fire matter to me? It wasn't until that moment that I realized it was about my post-surgery depression and the feeling I had of being stuck and alone. I also realized that I wasn't ready to write it yet. I broke down in tears and, in my discombobulation, knocked over a wine glass at my friend's table. I wanted to flee, to get out of there, to hide from my emotions and not let anyone see them.
It took me another two or three years to try to face the subject again. This time, I wrote a fictional story about a teenager who has an ectopic pregnancy and feels lost, inexplicably sad, and alone afterwards, with no one to turn to. Her parents have recently divorced and she's missing a sense of home. In my first draft, she, not a Catholic, found herself in a confessional at a nearby church, not sure of what she had to confess, but feeling guilty and hurt and in need of someone to listen. The confessional eventually disappeared in later drafts, but I think represented my need to talk about my own experience. This girl's experience was not my own. In fact, I broke Alice Mattison's rule to "always make it worse" because what I wanted to capture more than the specifics of my ectopic pregnancy was the feeling behind it. I read that story for my graduate reading at the Bennington Writing Seminars and got a lot of positive feedback from my classmates. It also received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train, which felt validating. Maybe this was a story worth telling, I thought.
This week, my essay, "I Got Pregnant Despite Having an IUD and It Almost Killed Me," came out in HuffPost. I was a little nervous about it. It's the kind of thing not usually considered polite or appropriate to talk about. The handful of times I'd mentioned my ectopic pregnancy to friends, I downplayed it, because it felt over-dramatic to me to tell the whole grisly thing. I also felt like, I'm so lucky, what do I have to complain about? and worried I'd come across as whiny. Nearly five years after the experience, I've finally found my voice and been able to tell the real story. And I'm so glad I did. I appreciate all the people who have reached out or shared my story, and I've loved seeing the conversation around women's health unfold. I'm proud to have a voice in that conversation. Given the current political rhetoric around women's reproductive rights, it felt like time to tell it.
Some people make resolutions. This year, I challenged myself to be bolder and more open, particularly about the things that are hard. I've started talking about my mental illness, for example, more openly, hoping that it will help someone else who needs to know she's not alone. I have an essay about my bipolar disorder and manic episodes coming out soon, and that alone feels freeing, to be able to tell my story.
As for the story about my mother's traumatic brain injury, I'm still working on it. Similarly, I've written poems, and essays, and stories about the experience, most recently a personal essay that I'm starting to submit to journals (wish me luck). I've learned that it takes me time, but when I'm ready to talk about the hard stuff, writing is really the only way I know how.