How Writing Saved My Life

I saw the movie Inside Out with my kids months ago and meant to write something about how hard and great it was to see such an accurate depiction of depression, made so lucid and visual. Many people think that to be depressed is to feel sad, but that wasn’t my experience at all, through long years of suffering: it was a numbness, a disassociation, from myself and from the world.

Last night, I came home to find my kids re-watching it with their dad, and it reminded me that I never got around to posting on it. I don’t want to repeat what so many critics, other writers, and even child psychiatrists have already said about the film, just to mention what a strong chord it struck. (I particularly liked this article, having questioned, on this blog, how we talk about ‘happiness’ in American culture.) Seeing the film as a parent also brought me to new thoughts about what my parents must have endured, watching me suffer, and what a relief it must have been to them when I finally put it behind me, mostly thanks to writing.

Here is an essay I wrote on my own depression, and on emerging from it, published earlier this year in Event Magazine:


When I was twenty-one, my brain shoved me over some unseen cliff. I fell into what felt, literally if subjectively, like a cavern. I knew, in a way, that the cavern existed only in my mind and yet it was so tangible that I had trouble believing it was my own creation. Some part of me was in the objective world, but perceiving it from a slight visual and auditory remove, as though through a barrier of some transparent yet muffling material. The cavern was my new reality. Red streaks glowed hot up its high charcoal-grey walls. I crouched at the bottom. The opening, if there was one, was so far above me that I couldn’t see it. There was obviously no point in trying to get out.

This was my first experience of depression—not a sadness but rather a burial. I was confined, couldn’t act, couldn’t properly be with others, could not even do much real thinking beyond the idea that I was to blame for this—that it was a punishment for my having failed, by the ripe old age of twenty-one, to find my life’s calling.

Before the fall, I had been rampantly energetic. I loved to spread myself too thin—so many interests, so little time! I entered university at sixteen and switched my major every year, convinced with each switch that I had found my métier. On graduating, at twenty, I took a job in social research, a direct extension of my ultimate major, sociology. On the side, I studied French, volunteered for various social justice causes, and, that summer, traveled to India to give my time to a rural community. I turned out to have no skills they could use, so I was forced to spend the summer in stillness: watching, waiting, listening. My neurology wasn’t wired for the softer impulses. I imploded.

I returned to Canada a wreck. Gradually, I re-immersed myself in my activities, building up a sense of purpose and identity, clawing my way up out of the cavern. A couple of years later, seemingly recovered and reconnected, I traveled abroad again, where I was confronted once more with my essential impotence in the wider world. Again, I collapsed. This time, the depression lasted longer and I was a little more self-destructive. Even though I was starting to see the pattern, I still blamed myself.

My poor distraught parents convinced me to see therapists: a blithe suburbanite who had me hang over a pommel horse and scream; a massage therapist who would search out points where I held extreme tension and work those till I screamed; a chilly Englishwoman who sat in a huge wingback chair and whose tone of voice never varied—making me want to scream. Therapists were too complicated, I decided; I couldn’t tell what they understood about me, and they seemed averse to giving advice. (I’m not maligning all therapists—much later in life, I found a great one. But a bad therapist is at best ridiculous and at worst parasitic.)

I wasn’t able to tell family or friends the source of my problems—my lack of achievement—because it admittedly sounded absurd when I spoke it aloud. (I didn’t understand or didn’t want to admit the role of neurochemistry in the problem.) Some part of me thought that I was the only one who really knew what was going on, even if another part of me had no idea whatsoever. Perhaps it was the part trapped in the cavern, unable to act, that was full of insights, while the part wandering around in everyone else’s world was lost and clueless. Clearly, those two parts needed to talk, but how and where could I get them together?

I began to keep a journal. One of the therapists may have suggested it, or it may have been a practice whose time in my life had finally arrived. I began by writing how about what a worthless person I was. Getting it down on paper gave my characterization a cast of objectivity—even if no one else would believe it, it was in writing now, and so had to be true on some level. I further proved my case by writing about how focused, accomplished and well-adjusted everyone else I knew was. Seeing ink fill a blank page is its own pleasure, I learned—it gives a quick and easy sense of accomplishment. And perhaps because this was so clearly what I needed, I continued. I took notes not only on my own inadequacy but more detailed notes on my housemates (I was by this time living in a co-operative house full of outsize characters), co-workers, books and films, and strangers—fragments of overheard conversations; facial expressions meant for times when no one was looking. My self-absorption, once I channeled it onto the page, led me back out to the world.

Getting these observations down on paper, though, made it almost impossible to hold on to my superficial notions about others. My jottings made me acutely aware of others’ struggles, their imperfections, the ways they didn’t know themselves. I could no longer elevate them merely to bolster my bad opinion of myself. I also found myself shaping my own narrative as I wrote it, choosing interesting ways of describing myself, if only to keep myself interested. But this then made it possible for me to read myself as though I were a character, with some distance, and I found, in this distance, compassion. I poked fun at myself, and others; I felt for myself, and others; I forgave myself, and others.

Many writers I love, from Hans Christian Andersen to Virginia Woolf to Oliver Sacks, are or were assiduous journal-keepers. Few talk about why they keep a journal: because they thought the events of their lives and times so memorable; because this unedited writing entertained them; because they were recording source material? All of those are likely. But all of these writers also struggled mightily with loneliness and occasionally fragile mental health, and I wonder if their journals did for them what mine did for me: created a voice for them outside of their heads and so allowed them fully to turn their critical faculties on themselves.

Philippa Perry, a British therapist, in a little book, How to Stay Sane, names “self-observation” as one cornerstone of mental health. She says, “…the continuing development of a non-judgemental, observing part of ourselves is crucial for our wisdom and sanity.” (She goes on to list studies demonstrating numerous less predictable health benefits of journal-writing, from stronger liver function to improved immune responses.) Perry’s other sanity cornerstones are relationships, new experiences, and the creation of a flexible personal narrative—all of which, I would say, can be cultivated through journal-writing. Journals allow those of us with sometimes uncontrollable brain chemistry to edit and shore up our memories, to shape and reshape our narratives, and also to express our deep documentary impulses.

Within a couple of years of becoming serious about this self-documentation, including documentation of my world, I joined a theatre company as an apprentice. As per my modus, I wanted to do everything, so they let me direct, act, do community outreach, and join the novice playwrights’ circle. My one-act, House of Sacred Cows, was set in an exaggeratedly funny version of the co-operative house where I once lived. The play satirized the ways that progressive Westerners sometimes idealize the “wisdom of the East” and the ways that conservative Indians sometimes demonize the West. I drafted it in a single sitting, and felt something I had never felt before—a defining, comprehensive emotion. I’ve described it elsewhere as a “lightning bolt” but (apart from being cliché) that’s not right. It was a wide, bewildering stillness, a stillness that announced itself, as if after an earthquake. Writing. It had arrived. My life’s calling, my métier, the only profession that could integrate my wandering selves, could make use of how I saw the world.

In the twenty-odd years since, it’s worked out. I’m not saying that everyone who writes in a journal can or should turn professional. But I continue to be curious about the ways that writing therapeutically, even if it begins as catharsis, can move our attention outward. Patricia Hampl, a well-known memoirist, says in “Memory and Imagination” that even when writing about her own experiences, “I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know.” (I think Joan Didion says something similar.) “The self-absorption that seems to be the impetus and embarrassment of autobiography turns into (or perhaps always was) a hunger for the world.” The ‘embarrassment of autobiography’ rings for me: the worst aspect of my depression was how narcissistic it was—as I kept telling myself, without effect. Ultimately, though, it was journal-writing, not therapy, that let me transcend my self-focus.

Perhaps one reason those therapists didn’t work for me was that I couldn’t see the effects—if there were any—of my stories on them. When I wrote in my journal, I tried to be entertaining and insightful enough to hold the interest of one reader—myself. Sitting in the back of the theatre and listening to an audience watch my play, grow silent, and laugh, I felt the effects of my stories on others. Not surprisingly, when I finally found a therapist I could work with, he was someone who both showed that he cared about me and who laughed at my jokes.

It was gratifying for me to read, in Perry’s book How to Stay Sane, that the therapeutic establishment has come to believe that it is not so much the therapeutic approach or technique that makes any difference to a client’s progress, but rather the relationship with the therapist. “… as a therapist, you need to assess how clients feel about the therapeutic relationship, and ask them what was useful and what did not work in each session.” (NB: this was glaringly missing from any of my early therapeutic encounters.) “As a young therapist,” Perry goes on, “I was often surprised that it was not new insight that was the most powerful catalyst for change, but the moment when the client saw that they had moved me; or when they felt accepted because I patted their arm; or when they saw that, even if I did not say anything at that point, I understood.”

Out of my own early experiences, therapy and therapists became a subject of interest to me, eventually coming full circle and entering my fiction through the title character of my second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Ashwin is a troubled, sarcastic, lonely person in his “real life” (yes, I made him up, but he is as real to me as anyone I know) but still an excellent therapist. He practices “narrative therapy”—writing clients’ life stories for them according to what they tell him; showing them how their own narratives can trap them; then helping them to take control of the course of their stories from that point forward. Although he is an assiduous journal-keeper, he has never used his techniques on himself, until the year of the novel’s story, 2004-2005, when two suspects are on trial for a 1985 jet bombing that affected Ashwin intimately. It is his “physician, heal thyself” that brings my novel—his novel—him—into being, very much as my journal, in holding and telling my story, brought me back to life and into the world, all those years ago.


3 Responses to “How Writing Saved My Life”

  1. Kavita Rao

    Dear Padma, I can relate. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Johnathon Williams

    I love this, especially the emphasis on the therapeutic nature of keeping a journal. Reminds me to be more consistent in making time to keep my own. 🙂

  3. Ayn

    “I wasn’t able to tell family or friends the source of my problems—my lack of achievement—because it admittedly sounded absurd when I spoke it aloud. (I didn’t understand or didn’t want to admit the role of neurochemistry in the problem.) Some part of me thought that I was the only one who really knew what was going on, even if another part of me had no idea whatsoever. Perhaps it was the part trapped in the cavern, unable to act, that was full of insights, while the part wandering around in everyone else’s world was lost and clueless. Clearly, those two parts needed to talk, but how and where could I get them together?”

    Perfect description of my mind right now – thank you.


Leave a Reply