Listen to me read the below here:
I discovered the power of rewriting my own story while staying alone in the woods, in a little cottage, with all of the freedom of my days available to me to work on a book.
In that solitude, I found myself struggling with depersonalization and derealization—essentially, psychiatric conditions that cause one to feel as though she isn’t real, or that her environment isn’t real. My concern with experiencing these particular conditions was that I’d lapse into something more serious, as I had the previous year; I didn’t want it to get any worse, but I also didn’t know what tools to employ.
In a story from The Atlantic by Chelsea Beck, titled “Life’s Stories,” Beck claims that “how you arrange the plot point of your life into a narrative can shape who you are—and is a fundamental part of being human.” Later, she states that “in telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you’re on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are.” In some sense, we are the stories that we tell ourselves.
While pacing around the cottage in the week of struggling with my mental health, I realized that I was telling myself a certain story. I was telling myself, over and over again, the story of how similar symptoms had spiraled out of control toward the end of the previous year. I was reminding myself of the narrative in which I ended up seeking out a consult for electroconvulsive therapy (formerly known as “shock therapy”) and nearly wound up trying it—I got better without it, but my anxiety about that incident was enough to have me referring to it over and over again.
I don’t know what possessed me to do this, but I reached for my journal and began to write a new story. I was, in effect, writing a new narrative for how that week would go.
First, I set up the scenario:
“Esmé was at a writing residency when she began to feel symptoms of unreality. It frightened her. She worried that she would develop more severe symptoms.”
Then, I described what was going to happen as though it had already happened: “Fortunately, she was able to employ some important strategies. She messaged her psychiatrist. She contacted her therapist. She made sure to go for walks and to create safe physical spaces,” and so forth. I capped it off with a happy ending: “In the end, she recovered from her symptoms and had a productive residency.”
To refer to the Beck article again, she states: “A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.”
In rewriting the narrative of my story, I was able to do a few things. I pulled myself out of the fearful story that was looping around in my head. I provided myself with a new narrative so that my mind could have something else to focus on, and even, I believe, mapped out the neural routes for such a story to exist.
By rewriting our narratives in journaling, it’s possible to see alternatives to the frightening stories that we tell ourselves in difficult times.
This Journal post is an adaptation of a lesson from the course Rawness of Remembering: Restorative Journaling Through Difficult Times, which has been called “beyond amazing” and an inspiration for being “better at understanding myself and being kind to myself.” If you are currently going through a difficult time, or think you might go through a difficult time in the future, please consider signing up for this self-paced course.