After receiving another round of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which she’d been receiving every other day, Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer, Ph.D., lay in a hospital room and felt hopeless. In the past ECT had “worked wonders” in treating her deep depressions, the devastating lows part of her bipolar disorder. But lately it’d seemed futile.
As she writes in her beautiful, thoughtful, inspiring book Writing Through the Darkness: Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen, “Desperate, I reached for an empty notebook. My brain was too flat and blurred to put together sentences, so I scribbled a list of words about my situation and slammed the book shut. Immediately, I felt some lifting of the black cloud of depression, so bleak that it scrambled my thoughts and choked my breath.”
Over time, Schaefer accepts the ups and downs of her illness. And in addition to receiving ECT and taking medication, she joins a women’s writing group and takes writing workshops and classes.
“…I realized that this was potent medicine for me too, helping my emotions to stabilize and my thoughts to clear. As my confidence grew I became certain that I’d keep writing in this personal way. Writing was as healing to me as all my medical treatments—this did matter. Writing helped bring me back. Writing saved my life,” Schaefer writes in Writing Through the Darkness.
Since 1998 Schaefer has taught her own class on creative writing for people with mood disorders at Stanford University. Some of her students have severe depression. Some have severe bipolar disorder. Some are attorneys and doctors. Some are college students and teachers. They range in age from 22 to 75. Some are on disability. Others work part-time. Some volunteer. And some are searching for jobs after a long period of illness. All find writing to be an important part of their treatment and their lives.
Writing about your depression is vital because it helps you express, explore and pinpoint your thoughts and feelings. It helps you to release them on paper. And once they are on paper, they’re a bit easier to sift through and understand. Writing is a way we listen to ourselves. As one of Schaefer’s students said: “[Writing] validates my experience. I get emotional release from writing down what’s in my head, discovering my own voice and story.”
Writing also can be a great source of play. We get to experiment with different techniques. We get to reconnect to our imaginations and play pretend. We get to invent. We get to construct new characters and new worlds.
Schaefer has three writing rules: Write continuously without stopping for 10 or 20 minutes, because “you tend to access the more creative, more emotionally insightful parts of your brain rather than your picky ‘editor brain,’ which likes to criticize what you’re doing.” Write for yourself, meaning you don’t have to show it to anyone (and feel self-conscious), and you don’t have to worry about crafting perfect prose or careful points. Give yourself permission to write whatever arises, in whatever form. And, lastly, don’t write about topics that feel threatening (or unhealthy to explore right now). Simply switch to a different subject that you are ready to explore.
Below you’ll find a variety of valuable writing exercises from Schaefer’s must-read book.
Pen a poem about a soothing image. Imagine the most healing and soothing image you can— “one that might counter your depression,” Schaefer writes. Maybe it’s a place or a person. Maybe it’s a special memory or the feel of the breeze on your face. Write a poem about this image, using your senses.
Write a fable of depression. Picture your depression as a living character. As Schaefer writes, it might be a Samurai warrior or an evil comic-book character. Then “tell a story about it as if you were telling a simple fable to a small child.” For instance, one writer described his depression as a dragon who sleeps atop a massive pile of gold and gems inside a cave. When the writer tries to take one too many treasures the dragon awakens and imprisons him.
Write from a new-to-you place. According to Schaefer, “take a walk or a drive or a bus ride, near or far, and sit somewhere you’ve never sat before; write on what you see there.”
Explore a skill. Make a list of a minimum of 25 things you’re good at. (If you’re having trouble, ask others what they think your strengths are.) Maybe you take great photos. Maybe you make a delicious cheesecake. Maybe you never forget a face. Maybe you’re a good singer or dancer. Maybe you read really fast. Maybe you speak another language. Pick one thing, and write about it for 20 minutes: “Who taught it to you? What’s the secret to it? Do you love doing it? How could someone else learn it?”
Use poetry as prompts. Pick a poem to use as a writing prompt. Then respond to the ideas in the poem, or to a word, phrase or sentence that resonates with you. Or write a letter to the poet. You can make your response into your own poem or into prose. These are some of Schaefer’s favorite poems to use as prompts: “Prayer” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes; “Gift” by Judith Hemschemeyer; “A Happy Birthday” by Ted Kooser; “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver; and “The Guest House” by Rumi.
Create your own art. Draw your response to the following prompts, and then write about your artwork and how it felt to create it: “How I feel today”; “what I wish for”; “my depression”; “my favorite place.”
Try these additional prompts. In the back of the book, Schaefer shares more interesting ideas to inspire your writing, including: “The first sound (taste, sight, smell, feeling) of the day”; “self-care tips you recommend for depression”; “black velvet”; “benefits of depression”; “kaleidoscopes”; “a lesson you have learned”; “magic.”
Schaefer also suggests writing about coping strategies; what intrigues you; what you love; and what you’ve always wanted to do along with one action you can take to make one of these desires happen.
For Schaefer writing brings joy. It might not for you. But maybe, as she notes, it just might lead you to something that does.