[Gail] Ironson [M.D., Ph.D. at my alma mater University of Miami] currently administers two grants totaling $6.5 million to examine the psychological factors related to HIV and specifically how expressive writing benefits well-being and health of HIV patients. "As a psychologist," Ironson says, "I'm interested what helps people to cope and to thrive, and spirituality is one of those key things that can help people." - from "Divine Inspiration", Miami magazine, Fall 2005
(Yes, it's 4:44 a.m. but I wouldn't go to sleep until I finished this.) I'm continually asked what possible good is writing? Even more specifically what good is blogging in regards to a natural disaster and its survivors.
Walking by a newstand two weekends ago I spot under a headline: 61% of Katrina victims still can't sleep. A story offering lessons and comparing Thailand's and New Orlean's similar reliance on tourism reads: "Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and other conditions have affected 18,000 Thai survivors, according to Thailand's public health minister, Dr. Suchai Charoenratanakul." I've keep reading that southern gentility and politeless halt many Katrina victims from seeking emotional support and professional help.
A gifted writer I met at the Wild Women Writing conference back in January learns recently she has advanced lymphoma. During chemotherapy, she says writing in her journal is "the only thing keeping me sane." (She wants to blog her experience - I'm urgently looking for a Wordpress invite on her behalf.)
I thought I was doing just peachy keen when I went to the Taos Writers Conference this July. Instructor Jeff Davis had us walk outside with our notebooks for the writing exercise. We were to write a 'how to' piece on a difficult subject. Everyday stuff like: How to Put Your Dog to Sleep, How to Leave your Husband of 23 Years, How to Watch Your Mom Die of Dementia, How to Survive a Stabbing, How to Have an Abortion, or perhaps How to Survive a Tsunami. So my piece began (it's much longer; and it's now a poem):
You walk without thought
gravitating to a log in front of
a gravesite with a polka-dotted cruces
behind the Sagebrush Inn
Hanging angels and birds and stars of
corrugated tin foil - bronze, silver, gold
rock back and forth
Like the pier on Ko Phi Phi you imagine must have
- after the crack
the corrugated tin town a heap of metal
of bodies and bamboo
God only knows what that lone makeshift artist's gravesite was doing on the edge of the hotel parking lot. Or why I'd hadn't noticed it in any of the previous seven days. Or why writing that piece and sharing it with the class sludged off another layer I didn't even know existed.
We sat in stunned silence. The piercing words like curtains over surface thought. In that gap buckets of frigid water poured over smooth slate embedded with blood and tears.
We read to know we are not alone. - C.S. Lewis
We write for precisely the same.
Evening later, freer, at an outdoor hot spring overlooking the Rio Grande river I watch the moon rise over the gorge. Being naked should be easier there.
BONUS: I'm digging into some important research as prep-work for the tsunami anniversary citizen journalism project aka TARA Trek: In a 1997 research study Steven Lepore of Carnegie Mellon University had students write emotionally expressive essays on their deepest thoughts and feelings about a looming and grueling graduate school entrance exam. Another control group wrote about a trivial topic. The students whom wrote deep and naked (that's my language, the Ph.D.'s call it 'expressive writing') had a much lower level of depressive symptoms as the exam date approached than did examinees who wrote drivel (ok, that's my language too.) In that same paper there are also these nuggets:
People under stress exhibit a great deal of variability in their emotional responses. Even following extremely traumatic events, such as the loss of a loved one or paralyzing accidents, some people may enter a state of intense and prolonged depression, whereas others appear to be emotionally unscathed (Wortman & Silver, 1989). Several investigators have shown a consistent positive relation between repetitive and unbidden thoughts about stressful events and negative mood... For example, 6 years after the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, chronic stress was evident only in those area residents who had intrusive thoughts about the incident (see Baum, 1990).
[And:] During aversive events, many people have a strong urge to express their thoughts and feelings related to the events (Rime, 1995). This urge may be motivated by the comfort associated with ventilation or it may reflect an attempt to make sense of a negative event or validate one's feelings through social sharing. Whatever the motive, it appears that disclosure about stressful events is associated with improvements in physical and psychological well-being (see Pennebaker, 1989, 1993; Smyth, 1996, for reviews). Emotional expression, or disinhibition, is also a central feature of psychotherapeutic interventions (Stiles, 1995). There is suggestive evidence that inhibition in general, which can be defined as the tendency to conceal or not express significant experiences to others, may have dramatic effects on health. For instance, in a study of HIV-seropositive men, HIV infection advanced more rapidly in men who concealed their homosexual identity than in men who were more open about their identity (Cole, Kemeny, Taylor, Visscher, & Fahey, 1996). - "Expressive Writing Moderates the Relation Between Intrusive Thoughts and Depressive Symptoms", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 73, No. 5, 1997
HUGE BONUS: Writing About Natural Disasters: "Structured writing about a natural disaster buffers the effect of intrusive thoughts on negative affect [yeah, they're Australian] and physical symptoms". And: "There is evidence that individuals experiencing intensely traumatic events benefit from the opportunity to disclose (e.g., Pennebaker, Barger, & Tiebout, 1989). Accordingly, an individual experiencing a natural disaster may particularly benefit from post-disaster disclosure interventions (Pennebaker & Harber, 1993). One relatively recent disclosure intervention involves the expression of thoughts and feelings associated with a traumatic event through writing." Yes - writing.
p.s. Whom says amateurs can't do research that pro journalists do? And all this without even asking my psych professor sister for help. I do plan to contact Dr. Ironson and dig into this further. (The Internet and search engines rock.)
UPDATE: Hmmm, journalistic standards? You have to wonder about the research and reporting standards over at Forbes, says BL Ochman: "But dismissing bloggers as a bunch of low-lifes with no journalistic standards is just plain silly."
A reader responds within four hours of this post including the message: "Here's an invitation to create an account for your friend with lymphoma. I had AML (leukemia) 5 years ago." Now this is what The Point is the People means.