November 19, 2021
Content warning: This story contains mentions of sexual assault.
I have never been very receptive to self-help tips. This might stem from my innate stubbornness, or maybe because I have always perceived any problem that can be solved by myself as being inherently my fault. If exercise, sleep, healthy eating and meditation can relieve anxiety, then I must be the reason that I still suffer from it.
Despite my reluctance to fall into what always seemed to be a toxic positivity trap, I recently discovered the power of journaling. Not because someone told me to — though many people have — but because I reached a point where I felt like if I didn’t find a way to articulate my emotions, then the emotions would never go away.
“When I was drowning, that’s when I could finally breathe.” Taylor Swift sang this lyric in “Clean,” one of my favorite songs of hers, and one I listened to the first time I ever sat down to journal. There comes a point in healing from a traumatic event when the pain is so insufferable that your body has to do something for itself to survive. For me, that was seeking out therapy, telling my mom about what I had experienced and writing.
I am not here to advocate for regular journaling as some sort of end-all-be-all cure. I do not journal regularly and one main reason why I stayed away for so long was because I never felt like I had something to say. Though words certainly do not have to be flawless to be worthy of a spot on the page, mindless, free writing takes practice, and I understand the pressure to make each journal entry profound.
Instead of consistent journaling — which can sometimes force you to constantly think about the thing that causes you pain — I believe in journaling when you have something to say. One of the hardest things about dealing with trauma, and even going to therapy for it, is articulating the pain. It is more than sadness and anger, because it can also be guilt, disgust, love or shame. Very rarely does one word or even one sentence encapsulate a feeling. But in the event that it does, preserve it.
The first time I ever journaled was after seeing a good friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in a while. I was so excited to see her, but I couldn’t shake an inexplicable feeling of emptiness. How could I feel so sad while being with someone who usually makes me so happy? This is how trauma burns. It debilitates when you least expect it to. I cried until I found the words to describe why I was crying, and without even thinking, I wrote them down. Though I do not remember what I said, I do remember that almost immediately I felt a release. The emptiness was still there, but it made sense. I could explain it. Trauma is inexplicable. Why would someone do that? Why, months later, am I still hurt? While trauma often stems from a lack of control, the ability to explain a feeling allows you to control not necessarily what you feel, but the context of the feeling. It does not mean the feeling disappears but rather it becomes familiar, safe.
Writing externalizes pain. When you transfer a feeling to words on a page, you are no longer responsible for that feeling. Trauma often comes with an unshakeable feeling of guilt and responsibility, so this process of externalization is crucial to recovery. Writing can also heal others. When I felt hopeless and alone in my inability to describe my pain, I turned to those who had the words. Chanel Miller, the author of “Know My Name” — a book that changed my life — said in a 60 Minutes interview that sexual assault is “not the topic I would’ve chosen. But it was the topic I was given.” As a writer, someone who can verbalize what many cannot, Miller used her combination of skill and experience to heal others.
In writing in my journal, and writing for this section, I seek to do the same. Though connecting with other survivors in this way is not the type of connection I ever wish to make with a person, it is a beautiful one nevertheless.
Yet I can never expect my writing to resonate with others, because as universal as trauma is, it can manifest itself so differently at the individual level. Instead, I write to resonate with the parts of myself that my conscience cannot yet explain, and to take control over a moment that has come to define my life. I write because it preserves my story and legitimizes my experiences. I write because it frees me from the confines of the survivor that others expect me to be.
Lily Nevo is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.