Natasha Agafonoff – industrial chemist, selective secondary school graduate, anorexic, bipolar, divorcee – first started blogging to communicate with her then-husband.
“To bring him into the picture and give him a bit of an understanding of what was going on inside me,” Agafonoff says of a period when she was struggling with infidelity, an eating disorder, and a chronic sense of worthlessness – despite her apparently shiny, happy life. “I feel much more confident writing about something than I do speaking about it.”
But Agafonoff also wrote because she “wanted to understand myself”, she says of the blog that ended up with more than 500 email subscribers and many more occasional readers, and which she is now revising and hopes to publish. Writing became a form of therapy that helped her get well.
Writing cure: Natasha Agafonoff blogged about her life, marriage and anorexia and found that it worked as therapy for her and others. Photo: Penny Stephens
“If I don’t write for a while, I feel like I lose my voice and then I lose my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “Things start to go round and round in my head, then spiral into anxiety, and it’s very easy to tumble back into familiar behaviours and patterns. Writing is a good way of getting things out of my head [so] I don’t have to ruminate as much – they live there, on the page.”
Writing also gave her a remedy for her anorexia, which had dogged her teens and 2os.
“Having an eating disorder is a brilliant way to numb feelings; it makes negative experiences extraordinarily tolerable,” Agafonoff says. “But you can’t say ‘I just want all the bad stuff to go away but I’ll still be happy and have joy’ – it tends to numb everything. And I got to the point where I wanted to start feeling things again.”
Blogging gave her a way to explore her feelings about present and past events. “I had a lot of assumptions and stories about who I was and wasn’t. [Writing made me] go through the process of evaluating what was true.”
Whether the inky cousin of selfie culture or long tail of the creative writing mania, writing as therapy is having a moment. Melbourne counsellor Bernadette Brown recently started a “life stories” service in which she uses her professional listening and guiding skills to “help people explore their histories in a self-determined way.” The results are transcribed, edited into a narrative and produced as a booklet with photos.
Meanwhile, the School of Life – the Melbourne branch of a global organisation that encourages people to use literature, philosophy and art in their day-to-day lives, a kind of cerebral CAE – has been offering popular “writing as therapy” and “storytelling as therapy” workshops. Demand is so strong for author and broadcaster Sian Prior’s three-hour writing workshops, a three-week intensive will be offered for the first time in January.
In an age often characterised by our enthusiasm for pills to treat our angst – our Prozac (Zoloft/Paxil/Lexapro) nation-status – could the pen or keyboard really be mightier than the Big Pharma hoard?
Prozac Nation, by Elizabeth Wurtzel, became emblematic of the zeitgeist of medicating Western depressionPhoto: Book cover
In June, psychologist Jane Turner Goldsmith published an article on how writing as therapy actually works, in the journal of the Australian Psychological Society. It’s an area she has a personal interest in, having written the well-received novel Poinciana, a fictionalised account of her husband’s death in a car accident 15 years before.
In the InPsych article,Turner Goldsmith cites 30 years of research showing writing about traumatic events boosts the immune system, reduces the symptoms of illness, and improves mood and psychological wellbeing (compared to control groups who wrote about trivial matters). Some studies suggest it is not mere venting that works – although that can be cathartic, she says – but framing events and experiences in a narrative arc that resolves at the end. Writing in the third person (he/she) is also key to a therapeutic result. (Curiously, writing in the first person or using less conventional narrative forms, including poetry, correlates with poorer psychological outcomes.)
This suggests writing can be a form of mastery over trauma, Turner Goldsmith concludes.
She stresses, however, this therapeutic effect only occurs if the writing is voluntary.
Therapeutic writing can be hazardous as well as healthy – there’s the potential to invade others’ privacy, and the small matter of defamation.
“If you’re writing for public consumption, you have to be very careful about considering the consequences and being as ethical and honest as possible,” says Sian Prior, who published the critically acclaimed Shy last year (an examination of the psychology of the condition and an “insanely revealing” memoir that included details of her life and break up with “Tom”, a musician who was in reality Paul Kelly).
“It’s not going to be therapeutic for you if you wind up in court or lose all your friends or family as a result of what felt like therapeutic writing at the time,” Prior says.
Shy but never retiring: the multi-talented Sian Prior. Photo: Simon Schluter
Agafonoff, whose original public blog was anonymous, says after their divorce her former husband asked her to stop writing about him.
“I said no, I can’t,” she says. “I don’t want to be vindictive and over-exaggerate what transpired or paint people in a bad light, but if something happened and it had an impact on me, I want to be able to write about it in an honest way that feels authentic.”
Agafonoff writes, she says, with a quote from United States activist and novelist Anne Lamott in the back of her mind: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Prior says she secretly hoped Shy would cure her of the condition. It didn’t, but the huge response from readers (the shy, and those mystified by the condition) has changed her attitude to it.
“What I discovered was it’s not something I can magically get rid of, but by understanding and writing about it what I did manage to eradicate was a lot of the shame and embarrassment I felt about it,” she says. “I’m shy and proud now.”
So will the “writing cure” take over from the “talking cure” any time soon?
Psychoanalyst Dr Peter Ellingsen says the way people tell their stories on the shrink’s couch is different to writing them in a memoir. Both share a certain relief in confessing what’s on your mind and unburdening yourself – but there’s always more to the story than you’re telling, he says.
“In psychoanalysis, patients have to say more than they know,” Ellingsen says. “We listen very carefully to what patients say and we hold them to their word. You get things like slips of the tongue – that’s a formation of the unconscious, so there’s something coming out that’s being repressed or hidden. Marking this can be a way of them waking up.
“In very simple terms, what psychoanalysis will do is help someone stop fooling themselves.”
Psychiatrists can read patients like a book; Shrink Billy Crystal (left) and patient Robert De Niro in Analyze That.Photo: Phillip V. Caruso
But Ellingsen does not dismiss the therapeutic possibilities of writing. “Everyone’s got their own way of working – people help others in all sorts of ways.”
School of Life Melbourne director Kaj Lofgren says he thought there might be blowback on appropriating the term “therapy” in the centre’s courses. “I’m fully aware of the professional integrity aspects of using this sort of language,” he says. But there’s been no backlash from the community or mental health professionals.
“For too long, good ideas, particularly good ideas in the humanities, have been really scared of presenting themselves in a way that is deeply accessible. There was an institutional assumption that if you popularise something you must dilute it. I think that’s flawed,” he says.
“We should be normalising the concept of therapy and the therapeutic. Not keeping it for those with significant mental health concerns, but treating it more like an everyday activity.”
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