Turning letter-writing into a self-calming conversation
by June Alexander
The unconditional love and informed support of family members can speed the pace of self-renewal when recovering from an eating disorder or traumatic experience, but if you are alone or not receiving care from your family in the way you need, persevere, for healing is possible for you, too.
When verbal communication attempts to include my parents and sister in my recovery process failed, I did not want to give up. As a next step, I tried letter writing. Using pen and notepaper, as this method felt more intimate, and my diary as a resource, I would make several drafts, with each re-write enabling a fresh perspective, and more concise expression of emotions. This writing process encouraged more rational and realistic thinking.
Letter writing was like a step up from diary writing. While diary writing was to myself as audience, letter writing built on the diary’s content to a wider, yet specific, audience. This form of written communication was particularly helpful in conveying feelings and thoughts too painful to be expressed verbally, or perhaps verbal attempts had been made but were shunned or misinterpreted. Letter writing was another way to cleanse inner wounds and assist healing. It helped to validate my experiences, allowed feelings and thoughts to be put without interruption or judgment, and provided a safe environment in which to feel connected with others, and feel heard.
Whether or not the letters were sent, the process of creating them helped to strip away hurtful emotion and allowed healing. By storing originals or copies in my diary, the letters became an adjunct to daily private writing. Sometimes, not sending a letter was most beneficial, for I could imagine and visualize a response or outcome that would be most helpful, and bring most happiness, to me. Sometimes, as with the following letters, which were sent, no response was received, and this was more painful. I would wonder if the letter had arrived at its destination, had been misplaced, or deliberately ignored. Rejection would fire up and the diary, again, would be my solace.
Writing as a way of expressing emotions that otherwise would be repressed can help you feel better about yourself. By tracing feelings back to traumatic events, and reflecting on them, you can defuse their power to affect you in the present. When my treatment team encouraged me to do this, even though many years had passed, I began to experience calm instead of chaos and peace instead of torment. I gained sufficient self-awareness to realize when “something is bothering me”, and became more able to follow the feeling with my pen, find the cause and attend to it. This skill allowed decision-making to occur without feeling overly anxious or defaulting to ED behaviors such as restricting food intake or binge eating to ease distress.
Letters to my parents
July 30, 2000
Dear Mum and Dad,
I am writing to you, as this seems the best way for me to express my thoughts and feelings. You seem to find some things too painful to discuss and take the line that what has happened, has happened, so just get on with daily living. But some things need to be discussed, so understandings can be reached, and sound relationships can be built.
I will tell you how I feel and hope you will understand me a little better. . . .
I love you and would like you to share in my life.
Your daughter, June
The diary was a safe place in which to express reactions to responses to my letters, and to reflect on relationships with family members.
Letter writing to friends also provided a valuable add-on to regular diary writing. By 2005, email had vastly improved the opportunity for prompt support and communication. Such friends were vital on my healing journey. Their unwavering support is woven into my diaries:
“August 14, 2005: I exchanged about six e-mails with (best friend) Helen, who said I MUST send a letter to my parents. So I have written the letter, three drafts so far. I will mail it but won’t expect a reply, but at least I’ll have let them know how I feel [about not being invited to a niece’s wedding].”
– Author’s diary
The following letter was written after much soul-searching in my diary (ED’s voice: ‘You don’t deserve to be invited to your parents’ Diamond Wedding celebration’ and my friends: ‘You do deserve an invitation and you must let your parents know how you feel’).
October 8, 2007
Dear Mum and Dad, and [Sister],
I am writing this letter in an effort to open the door to healing the rift in our family.
I think of you every day and feel very sad we miss much of each other’s life. While we are all alive and well I will continue to hope we will be re-united as a family. . . .
Earlier this year I was very sad not to be included in the planning of your 60th wedding anniversary celebration, Mum and Dad.
A diamond anniversary is a wonderful achievement and such a big marital milestone should be a celebration of the many years of marriage and everything that has flowed from it. This includes all children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. . . .
I have four lovely children and a lovely grandson. I feel sad that we weren’t invited to share in celebrating your big moment.
I think the feeling of rejection and exclusion from one’s loved ones is the most painful of all emotions.
I’d love to hear from you and catch up on your news. As for me, what am I doing now? . . . My mental health is fragile but I am encouraged to walk tall: every day is a day to cherish; every day is a little mountain to be climbed, and I am doing well. I know you don’t understand, or maybe you don’t even wish to try and understand, what my illness has been like for me. I am fortunate to have caring health professionals who do understand.
My one big, unrelenting sadness is that of feeling estranged. . . . My illness made me behave in uncharacteristically hurtful and unlovable ways. No wonder you had great difficulty understanding and loving me. I want you to know it was my illness, not me, that was behaving so horribly. For many years I did not understand or love myself: my illness almost suffocated, buried, destroyed me. I fought for and hung on to life by a thread. Now, I am whole again. . . .
My psychiatrist has encouraged me to write this letter, to help erase the pain of rejection that has tormented and affected my health for years. It is not too late for healing to begin. . . .
Mum and Dad, I love you and always will,
Eventually, my diary, friends, psychiatrist and, by now, my adult children and their dad helped me to accept that to heal more fully, closure was necessary.
October 27, 2007
Dear Mum and Dad, and [Sister],
I am sorry that none of you have responded to my latest efforts to establish communication. There is nothing more I can do, except thank you for all you have done for me and this includes:
* Above all, giving me the gift of life.
* Providing a childhood that allowed freedom to roam on a dairy farm and explore bushland and river close by.
* Telling Santa to give 10-year-old me a cap gun and cowgirl suit to live my dream of being Annie Oakley.
* Allowing the pleasure and responsibility of caring for animals, having pets.
* Providing nourishing meals . . . and vegetable garden and orchard, instilling a lifelong love of fresh food.
* Showing how to collect eggs, pluck chooks, feed calves, milk cows, drive tractors, move irrigation pipes and shift electric fences.
* Showing how to set rabbit traps, snare wombats and to hunt vermin.
* Being role models in developing values and responsible work ethics; and encouraging resourcefulness, resilience and persistence.
* Sending me on culture-enriching holidays with city relatives in childhood.
* Providing beautiful grandparents and other extended family.
* Allowing freedom, from childhood, to read books and pursue my writing passion.
* As a teenager, taking me to dance lessons and local dances.
* Welcoming George into your home and family.
* Providing our children with farm holidays and teaching them, through vegetable-picking, the value of work.
* Providing experiences that have inspired the writing of my memoir and other books.
Thank you for this, and more . . .
Acknowledging pain and truths, in writing, can be helpful in moving on from not only an eating disorder, but also associated issues, like trauma and loss. Doctors, family and friends observed that emotional-sharing occurred more easily for me through the pen than my voice, and encouraged use of the diary as a participant in healing. Even when doctors did not understand the depth of my illness, they said: “Keep writing”. They believed in me when I could not, and I am eternally grateful.
A day in my shoes
Don’t judge me on what you see,
A lost and broken soul,
Taunted night and day with numbers in my head,
That dinner you eat, it filled me with dread.
Why don’t you eat? It’s as easy as that.
I wish. . . .
Don’t judge me for what I said,
It wasn’t me,
It was the voices in my head,
Don’t eat, you’ll get fat, you’re ugly, worthless,
Don’t judge me for how I made you feel,
I was keeping myself safe,
I was in control,
Keeping my emotions in check,
Numb, black, despairing of life and living.
A void. . . .
Don’t judge me for being,
Give me a switch,
If I could I would have flicked it ten times over, I would.
And another thousand of times,
For all those still fighting,
And those who have lost. . . .
If I could have told myself how bad it would get,
I would have told myself a millions time over.
I don’t judge myself,
So don’t you. . . .
This post is drawn from Chapter Eight in:
Alexander, J. (2016) Using Writing as a Resource to Treat Eating Disorders: The diary healer, Hove: Routledge.
Would you like help in writing a letter? As a writing mentor, I offer understanding and guidance in expressing what you want to say with the written word. The process of writing your story can be very therapeutic, whether or not your letter is ultimately sent or not. To arrange mentoring, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.