NOTE TO READERS: Anyone who is hooked on journaling will tell you that they feel almost a physical relief after writing. The act of expression releases pent-up energy and when the writing is done, the body feels more relaxed. In his ground-breaking book,"Opening Up," psychologist James Pennebaker explores the medical benefits associated with journaling, or what he calls "confession." He first began his research after studying lie-detector tests. It turns out that after a person takes the test, muscles relax, heart and respiratory rates improve. In other words, confessing our secrets is good for the body. Pennebaker went on to do multiple studies of college students and other groups, and measured marked improvements in health as a result of sharing our innermost secrets.
In the Happiness class this semester, we are reading Pennebaker and discussing the merits of his research. One student, Carrie Holmes, who is now a senior in college, reacted to Pennebaker's book by telling the story of her freshman year, and how journal-writing helped save her sanity after a horrifying incident occurred.
James Pennebaker, psychologist and author of Opening Up, poses a series of questions in the opening chapter of his book.
He asks, “Why do people throughout the world seek to tell their stories? Is there some kind of urge to confess? Is it healthy for us to divulge our deepest thoughts and feelings? Or, conversely, is it unhealthy not to disclose the private sides of our lives?”
While I must admit, most, if not all of these questions never crossed my mind prior to reading them, I was intrigued.
I immediately thought back to the first time I told my story (well part of it, as I do not believe I have told my entire story.)
I tried to recover my feelings and thoughts as I went through that process. What made me tell my story? How did it feel? How did I feel? It became apparent to me that the only way to answer these questions would be to first answer to opposite; what made me not tell my story?
For a long time I carried the secrets of my past, and at some points in my life, secrets of the present. I was yoked to those secrets. They were agents of oppression, and I was in bondage to them. There was this one particular incident: it occurred freshman year of college, during the summer before freshman year, to be exact. I had just met this guy who, at first, seemed very nice to me. We began seeing each other.
Being young and naïve, I thought this relationship was going to be "it." I thought that I had found the love of my life and I was looking forward to the next four years with him in college.
Then one evening we were in his car and he was driving and suddenly I did not recognize where we were going. He pulled into some abandoned lot and to make a long story short, I was violated sexually.
When I got back to campus, I acted as if nothing had happened. The way I saw it, I was lucky to be alive. I tried my best to forget about it and focus on the remainder of the summer program that was the reason for me being in Albany in the first place.
Many people may think that I was crazy for not telling anyone what happened to me that summer. I can imagine now what some of my friends would have said to me: “You have to go to the cops," and "Don’t you want him arrested?" and "Don't you want revenge?"
To have talked about the issue would have meant that I would actually have had to confront the issue, and as Pennebaker suggests, “Confrontation forces a rethinking of events.” (pg. 10)
Unfortunately I just wanted it all to go away! I was confused, I was hurt, and I was scared by this traumatic experience.
“People are less likely to talk about parental divorce, sexual trauma, and violence than the death of a family member. Death appears to be socially acceptable…” (pg.19). Date rape was something that I had only heard about until that experience, and even so, it was not something “socially acceptable.”
The only accounts I had heard were statistics, or from TV shows. It was not something that was discussed. Even if I wanted to talk about it, I did not know how. Talking about being raped was not something I'd been taught in school. I was still processing it all. I was coping with it the best way I knew how and that was to keep it to myself.
I remember how guilty I felt. It seemed like people always had something negative to say about women who are raped. I also remembered the loud words of a fellow high school student, who had said, “If a girl gets raped it’s her fault for putting herself in that situation.” I couldn’t tell anyone because I felt that it was my fault, at least that’s what I thought at the time.
I beat myself up every day for being so “stupid.”
As every day passed, it became easier and easier to keep it all bottled inside.
No one can deny that talking about what happened to me would have been in my favor, but there were too many things riding on keeping it secret. Back then my friends always saw me as strong, primarily because I had gone through so many other traumas growing up. That was another reason I could not bring myself to talk about what had happened. I did not want my friends to view me as weak or defenseless. I did not want to be exposed. I wanted to remain the strong Carrie that every relied on; I wanted to be the one to help them through their issues.
Pennebaker explores the “healing power” of expressing emotions and writing about traumatic situations. He says that “writing about emotional upheavals has been found to improve the physical and mental health of…rape victims” (pg. 40). When I read this quote I must say that I had to agree. Not only did I agree with this statement but also the statement “writing about emotional topics has been found to reduce anxiety and depression.” (pg. 40)
These two quotes really highlight my freshman-year experience. After my assault, I took an English class with one of the most inspiring professors of my college career (she is also helping me now to maintain my sanity senior year.) It was in this professor's class that I began writing about my traumatic experience. She required us to keep journals.
While there were some assignments given, most of what we wrote in our journals was about how we felt and what was going on in our lives. One evening I chose to write about the rape for the first time. I had a lot of feelings. I felt nervous, I wondered what she would think, I felt relived, I felt liberated, I felt sad, I felt angry, and I felt all kinds of ways. I can say today that that was one of the best choices that I have made in my life.
As Pennebaker suggests, writing about my experience allowed me to understand how I felt. Journaling also allowed me to get some closure about the situation; I was no longer hostabe to the secret. I could move on. I was no longer depressed about the situation.
Although there were still things going on in my life that caused stress and depression, I had discovered writing and realized what a very good coping mechanism it could be for me. And so I wrote my way through freshman year. With every opportunity that I got, I wrote about an experience, whether in a journal entry, or a class assignment, I wrote.
If there was anything that I could add to Pennebaker’s work, it would be the fact that writing about a situation that is traumatic gives you power over it. Through my writing I was able to recreate a lot of situations that felt like they were out of my control; that proved to be very helpful in my healing process.
I have come to understand that although my reasons for not telling my story may have been valid, and even “normal,” expressing myself has had many benefits. Through writing, a different feeling came over me; something shifted in my life.
Truly, Pennebaker is right: “a change does come over people when they write about traumatic experiences for the first time.” (pg. 43)
I know one thing: I'm glad I wrote, and I will continue writing!
Carrie Holmes, a senior at the University at Albany, State University of New York, will graduate in May, 2011.