Writing as Self-Care
I’ve always known that I’m destined to be a writer, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve always practiced my craft.
During the first two years of my newly-acquired, worked-my-ass-off-to-earn-it job as a full-time English professor, I purposefully overextended myself.
I signed up for every committee.
I volunteered to organize every event.
I held out both hands and begged to be of service.
I wanted to belong to this place and this people.
I wanted my utility to determine my worth so I wouldn’t have to decide my own value.
I offered my self up, allowing my identity to be determined by who I served; my existence was validated by my performance. Who I was at any given moment was determined by the needs of others.
I was writing emails, feedback on student essays, meeting notes, lists of More Things To Do, lesson plans, frantic texts, and panicked Post-It reminders. I was writing for the survival of my representative whose job it was to go into the world and show everyone just how productive--and therefore valuable—I was. I needed the performance of my representative to be applauded more than I needed to speak and hear the truth I wasn’t writing. I needed approval and a place to hide more than happiness. If I didn’t show up—put myself into my words and work—I dodged the risk of being rejected. I was also preventing myself from being seen. No one could tell me that I was unworthy because I wasn’t even there.
Part of the reason I overextended myself was to avoid addressing the mounting tensions in my home. My husband and I were throwing ourselves into our respective work in part to avoid facing ourselves, one another, and the shifts occurring in our marriage. I had outsourced my happiness, personal fulfillment, and self-worth to my job and my students. I only felt joy and fulfillment when they were performing well and my supervisors were pleased. I never dared ask myself if I was happy with me. I never dared write down my feelings because I knew that once I saw them in black squiggles on a stark white background, I would be responsible for them, and myself.
That’s the thing about my writing: it’s the gospel truth.
I am constitutionally incapable of hiding in writing because I ask the blank page to be my mirror: I ask it to show me what I’ve been avoiding, what I’m hoping for, and who I can be when I finally decide to show up. It’s an open invitation.
When you spend your time and energy cultivating the growth and development of others—tirelessly stacking kindling and fanning flames in hopes of a spark—it can easily become the only thing you think about.
The only thing you think you can and should do.
Your only way of being and making meaning and making a living.
But what kind of life is that—the one you’re building for the sake of and in the name of another?
Even in service—especially in service—we must first belong to ourselves.
For Christmas that second year of hustling, my husband bought me a pocket-sized red leather journal. The first page was a copy of e.e. Cummings’ poem [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]. I hadn’t had a journal in years. I hadn’t written a single sentence that was my own. I saw the journal, but especially the poem, as a reminder that my heart was mine to carry first. He gave it back to me not because it was too heavy for him to carry, but because it was time for me to remember that it was mine.
He gave me back to myself, placed me back into my own hands.
Even when I was busy with all of the work of the world, I would remember my journal and the poem--and myself. I started telling myself that heart work comes before hard work.
I started writing stream-of-consciousness journals that turned into a series of personal essays. I kept writing because seeing the truth that had been floating in my mind and heart was like redemption. It was freedom in a dancing pen.
I kept writing for myself, then branched out a little in Instagram captions, then in Facebook posts. I started to show up for myself publicly so that if I ever became Depressed again, someone would notice and come looking.
I wanted that someone to be me.
Writing saved me and brought me back to myself during a long, beautiful, terrifying year. I always knew I was a writer, but the thing about knowing what you’re meant to do is that you have to put that thing into practice. You have to do it. Denying it is denying a piece of who you are, and denying yourself the most incredible joy you’ve ever created your damn self FOR your damn self.