How reading and writing books can help you to heal
I love books. I always have. They allow me to escape, time travel, and exist in different bodies. They also provide therapeutic lessons by allowing me to learn from the author’s story and creative drive. This is particularly true for the memoir genre.
Autobiographical or memoir writing is an increasingly popular genre of literature. I think as humans we are fascinated by one another and we relish a first-hand insight into someone else’s choices: their love and loss, their mistakes and misfortune. We like to hear authentic, fantastic, scary, beautiful stories. Why stick to fiction when you can read about the real thing?
The combination of brilliant literature, authentic personal experience, insightful awareness of the therapeutic process, and powerful resilience in the face of tragedy, make these books some of my favourites:
- The Salt Path, Raynor Winn
- Wintering, Katherine May
- Reasons To Stay Alive, Matt Haig
- Living On The Seabed: A Memoir of Love, Life and Survival, Lindsay Nicholson
As many people who chose to write memoirs have suffered a great deal, I’ve wondered about the voyeuristic element in my choosing to read their harrowing account… Yet closing our eyes to suffering can also be damaging, potentially leading to a feeling of being isolated in our own pain.
As a humanistic therapist I believe that whilst all our experiences are unique, suffering and loss are universal. Although this may sound a little bleak, from an existential perspective loss is an essential part of being human. I have worked existentially with many clients who have shown grief can be incredibly life-affirming, compelling them to access unknown resources and revaluate their worldview.
Often my greatest weapon against grief, angst, or depression is taking hope from another's story of survival. In this way, a book can feel like a powerful embrace of a friend who has lived through uncertainty and trauma.
Reading about the struggles of others also promotes empathy, compassion, and connection, allowing us to step out of our solipsistic world and to risk opening up, sharing our pain, and asking for help. Narrating or voicing our struggles normalises mental health issues and promotes strategies for getting through them.
It is not only the readers who benefit from the bravery of those who open up in memoirs about their lives. Most authors do this from a desire to connect and to be heard after life has been rocky. There would not be a whole section of therapy devoted to creative writing if there were not a restorative and cathartic purpose in writing and releasing one's story.
Many of my favourite authors did not write for a public audience initially. Rather, their words were a method of therapy to help them through grief as they wrote to a lost child or dying husband. The step to reframe these personal love letters or diaries as books gave them a new identity as an author and a platform to help others. They often describe being surprised by the letters of thanks and similar stories flooding in. They have described how praise from readers of their book pulled them back into the world.
For me, the very fact that they picked up a pen in their pain and created such beautiful literature is testimony to the power of the transformative, resilient will to live, fight and self-actualise. They pull me back into the world with them.
I feel that my skill and passion as a counsellor arise both from my own losses as well as my love for the redemptive power of the arts. My own desire to create and to change provides me with a special appreciation for the immense privilege it is to bear witness to the pain and vulnerability of others.
As an existential therapist, the rapport I build with clients emanates from a recognition that we are two fellow travellers in a harsh and difficult world. On a lighter note, it is not uncommon for us to share a book recommendation or two!