Our family recently experienced a life-changing medical emergency. As the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff worked endlessly to save my husband’s life, I was, as a caregiver, on the sidelines. Feelings of helplessness, grief, sadness, and frustration found a home in my heart. During the time of his hospitalization and now, during post-op care, I find myself reaching again and again for the only thing that gives me great comfort: books. For some people, it is music, or medication, or meditation, or walking, or yoga, or rock climbing. For me, it has been and always will be books. I found myself reading everything from old favorites – such as When Breath Becomes Air – to contemporary releases like Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. I read books about my husband’s illness, about finding motivation during hard times, about how to care for yourself when caring for others. During endless hours in waiting rooms, I read what felt like every magazine available. (I’m now completed updated on George Clooney’s twins.)
As the political climate got nastier, I found myself researching old books about what all this means. What happened during the time of Nixon, and is there any parallel? Earlier in the election cycle there was a lot of discussion about the daily security briefing a president receives; I wondered what that was all about, and how and why it was done. Yes: There was a book on it. I remember ordering it and learning more on a topic that has nothing to do with what I do for a living, but it helped me understand what the issues being spoken about really meant.
I remember a blog post I wrote years ago, wondering if my current profession – food writing – even matters. The variety of responses surprised me then. But nothing surprised me more than what happened when massive tragedy hit home. I wasn’t able to cook or feed my family as I wanted but I found myself, late at night, reaching for the cookbooks on my nightstand. Just going through them comforted me, provided solace, and made me think of happier times. I began to bookmark recipes I would cook when things settled down. They gave me hope . . . that things would settle down.
All this made me wonder: What if, during hard times – whether personal, professional, or political – we writers stopped writing? I say this because that was my first instinct when my whole world fell apart: I stopped writing. My friends, my mentor, and my father constantly told me to keep a journal, but at first I scorned. How could they tell me to keep writing when everything seemed to be going up in flames? And then, slowly, I realized what was giving me comfort was words. Words others had written during times of great turmoil. And some not written during times of turmoil. But all those words offered me great relief during a heartbreaking time. Getting lost in a good mystery to avoid dealing with medical what-ifs for an hour was a blessing. Even if just for an hour.
What if no one had documented diseases, plagues, wars, personal illnesses? We would lose who we are as humanity.
So how did I find the time to write in the ICU and post-ICU? What did I write? Here are a few things I learned and share with you in the hopes you never have to use them. But if you find yourself in hard times, especially medical, perhaps these small pieces of guidance will help.
- Write what you can and when you can. This sounds so simple and yet it is the hardest. I wrote mostly at 2:00 a.m. when I could not sleep, did not want to wake anyone up to bother them, and when the demons inside my head were the loudest.
- Write about your feelings. I recently read an article from the BBC about how healing writing can be (the article would not commit to it, but it came close enough for me to take it as a truth). Write down how you feel, because at the end of the day, emotions are universal and what brings us together.
- Words versus sentences. There were nights when I could only write down a word, a fleeting glimpse of a sunset, a thought that life as I knew it was over or a hope that all would be magically restored. It did not matter what I wrote – just that I wrote it and gave the words a home. It gave the pain a home outside me.
- Carry a small journal with you. I chose not to write on my phone or my laptop during this time. I wrote by hand. The process of moving pen over paper was soothing. I found myself doodling, drawing flowers, leaves, the sun. That journal is now a keepsake of a difficult period during my life.
- Note what people say. I took solace in the words of doctors, nurses, family and friends. Often, a simple line from them provided great solace; I wrote it down. Then, when the tears would inevitably come, I would go back and read those words again and again.
- Let the pages be blank. I would be lying if I told you I wrote every day. There are many blank pages in that journal. There were nights I just hugged that journal and wept. And that was okay. We have to respect our emotions just as much as we do our words.
I hope as you and I explore this world we are in, with all its wonders and its flaws, we will write as much as we can, so someday in the future, our future generations will have a book that gives them solace in their time of need.
Do you have experience writing during difficult times? What worked for you? Please share your stories in comments.