On Writing and Healing

Anyone with a penchant for the literary arts knows the power of the written word to effect change off the page. Whether it’s as consequential as the Marxist revolutions or as personal as one of these open letters to my deceased parents, writing can make a difference in our unhealed world.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Before I lost you both within three weeks of each other at twelve years old, I had promised Mom I would dedicate my first book to her. She never got to read it, but willing my imagination onto the page made me feel that much more insulated from the drugs and alcohol that ultimately ended your lives. Although I have yet to finish a book of publishable quality, I’ve been writing ever since.

This note is as much a “thank you” to my own craft as it is a correspondence to beyond the grave.

As you may recall, Mom and Dad, it was in yesterday’s letter that I lighted upon my obsession with the crosstalk between “writing” and “healing” for the first time in this blog series. How appropriate, given that I attended my weekly dialectical behavior therapy group last night to help me overcome my borderline personality disorder; in fact, my counselor thought it encouraging for me to pursue this new blogging subject.

As DBT involves filling out worksheets and keeping “diary cards,” I can’t think of a better example of how writing has the power to heal – after all, seventy percent of people with BPD will attempt suicide at least once in their lifetimes, and eight to ten percent will succeed, at a prevalence fifty times greater than the rates of suicide in the general population. As grim as those statistics are, though, I can attest to how effective DBT is in treating my BPD; I haven’t snuck a blade into the shower since my date-rape in February 2022, because I document my day-to-day with an eye on the same catharsis as all my other writings.

And my wish, Mom, is that you could’ve saved your own life by beautifying all the stories you no doubt had to tell about your past.

For context, I took a class on this very subject in graduate school, aptly titled “Writing and Healing.” It awakened us to how carnal language can engage the senses, as well as the ways in which poetry more specifically can somaticize as movement in the body. I found myself at my most interested in this concept when I viewed it through the lens of mental wellness, and when we were asked for our final project to compose a response to a piece of somatic writing, I nestled into my wheelhouse of journalism and critical theory when I chose an analysis of Lady Gaga’s 2020 album, Chromatica.

Of course, Gaga is an electronic dance artist, so, by its very nature, her lyricism courses through the physique – how poetic it is, no less, that in my mind, Chromatica is redolent of the curative hand sanitizer that defined the novel coronavirus pandemic during which it was released.

But more explicit than its genre is the thematic content of Chromatica, in particular the track “911.” Gaga uses the emergency hotline number as a metaphor for her antipsychotics, which harmonizes with my attraction to “Somatica,” if you will, as an instrument of mental recovery.

For all her battles with chronic pain, Gaga speaks through “911” most directly to my own experience with life-saving mood stabilizers.

All that being said, Mom, I have a feeling you would have found the pop music of Lady Gaga as infectious as I do, had you not overdosed in 2006. As you may recall, I didn’t “like” music at that time in my life (perhaps because it grounded me in the present moment from the spats of disassociation that comforted me through and distracted me from the reality of growing up under your roof, powerless to escape), and it used to frustrate you that you couldn’t play your favorite songs throughout the house without annoying me. Maybe the rush of hormones that accompanied my falling in love for the first time in 2009 or 2010 precipitated my enthusiasm for Lady Gaga when I “discovered” her around that same year – suddenly, I yearned to participate in the same world as my crush, and what is music if not the currency of passion? It would have built a bridge between us, Mom, if you could have lived to see me declare a journalism major on my college application in 2012 for the express purpose of writing about the music you so delighted in.

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I wonder if Gaga would have motivated you the same way she motivates me to celebrate my own darkness, to spill copious ink about her ode to Zyprexa as though caught up in the frenzy of penning a love letter instead. “Writing and Healing” revealed to us that the act of writing, in and of itself, demands action from the body, and even composing this very letter to you, Mom and Dad, floods my veins with inspiration.

You may not have been a writer, Mom, but you could have been. Dad insisted you were smarter than he himself, and you were no less literary than he himself, either – you influenced my affection for storytelling, and your way with words translated into nothing but acutely timed hilarity.

My understanding of borderline personality disorder is that it is a reaction to trauma, and, though I have no way of knowing if you suffered from it, your life was nothing short of traumatic. From the moment the grandfather I never knew walked out on your family while you were still in pigtails (at least, according to the only photograph you showed me of you two together, one of the few where your mother hadn’t cut out his face with a pair of scissors, the one where you looked so much like my sister did at that age), you were all but fated to lick the harsh salt of mental illness. Indeed, you were the youngest of four born to a single, working woman who was about as qualified to be your mother as she was to be our grandmother – which is, to say, not at all. To be sure, this was the same woman who gifted our family a box of poker chips for Christmas (mind you, my sister and I were eight and nine at the time, respectively), only to borrow them and never give them back.

No, I can remember you telling me about how she used to paddle you with a wooden spoon, and when you hid it, she paddled you with a hairbrush instead.

Is it any wonder that my sister and I walked in on her throwing you down on her bed and beating you bloody with her wooden backscratcher in the year leading up to your death?

Even if your only mental ailment was the substance use disorder that killed you, it overtook you for a reason. Not at all unlike my own disassociations, your pills enabled you to fantasize your way out of this existence, to make those daydreams come true. Wouldn’t it have been more constructive for you to face your history instead, to leverage it as the backstory behind your hero’s journey toward becoming a mother your children could depend upon to love them as much as she loved herself?

We’ll never know what could have come of such an exercise in your own insight, Mom, which leaves me to write your story instead, to pray it reaches someone who is scrambling to reconcile their own meaningless tragedy with a meaning greater than themselves, and to dedicate all that transcendence and sublimity to your memory.


Author: Hunter Goddard, MA, BA

I am an award-winning journalist, memoirist, and personal essayist in Denver, Colorado. I hold a Master of Arts in Professional Creative Writing with a concentration in Nonfiction from the University of Denver, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Media Communication from Colorado State University Fort Collins, with a concentration in Publications Writing, Editing, and Production, and an interdisciplinary minor in Film Studies. I am passionate about inspiring positive change and meaningful action through the power of the literary arts.

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