Creative writing as therapy

I was born when the bombs were falling. As my mother was holding me for the first time, on the ground floor of a hospital, a plane crashed into an upper storey. Mother didn’t know if the hospital would collapse. So, she got a nurse to sew her up ⎯ there were no anaesthetics or even analgesics available ⎯ then walked for three hours, carrying me, through the deep snow of Hungarian February. She took three months to recover from that walk.

As a toddler, I lived in the ghetto. For the first two years of my life, the adults caring for me were constantly terrified. An infant can’t yet understand language, but does take in emotion. To have the giants who love you radiate despair and helplessness is the ultimate in trauma. Tiny children can only protect themselves in one way, by shutting off all emotion, so, that’s what I did. For perhaps half of my life, the only two emotions available to me were anger and sadness. I could react with fear to a physical danger, but anxiety, happiness, joy ⎯ the full range of human emotions ⎯ were what I observed in others, and understood in an intellectual way, but had no gut feeling for.

Even today, after extensive self-therapy, my version of emotions is a 1920s black and white movie with subtitles instead of the technicolour emotions of others.

A concomitant of this way of being is poor visual imagery. So, whether it is a chess game, a map, or an emotional maelstrom, I perceive it in words, and express it in words. Paradoxically, this has made my writing very visual and passionate, or at least that’s what people tell me. I just write what comes.

From about five years of age, I was subjected to systematic emotional abuse. Every instant, I fought my stepfather, while at the same time, I internalised his abuse. For example, until I was 21, my assessment of myself was, “If there is a wrong way of doing it, or even if there isn’t, I’ll do it that way first.” I had forgotten, or repressed, that this was a literal translation of his statement about me, often said in my hearing.

As a result, as a teenager and young man, I would have qualified for the diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and major Depression. I didn’t know this, just knew that I was stupid, and ugly, and useless, and that no one could possibly love me.

The first antidepressant I found was study, and reading generally. I devoured books, and thought about them, and as a result was way ahead of my schooling in knowledge, mental skills and understanding. I was doing mental multiplication of two-digit numbers while my classmates were learning the 2 times table. By 17 years of age, I’d read all the books in my school library, and the local public library, even including Shakespeare’s complete works, and the Bible. A friend once described me as a walking encyclopaedia, because of my great store of readily retrieved useless information.

At 11 years of age, I discovered the benefits of running. Vigorous exercise proved to be a great antidepressant. Once I burst through the pain barrier, I entered a state of not-thinking, not-feeling, being in a higher place ⎯ true meditation. So, I became addicted to distance running, training for 13 days out of 14, covering 100 miles per week.

I usually set myself a problem before going on a run, such as a University assignment. After I recovered from the run, it was usually there in my mind, ready to be written down.

For years, I didn’t know I was creative, because all my creativity was invested in science. My first apprenticeship in writing was scientific reports, in which I departed from the traditional stodge and insisted on simple, understandable language. This expanded to explanatory “how to” articles and letters when I worked as a Research Scientist for the CSIRO, Australia’s major research organisation. In 1980, I started writing for Earth Garden magazine, and suddenly acquired a wide following. I expanded to fiction in 1986, and my skills have continuously blossomed since.

I got rid of my PTSD (without knowing I had it), and gained control over my depression, between 21 and 23 years of age. I cured my depression at 43, in 1986, and writing fiction had a part in it. I’ve described the way I made these achievements in my novel, Ascending Spiral.

When I write, I create one or more people, a reality for them to live in, and present them with challenges. From then on, I seem to channel rather than invent. I am IN that reality, and AM the person from whose point of view I write.

Didn’t Walter Mitty do the same thing?

So, the most immediate, easiest and least useful benefit of creating stories (whether they are written down or not) is a holiday from a life that used to be bleak, into another reality that’s at least partly in my control.

Second, much of the time, I practise mindfulness. When I do anything, I consciously and deliberately do THAT thing and focus all my attention on it. Thinking only hurts if you do it. The 1001 activities of daily life are all opportunities for meditation.

This is why writing fiction is such good therapy. Any other creative activity will do the same ⎯ even cleaning house can be creative: it converts mess into a space of beauty and welcome. However, writing is FUN. Might as well make meditation enjoyable!

The third benefit is deeper, more powerful, and has ongoing benefits. My early writing had a theme: just retribution, the victim conquering the bully. My first published fiction was a historical series that involved physically and numerically smaller forest dwellers defending themselves from genocidal attacks by nomads. During the 30 years of warfare, they were forged into “The Mother’s sword, to defend the wild places, and to fight slavery and injustice anywhere.” My first short story collection was Striking Back from Down Under ⎯ very different content, the same message.

I started writing stories with the aim of a second anthology, to be called Criminal Justice, but ended up with only four short stories. My interest had changed to compassion, reforming rather than punishing the aggressor. The years of writing was my therapy, moving me beyond the need to strike back.

The greatest issue facing me currently is the coming mass extinction on planet Earth, which will include humanity. We are now past the tipping points. Nothing can prevent a huge disaster, as bad as, or perhaps worse than the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago, during which 96% of then extant species died out, and it took over 10 million years before the ecosystem showed signs of recovery.

This is not the place for stating my evidence. All that matters is that I honestly believe it. The result: my last three novels have focussed on issues like: Can love reform a person so traumatised he wants to kill everyone? How should we live in the face of coming disaster? Is there meaning, even if all humans die?

So, once more, writing is therapy. My therapist is not another psychologist, but a whole band of people I’ve invented, and who teach me.

It so happens that those who read my books like the products of my imagination. My books have won awards and prizes, and I get wonderful reviews. However, this actually doesn’t matter. What matters is that my writing is my growing edge, the place where I heal.

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About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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