I had a lovely session in the psychiatric intensive care (PICU) unit yesterday. I spent 90 minutes (30 minutes more than the session should last) with one of the two patients I worked with last week. I’ll call her Jane. Last week I told you that Jane is very creative, but that at the moment she lacks the concentration and quietness of mind to write as much as she would like. Jane has bipolar and is currently recovering from an episode of mania.
This week, Jane’s concentration level seems much better. At the beginning of the session Jane wrote a little of a song she is composing. She also jotted down some notes about a book she plans to write. And she talked to me about other plans and hopes, and some frustrations. Once Jane felt she had noted down as much as she needed to of the writing ideas she had in her head, so she would remember them, I asked whether we could do the writing exercises I’d brought, and she agreed.
I spread out some photos I’d downloaded from Google Images of interesting but unknown (to us) people in interesting settings. Most of the people are doing something in the photos – watching TV, reading, shopping, gardening, drinking coffee in a street cafe. We each chose the two photos we liked best. Jane chose a woman making a pot and a hand-coloured photo of a beautiful young woman dressed in 1940s clothing. I chose a shepherd with ewes and lambs on some grazing land next to the sea (or a lake) and a young woman sitting on a whicker sofa on a wooden verandah and reading a book.
For one photo (our choice) we each wrote a two-minute description of what we could see in the photo. Then without a break for discussion or reading aloud we went straight on to write about the person in the second photo as if we were creating a character in a novel, or as if we knew them.
My thinking behind this two-part exercise is that the mindful writing at the beginning, i.e., writing to describe the photo, will begin to calm the mind and free up our writing (this calming and freeing up can work for any writer not just for people who are feeling ill or anxious).
The second part of the exercise is a great way to create a character for a story. It is also, for someone recovering from an episode of mental illness, a good exercise to draw the person’s thoughts in a new direction – away from themselves and their own life and problems. During a hospital admission for mental illness I feel this is an important thing to do.
The session went very well. It lasted 90 minutes because Jane’s mind is at the moment very lively and darting off on many tangents so that much of the time was spent chatting about all sorts of interesting topics. Yes I could have been firmer with Jane to keep her on the writing task, but I feel that some of the benefit people get from my writing sessions comes from the time when we are sitting chatting and getting to know one another.
There is no written-in-stone right way to do therapeutic writing. No official practitioner registration or guidelines. This field is very much teach yourself. At least it is before you start. When you actually start therapeutic writing with people is when you really begin to learn – from the people you are trying to help.
With every patient I learn something more. Jane has helped me develop my ideas and practice a bit further in respect of people with bipolar. I could see that the kind of writing Jane most needs to do is mindful writing. I have hopefully got over to her what I mean by mindful writing and I’ve recommended that she tries to do a little every day.