Some years ago I sailed to Fiji with my husband. After sixteen days at sea, we arrived in yachting heaven, stocked up our provisions at the markets in Nadi and then spent three weeks exploring the inner and outer islands, perfect dots of paradise in perfect coral seas.
The day before I was due to fly home, we had a massive argument. Think marital discord of cyclonic proportions. An earthquake. A tsunami.
Back in Australia, I smarted over our quarrel while in Fiji he became captain and tour operator for family and friends who joined him as crew for a week at a time to enjoy the holiday of a lifetime.
When the first group of sailors arrived back home, they brought a letter from my husband (this was in the days before computers on boats and easy iPhone access), a big fat wad of paper, hand-written each day until it numbered fifteen tightly-penned pages.
I sent a long letter back with the next group of friends. They returned with another wad of pages, and so it went on for each of the eight weeks he spent sailing around Fiji.
In his letters, my husband—who is not a ‘writer’—in fact English is not his first language—wrote about the distress that had led to our argument, about the formative influences of his childhood, about his family, and what he had witnessed as a boy during the war in Poland.
His letters made me cry with their honesty. I responded in kind. I began to understand the depths of this good man I had married only a few years before.
While my husband was sailing home from Fiji, a new dog came into my life in the way that dogs often do, and we were both waiting on the marina with tails wagging when our sailor returned at last.
And then something truly remarkable happened. For several years my husband had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and, although he was on medication, it could still flare up painfully. Home for only a few days, his illness went into remission.
At first we were simply grateful and waited to see if it would return. It didn’t.
Around the same time, I came across the work of Dr James Pennebaker, a professor of Psychology at University of Texas, who was pioneering links between writing and health.
His studies showed that writing for as little as fifteen minutes a day, three or four times a week, could strengthen the immune system, decrease reliance on pain medication, improve lung function in asthma and HIV/AIDS patients, reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, lower blood pressure and improve performance at work and school.
I explored further. Grief counsellors said writing soothed broken hearts and helped with relationship break-ups and other loss.
Professor Avni Sali, Founding Head of Integrative Medicine at Swinburne University in Melbourne, was using writing therapy as part of a holistic/Ian Gawler approach to treating cancer.
A Dr Robin Philipp, at UK’s Bristol Royal Infirmary, had conducted studies that showed reading and writing poetry could help with anxiety and depression, possibly because ‘the rhythmic nature of a poem stimulates the brain’s limbic system which is responsible for emotion’.
How does this writing cure work? Does it provide space for reflection in too busy lives? Does it give insight that leads to a healthier perspective on life? No one seems quite sure.
It would be easy to suggest that days of stress free sailing in the Pacific cured my husband's illness, but he'd had many sailing expeditions before and the rheumatoid pain had persisted throughout them all. The only difference that I could see was the writing.
This is how Dr Pennebaker suggests you write for a healthier you.
Twenty years later, my husband is still in remission from his arthritis. He is now completing his memoir. Could it be this daily writing that keeps him pain free?
Healthy writing to you!
Featured photo of beach by Andrew Coelho.