Summer Series: Separation and Divorce #2

I love sharing research that examines how writing your story can be beneficial to your health (or not). This week I'm sharing an article that looks at how writing affects your physical health. 

Journal Article: Bourassa et al. Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure After Marital Separation. Psychosom Med. 2017 Jul/Aug;79(6):697-705.

Participants: A group of 109 recently separated adults

Design: People were placed in one of the three groups below. They also underwent a bunch of cardiovascular (heart) tests during the months they were involved in the study. Three groups:

1. Traditional Expressive Writing: write about the emotions surrounding the separation
2. Narrative Expressive Writing: write your story about the separation
3. Control group: write about how you spend your time

Finding: People in the Narrative Expressive Writing group had lower heart rate and higher heart rate variability than people in the two other groups. Both of these are good things for your overall health. Blood pressure was not different among the groups. 

Takeaway: Writing your story after separation might help improve your physical health. 

Commentary: The study I shared last week found that writing your story could be bad for your emotional well-being in some cases. Well, some of those same people were found to have improvements in their physical health after writing their story. It's a little confusing. Should I write because I want to be healthy in my body or should I stay away from writing because it might be unhealthy for my mind? My take: If you are someone who is deep in a well of trying to find meaning from your separation, it might behoove you to hold off on writing. Otherwise, try it and see how it feels for you.
 

Don't have time to write? Create a writing ritual.

While I have always kept a journal, I decided in 2014 that I wanted to develop my writing style and eventually share my work. I also decided that in order to do so I needed to create a writing ritual that encouraged me to write. Every Friday morning I would go to a local coffee shop and set up my laptop. I had one hour. It took me weeks to write a single essay.

It was worth every minute. My heart would get heavy as the end of my hour was nearing. I would squeeze in a couple of last sentences and then drag my feet out to the parking lot to get home to help Curt with the kids. Writing filled a need in me. I felt deeply connected to this practice.

It wasn't until early 2016 that I launched Orchid Story as a blog and that was months before Orchid Story became a business. See what I'm trying to spell out for you here? It's ok to take things slow. It's ok if you start writing and don't share your work for years, if ever. It's ok if you can only squeeze in 15 minutes twice a week. 

What is most critical in my experience is that you create a ritual for yourself around writing. Rituals help us connect our outer lives to our inner lives. Rituals allow us to be intentional with our time and to create experiences that make us feel good and connected to who we are at our core. Rituals allow me to take ownership of my time, when it might otherwise pass by in a blur. 

If you have been wanting to write, but just can't figure out how to fit it into your days, my writing ritual worksheet is for you. If you have been wanting to write, but couldn't figure out how to start, my worksheet will help. It's a one pager, mostly questions with checkboxes to inspire you to start your writing practice. Why not decide that this is the summer that you will finally put pen to paper and get started?

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My Title

I posed the question: In the story of your life, what is the title of the chapter on Mom? Here is mine.

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For most of my life, my mom was my best friend, closest confidante and strongest advocate. After dementia entered our lives eight years ago, this relationship began to shift. Slowly at first. Almost imperceptible changes. Strange handwriting began showing up on the kids' birthday cards. She stopped driving at night. Once a phenomenal cook and home entertainer, she stopped taking down her favorite recipe books and spending days in the kitchen. 

You know how you can't remember when your three year old was an infant? And then when she's six you can't remember three? Dementia is like that too. It's hard to remember what my mom was like before something strange and unknown took hold of her brain. 

My therapist gave me a tool that's really helped. She asked me to find mementos of the "before" days to remind me of who she was as a person and a mom. I dug out an old card she sent to me in college. It was full of sweet love and support. Full confidence in me. The familiar and cozy feeling of being taken care of flooded me. That comfort that someone believes in you no matter how many stumbles. 

This was the place I brought myself back to in order to come up with this title of my life story chapter on my mom. Distilled, this is what she taught me. She had no family near the town where we lived. Instead, she built her family with friends. She cooked for them, she took care of their kids, she spent time with them, regularly. And when things got hard, she didn't hesitate. Two of her best friends were diagnosed with cancer and died in their forties, when I was in high school. My mom didn't wonder what to say or how to take care of them. She marched herself into their homes to check on her girlfriends and to see what help their kids needed.

She taught me that showing up as yourself is love. 

Doors are closing soon for Rewrite Your Story!

If you're still considering signing up for Rewrite Your Story I hope these words encourage you to fill out the application today. It's the last call!

Marathon Monday

On April 16th my husband, Curt, ran the Boston Marathon. Throughout the entire training process, every time I talked about the marathon I said "we," as in both Curt and me, as if I was running the marathon too. It just came out. I am not a runner and in fact I can't quite stand running. I think it's because when our partners decide to commit to something big, we feel a stake in it too. We want it badly for the person we love and we often have a significant shift in our daily schedules too.

Because he was running for a charity, Team Frannie of the Ethan Lindberg Foundation, this added to my feelings of connectedness to the race. I wanted to give back to this organization that had been alongside us since my son Griffin was diagnosed in utero with congenital heart disease (CHD) seven years ago. 

Also, the lives of several children who had died of CHD were integrally woven into this race: Ari, Chase, Ethan, Frannie. Their moms, dads, and siblings would all be present on race day. 

On race day, Curt got up early and headed out. The weather was as bad as predicted. The kids and I sat in the hotel restaurant watching the elite runners and wheelchair athletes at the starting line.  The rain was already gushing in torrents over the hotel entrance, soaking passersby. I was anxious about Curt having to stand in the wet and cold for hours before he started. I was anxious about all of the runners having trained so intensely to show up for this weather. Then they did a tribute on tv to the five year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing and my kids starting asking what had happened. Yes, I was anxious about that too.

We headed up to the hotel pool and I watched Carly and Griffin play. My heart was hurting, confused and joyful. Hurting for the pain that CHD has caused these families and my own. Confused about how some kids make it and other kids don't. Joyful that we had the once in a lifetime opportunity to be in Boston that day and participate, in our own way, in the race. 

A little while later, we arrived downtown. We stepped out of the uber and within ten second we were drenched. The kids starting complaining immediately but we went up to Beacon St. to watch the elite women pass. At mile 25, they were almost done. 

We stayed inside for a while, keeping warm. But, I had only one chance to see Curt and I didn't want to miss him. So, the Team Frannie crew headed out to Beacon St. Again, fully drenched within seconds. The rain was coming in sheets, sideways. By now the runners were slowing down. Many were walking. Several were already wrapped in the silver thermal blankets they normally receive at the end. Some were in between two runners who had their arms wrapped around the middle runner, almost carrying the person along. A double amputee made his way by on his prosthetics. I could see the pain in his clenched face.

About 15 minutes before we expected Curt, I took my hand out of my glove and held my phone, with the camera open. I wanted to capture the moment on video. This meant that my hand and arm were sopping wet and frozen and that I couldn't follow Curt on the tracker app because I wanted to keep the camera ready. 

The 15 minutes came and went. By this time Griffin was crying hysterically. He was freezing and wanted to go inside. Carly was ready to give up on seeing Daddy too. I couldn't hug them because we were too wet and I was holding an umbrella and the Team Frannie sign we made and the phone. I tried picking Griffin up and putting the umbrella down but that made things worse. 

I needed to make a decision and quick. Should I let them go inside and get warm? My mother's instinct said yes, especially for Griffin whose health could really be affected by this weather. But my human instinct said no. Their dad had undergone a grueling training for this day. The families standing next to me had undergone weeks and months of hospitals stays for their sick children. And, even if they didn't feel it right then, my kids would always want to have the memory of seeing their dad at mile 25 of the Boston Marathon. So we stayed out.

I started wondering if we missed him. What is he wearing? the Team Frannie supporters wanted to know. I didn't know or couldn't remember, the anxiety getting the best of me by this point. Is Griffin ok? they asked. I wasn't sure.

Finally, we spotted him through the driving rain. He looked fantastic - a big smile on his face and a great energy in his stride. I instantly felt ten pounds lighter. The kids switched from crying to cheering. I pushed the red video button on my outstretched hand. 

He gave us a each a kiss and then he was gone. I looked at my phone and realized it hadn't recorded the moment. I tried again as he ran off towards Boylston St, the final stretch the runners dream of. 


All the struggle and pain and beauty and transformation of life was happening right in front of us that day. Feeling so many emotions at the same time IS life. I was filled with pride and love as I watched Curt run past. Then I turned to take the kids in and caught the eye of my friend Jessica, mom of Ethan, and became filled with sadness for the loss of his life. 

Life is not black and white. It's not either or. It's messy and gray, confused and beautiful. I'm lucky to be here, right in the middle of it.