A Safe Alternative: Finding Relief, Identity, and Self-Esteem Through Expressive Writing

How I Turned to the Keyboard for Clarity and Hope

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” Anne Frank

I sat at the corner hugging my legs and gasping for air. My bedroom shrank away from me, taking the oxygen with it. It was an early summer day in 1988 when the oppressive weight of depression settled onto my chest.

To drown out my thoughts, I’d turned on the radio, the fan that rattled on my bedside table, and every light with a working bulb. 

After an hour and eternity, a cold rush came over me as if doused with a bucket of ice water – I decided it was the end. I’d lived a full, sometimes agonizing, life – thrust into adulthood in the mere single digits of life. I could go already, I agreed. I wanted the pain to end. I thought about the old bottle of antidepressants in my dresser drawer. 

I can still hear myself whimper, “I’m so tired…I’m so tired…I’m so tired…” as I rocked myself. A tired ninety-year-old trapped in a seventeen-year-old body.

Was there a particular incident that drew me to the corner that day? I suppose it could have been the conversation I’d just had with my boyfriend, my first love and best friend, that definitively ended our relationship. 

It could have been the fact that my circle of friends was disbanding, not because of anything that happened, but the way friendships end after high school when we reshuffle to new schools, the military, or to Florida, where many of my friends had family and a desire for warm sun and long, sandy beaches. 

It could have been that I hadn’t seen or spoken to Mami in over a year. Mom tended to separate from things that were too hurtful. Not long after my parents’ divorce, she joined the Florida migration and moved as far away from us as she could from the Connecticut coast. 

Or, it could have been that I suddenly found myself completely lost – alone and invisible between two worlds that couldn’t see me in my pain.

I no longer belonged to my familia. So many broken relationships from choosing sides in the divorce, mine – to live with my father when I was fifteen- was unforgivable to my Puerto Rican family. While I had steadiness and security with Papi, I lacked identity and self-esteem. 

“Nena, your Spanish is really bad,” I was told by some in my family. I heard the rumors, too. “She ain’t down with our familia.” 

“Yeah, she’s just in it for her.”  

“She’s conceited. Thinks she better than us with her white girl english.”

In those pre-AOC, Salma Hayek, and Justice Sotomayor days, I couldn’t see myself outside of my inner-city neighborhood either. That spring, I toured NYU’s Stern School of Business with my prima Wanda. As we walked the campus and visited the dorms, we noticed no one looked like us. “Damn, girl, where are the Puertoriqueños up here?” I asked.

Hello? Am I alone? Where are my people? I felt misplaced and boxy in a world accustomed to people who fit neatly into smooth shapes. 

Later, when I received my letter of acceptance and a half-ride offer, I turned it down. I decided my place was at home to watch over Papi. He didn’t push me. I had no plan B.

I didn’t trust myself at that moment, so I called my best friend Lisa. She rushed over and saw me pressed into the crease of the corner like a wet banana leaf. 

I’ve seen girls like me get called changa and estupida for showing too much confusion and emotion as if the deal was already sorted for us and there was nothing to feel or figure out. Pick up your pantaletas and join the rest of us who are suffering, en la lucha!

I measured what I shared with Lisa, something I’d become used to doing with people because I didn’t want to freak her out and scare her away. 

Later, when she left to go home, so did the sense of relief she provided. I panicked. 

What if she hadn’t come over? 

What was I capable of doing? 

Who could I turn to next time? 

No one understands me!

I always thought diaries were reserved for girls who believed their dreams were possible.

The green letters on my monitor screen were twitching. I sat in front of the computer, barely able to see the wavy letters through my tears, and began typing. Like a ravine during a heavy rainstorm, my thoughts screamed down my arms through my fingertips and exploded onto the hard keys. 

I wrote letters to two people that day. 

I thanked Miguel, the yin to my yang, for keeping our promise to say when another eye caught ours. I gave thanks for our four years of love and described everything I admired about him, everything I would miss about us. My heart ripped through my ribs as I finally let him go.  

The second letter was to myself, by a voice I’ve always heard but never understood. This time I let her speak through my fingers. She told me I was where I needed to be, feeling what I needed to – I would grow from all of this, she said – and she assured me I’d know what to do when the time came.

This new self-talk way of expressing myself, translating my feelings into words without thinking or censoring or judging myself, calmed my racing thoughts. The weight on my chest felt bearable. 

In front of me, her words unfolded like a present: “Just keep going, Nancy. Just keep going.” 

The next day I read my journal as a friend’s note, allowing me to separate from my feelings and see things more clearly. That same week, I enrolled at my local community college.  

Still today, as a Latina woman trying to adapt to a new life in London, I journal to relieve stress and to observe my thoughts. I write to get to the bottom of how I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way.

And I began reflecting on what’s positive, things that make me happy, big and small: my bed, my blanket, a good book, the smile from a stranger in passing who sees me.

Over time, I’ve gained confidence in myself, knowing there is good in my life, and believing the voice in my head who assures me I’ll know what to do when the time comes.  

How about you? 

Is there a letter you need to write? Is there someone to forgive, to let go, or thank? We don’t have to mail these to release the hold they might have on us.

Let me know how journaling works for you.

Love, 


Latinas and Depression

Recently, I met with a group of young ladies in Ohio who completed the La Mariposa program. As we spoke, they shared how journaling helped them gain clarity and to feel better about themselves.

As bicultural females, young Latinas today have many of the same struggles I did growing up. Yet, anti-immigrant rhetoric adds to their worries and feelings of inclusion and security.

In his book titled Latinas Attempting Suicide: When Cultures, Families, and Daughters Collide, Dr. Luis Zayas, a psychologist who conducted a 10-year study to understand the mystery of the alarming number of suicide attempts by young Latinas*, found that journaling helped significantly reduce attempts among his study group. He found it gave them a voice and an immediate way to express themselves and safely release the heavy pressure they hold inside.

ABC News reported that 1 out of every 10 Latinas has attempted suicide, and nearly half of all Latina teens have felt a sense of hopelessness (2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to people ages 10 to 24).

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255); Suicide Crisis Line 1-800-784-2433.


Recipe

When I want something easy and comforting, nothing tastes better than a bowl of rice and sweet plantains topped with an egg over medium.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Published by

Nancy Roldán Johnson

Author of La Mariposa: An Empowerment Program for Adolescent Latinas, Founder of Together for Latinas, Inc., Vice President One Circle Foundation

2 thoughts on “A Safe Alternative: Finding Relief, Identity, and Self-Esteem Through Expressive Writing”

  1. Nancy,
    What a wonderful and brave post. I have always wanted to journal, but felt awkward in the process. I don’t think that I ever understood how too. For some reason I associated journaling with “Dear Diary,” which is something an 8 year old would do. I am aware of all the benefits of journaling, and I know people who write strong thought provoking enlightening passages, but I could never get myself out of my own head enough to put it all on paper. I never thought about writing in a letter form to myself or anyone else, but it seems like a genius way to get started, so I’ll try it. Thank you for the tip and and a wonderful read.
    BTW, I was totally making arroz blanco con huevo, y maduros for dinner today. Great minds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ana,
      Thank you for your comment. I’m happy to hear you’ll give free writing a try. It can be a life changing practice that helps us discover more about ourselves. The key is to safeguard our writing in a way that makes us feel free to write whatever we are thinking in real time. Depending on how I feel, I may choose to tear up my pages afterwards or write in a password protected document. I hope you find it as helpful as I do.🦋

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.