Experiences of illness and its treatment are emotional and complex in a way isn’t usually accounted for in the rapid pace of healthcare treatment itself–it’s a lot of complexity to hold in. This was the case before the pandemic but the volume of pain and loss which healthcare workers are being exposed to right now seems truly, deeply hellish; the risk of burn-out is severe. Expressive/reflective writing is a therapeutic tool for releasing difficult/trying/impossible/traumatic/galvanizing/ambiguous events, a practice which rests upon the belief that writing is a form of physical processing that can’t just happen in the abstract space of your brain. I know that expressive writing won’t remedy the actual experiences which healthcare workers are going through, the fact that they are putting their lives on the line with insufficient PPE, or their physical exhaustion. It won’t resolve the fact that EMS workers in New York City are being denied hazard pay. But it’s possible that having an outlet to process the miseries of the recent past will release some of the physical burden of those experiences, and provide an opportunity to draw back into yourself. (It’s also okay to not be ready to process and to stay disassociated in order to survive.) If you want a space to do some processing, setting a timer for 10-15 minutes and writing can be a small, low-stakes way to build that. You can also keep writing after that point if you get on a roll. Here are some first aid writing prompts for healthcare workers, essential workers in the line of fire, or anyone who feels like writing about right now:
- Write about what you feel in your body right now: what does it feel like in your face, hands, chest, stomach, hips, thighs, calves, ankles, feet, ears, fingers, eyes, forehead, mouth? Describe pressure, motion, weight, touch, smells, sounds, and sensations of all kinds.
- What is something you’ve seen/experienced that felt impossible? What image comes into your head? Describe the image (colors, characters, scenes), and if you want, the story of the image.
- Write a letter to yourself, from yourself, in third person: “Dear you…” Tell yourself about some things you know but which have been hard to admit to yourself. Give yourself advice about how to make it through this. Be kind.
- What questions do you have about right now? What questions can you answer for yourself, and what questions are unanswerable?
It’s going to take a long time to understand, and to unspool, the damages and experiences of the present. Writing for a little while might not expose all that is unknown, but hopefully it will provide some relief.