By Allyson Pashko
Can writing about the most difficult aspects of our lives really help us? Can we face a situation, come up with a solution, and work through our problems more efficiently if we take the time to sit down and think and write about them clearly? I have pondered this thought over and over, wondering every day for the past few months if it is possible to face the most distressing and haunting situations with a positive attitude. If given the time and energy to face some of the most difficult issues in our lives, is writing the best way to deal with them?
Over the past couple of years I thought that life just couldn’t get any worse. I thought that my entire life revolved around a series of unfortunate events and I believed that I was doomed to a life full of unhappiness. At the young age of 21, I honestly believed that I couldn’t escape the future as a tired, restless, miserable human being. Why was it that I couldn’t find a happy place where I felt comfortable and secure? I felt like my life was falling apart; no one --including the doctors I saw-- around me knew what was going on, and I was desperately in search of hope for a brighter future. I didn’t think it was anywhere within my reach.
Facing the most difficult situations over the past few years has really shaped me into the strong, independent, and intelligent person that I am today. Although I have dealt with some of the most challenging and complicated situations, I have learned some of the most valuable lessons. It seems unreal that so many young people today are dealing with the same kind of terrible situations, leaving them with nowhere to turn. When friends and most importantly family has turned their backs on you, leaving you lonely and vulnerable, where do you turn and how do you put your life back together? How do you repair the broken pieces of the puzzle to your not-so-ordinary world?
I wasn’t sure that there was any definite or possible answer to this question, but through my recent experiences I have learned that it is possible to live and love the way we were meant to. It is possible to discover that happy place in your life that seemed like it was somewhere far out of reach.
I believe my first step on my journey to happiness occurred when I enrolled in the “happiness” class (an independent study) this fall semester of my senior year. (The independent study was a way of doing a "test run" of a new Happiness class, to be offered in the spring of 2011.)
Is it possible that I could take a class to potentially make me happier, I thought to myself? Why not try it? As the reading list seemed a bit intense, I debated my decision, but I figured why not try something new and see what I could learn here in this new course. As I started reading all of these new books on the paths to finding “true happiness,” I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret them. Were these books really providing me with the tools for my happier life or are they bogus material? All of these books, authors, and articles on positive psychology and happiness had to have some authenticity to them, and so I kept reading. I kept reading, learning, and writing my way into a happier lifestyle.
One of the most important things I have learned is that expressive writing has proven benefits and although we may not be happier right after we write, we will eventually feel more satisfaction a few days, weeks, or months after. We are also less likely to end up in the health center or feel sick as we can open up and express our emotions that we would normally keep inside. This has been the biggest help for me this semester. Being able to honestly and openly express some of my deepest thoughts and emotions and release them from this place inside me, allows me to make room for more positive feelings. I never realized how all of these repressed feelings held such a weight over my body and stopped me from being able to live my life to the fullest. I had never really felt true happiness over these past few years, because of all this negative weight holding me down. I can truly say that today I am a happier person than I was exactly a year ago.
Along with this class, came many writing assignments. Reading psychologist James Pennebaker's Opening Up was transformative for me and the other two students taking the independent study in happiness this semester. Each of us found that the book, and the expressive writing practices that the book endorsed, opened doors inside us. The book, which presents research showing how journaling actually improves your health and reduces visits to the doctor, allowed me to expand upon everything I am currently encountering in my life. I have learned to appreciate journal writing and I will try and continue to keep track of all of the wonderful things that will happen in the future, my happier and healthier future.
I believe the toughest assignment I faced this semester was writing a narrative from someone else’s point of view. I was supposed to try and see an issue I was facing that had nearly destroyed me inside and understand it from the point of view of the person who had hurt me. I thought this was the craziest thing I had ever heard and basically refused to do it, even though I thought about it every nday. From just about the first week of class we were given this assignment to think about and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face the most difficult aspect of my life and effectively write about it and understand it. I just couldn’t see how I could ever write from that point of view, speaking as the person who had hurt me so badly. Still, I knew I wanted to try it. I knew that if I could even write, for just a minute, on the topic that I had progressed throughout the course.
Four months later, I had done it. I sat down, thought about how I would write a narrative, and lost myself in the moment. I became immersed in the story as the other character, and I was really doing it. I was really so lost in my writing and just wrote whatever came to mind, revealing to me some of the most difficult things that I had never even thought about before. I didn’t think about what I was going to write beforehand, it just came to me as it did, and allowed me to face the unthinkable. I can’t believe I was able to write a narrative from the view of that one person, that person I had so much anger and hatred for. I did it. No, I did not feel great after writing my narrative, but I felt great knowing that I had done it.
When I look back and read it, I can’t believe that I did it. Looking back I do feel a lot better and although I get very emotional reading over my story, I know it has helped me grow. It is allowing me to move on from the thing that was holding me back all of these years. I didn’t think that I would ever be able to face the situation so constructively, but writing has proven a great outlet for releasing the thoughts I never wish to face again. I even discovered through writing my piece that I can sit and write for hours and hours, lost in the zone, where I feel safe and secure not caring about a thing in the world. So even through the difficulties I had faced and the tough decision I made to write my piece, I have only benefited and suggest writing to others. I suggest opening up, accepting the past, and moving forward to change it in a productive and positive manner. Writing can do this for you.
Believe it or not, I am a stronger, happier, and healthier individual despite all of the negative that has come my way. I have learned to live and love without holding back, enjoy the present moment, and never think that anything is impossible. We are never destined to a life full of unhappiness and there is always a brighter future ahead of each and every one of us. We can never forget that it takes work though. Leading ourselves into a promising future will never come without any effort. As long as we can accept what life hands us and actively work to make a change, we will always be assured a brighter day ahead. I have come really far this semester and through all of this progress I have found a more optimistic way of thinking. I even believe that I smile bigger and brighter with each waking moment. I will continue to lead this life I adore and never look back into the past that once haunted me. I am changing every day, and although I will never forget where I’ve been, I will never resort back to old ways.
Allyson Pashko, a psychology major, graduated summa cum laude from the University at Albany, SUNY, on December 5, 2010.