In 2013, I spend two weeks volunteering in Haiti. A colleague suggests writing a travel blog. Writing is not new to me. I have been an intermittent scribbler of poetry, short stories and personal journaling since childhood. Writing a blog is new to me. Intriguing, but fraught with some trepidation about publishing first-person reflections. Having churned out countless academic essays through university, and carefully crafted client-centered notes as a clinician, the word “I” has been practically obliterated from my written vocabulary. Dare I ramble on-line about what I think, or braver yet, how I feel?
Sharing perceptions of my first foray into a foreign country struggling in the aftermath of disaster with an invisible audience does feel vulnerable. Yet, the Haiti blog evolves into a lifeline to home, a forum for sharing the heightened perceptions of an Outlander visiting a strange and sometimes frightening place. Not speaking the national language renders me essentially mute for much of the trip. Quiet for stretches of unaccustomed time, and untethered from responsibilities, my thoughts turn inward. Mind lapses into daydreaming and reflection. I reconnect with a love of writing, streams of consciousness spilling on the page, soliloquies emerging from the back corners of my psyche. I bring to life with words my intense experience of Haiti, and in so doing begin to process past memories it evokes.
It occurs to me that there are many parallels between being an Outlander in a foreign land, and my work here. As a clinician, I am ever a visitor, an outsider witness to my clients. Deeply connected in our moments together, but never rooted to their everyday lives and bonds of friendship, family and community. I write concise, compassionate narratives on behalf of my clients, but rarely create the time and space outside of clinical supervision to write about the work, to process the personal impact of these therapeutic relationships. I try to just leave it all at the office, a strategy that does not work so well.
Picture a great big snowball, round and pristine white from a distance. On closer inspection, a lumpy mass not entirely made of snow. There are messy roots and branches and mud in there. The snow just holds and packs it all in, frozen water containing and distancing me from the joy and suffering I have been witness to as a keeper of secrets and holder of sacred space. I expect it to melt away, but inevitably the ball gets bigger, suspending in time a career’s worth of rather incredible experiences. Part of me wants to leave it behind, but there is truth and beauty in there, and bits of me. Over time, it gets heavier and heavier to push forward.
The experience in Haiti teaches me that reflective writing is therapeutic, perhaps essential to my wellbeing as a practitioner. In constructing a clinical narrative, I rediscover poignant experiences that have been packed away. Therapeutic writing is not about telling the world the stories clients have shared with me. Those are their stories, not mine to tell. It is about noticing how threads of their narratives interweave and resonate with my own experience of the world. Writing with humility, candor and compassion about being a clinician is not for the faint of heart, but it may help me to grow and develop. More importantly, echoes of the stories that I have been hauling around may connect in some meaningful way with broader narratives of human experience.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA