If you’ve read many of my blogs, you likely know that I had a mental breakdown in April 2012. While I would never hope to go through that again, I can honestly say that in many ways, my life improved because of the experience. I believe my mental breakdown was my body and mind’s way of telling me to change. Change Now. Change Drastically. Because I wouldn’t listen to the early warning signs, my body forced me to Change Now. Change Drastically.
Interestingly, one of the things that changed was my handwriting. Before the incident, my handwriting was legible, even pretty. My cursive was large and flowy. My print was uniform and consistent. If someone saw something I had written, they could read it and recognize it as mine.
Now, however, my handwriting is a puzzle even to me. I can start off with my “normal” handwriting (the ‘before’) but within a few sentences it changes. There are times when my writing is completely indecipherable even by me. I’ll start writing on a slant (even if the paper is lined). I’ll shift from print to cursive to what genuinely looks like chicken scratch. For the last seven years, this has troubled me. My changing, incoherent handwriting was tangible evidence of brokenness.
In The Body Keeps the Score by Van Der Kolk, I read the following:
“Alterations in emotional states were reflected in the subjects’ handwriting. As participants changed topics, they might move from cursive to block letters and back to cursive; there were also variations in the slant of the letters and in the pressure of their pens.
Such changes are called ‘switching’ in clinical practice, and we see them often in individuals with trauma histories. Patients activate distinctly different emotional and physiological states as they move from one topic to another.”
You may wonder why I would find it comforting to read something like that, something that reminds me of “individuals with trauma history”. I am not alone. I am not unique. And that is comforting. Even if I never understand it, I know that someone is trying to understand it for me. If it’s written in a book, someone else must be suffering too. There is comfort in a community of suffering. That’s why AA, NA, Grief Support Groups are effective – we need people to stand with us.
It’s frightening to not recognize basic aspects of yourself. For a teacher, my handwriting is a basic aspect of me that has been altered significantly. You’ve heard people (including me) say they don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. Well, I don’t recognize myself in the pen and pencil either. I’m tired of all these new manifestations. I kind of want my old-self back.
One of the most useful things my therapist taught me is to be curious. In the past, when I noticed my handwriting becoming a mess, I reacted with fear. It was an ‘out of control’ feeling because I would make a conscious effort to write better and I could not get my fingers to perform for me. I was afraid because I didn’t understand myself.
I was also embarrassed. I was partly embarrassed because my handwriting could not be read. I was also embarrassed because, again, it was outward proof of inward struggle. I couldn’t hide.
But reading this paragraph in The Body Keeps the Score is helping to release my fear and embarrassment. (Again, that’s what community does). Now, I can be curious.
In the book, he says, “Patients activate distinctly different emotional and physiological states as they move from one topic to another”.
I’ve never pondered what’s happening with me, or in me, when my handwriting switches. Rather than “freak out,” I can be curious about the topic and my body’s responses. Hopefully I can determine what causes me to lose control of this motor function and then “hold it”.
I am in a writer’s critique group that I find challenging and supportive. But, one of the things that has plagued me is a sense that I am maybe too honest or too critical or pretending to know more than I do. In the meeting, I find myself saying things like, “I’m not an expert but …” or “Feel free to ignore me …”
Today, I was editing someone’s work. Comments one through three look like an intelligent human wrote them. Starting at comment number four, the words are a mish-mash of characters with no coherent meaning (the picture above is an example of my own handwriting).
As I sit here curious, I wonder if my chicken-scratch somehow relates to my feelings of being too critical or too much of a know-it-all? I don’t have the answer yet, but the curiosity will help me find and act on the truth behind the mess.
In April 2012 I had a mental breakdown. The real thing. I have about 36 hours that I don’t remember....