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02-06-07, 08:44 AM
Married to the Military

Tell it to your journal: Writing can be emotional strength training
By Kathie Hightower and Holly Scherer - Special to the Times
Posted : February 12, 2007

We are the first to say military spouses are amazing. They demonstrate great personal strength over and over again.

But we also know how it can feel to hear someone say, “You are strong — you can handle this.”

Sometimes you want to yell, “No, I’m not. I don’t want to be strong. I’m tired of being strong. I just want my spouse to be home.”

As Tara Crooks, Army wife and founder of the Internet talk radio site ArmyWifeTalkRadio.com, said, “Deployments, no matter how many you’ve been through, do not get easier.” She recently said goodbye to her husband, Kevin, once again and found herself crying over the sight of Pop-Tarts — one of his favorite foods — in the cereal aisle of the grocery store.

What other choice do we have as these deployments continue? We have to be strong if we are going to survive. But that doesn’t mean we can’t vent — in fact, venting is crucial. Crying, talking with your friends and writing what you are feeling helps.

A journal can be a nonjudgmental and all-accepting friend (and one that’s ready and available whenever you are, even when you are wide awake in the middle of the night). It is possibly the cheapest therapy you will ever get.

James Pennebaker, a psychologist and researcher with the University of Texas at Austin, says regular journaling strengthens immune cells. Writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them, according to Pennebaker, allowing you to feel calmer and better able to stay in the present. The end result? You reduce the impact of those stressors on your physical health.

Kristin Henderson, a Navy spouse and author of the book “While They’re at War,” said, “Often, once you’ve written down your negative thoughts and worries, it feels like you’ve gotten them out of your system and can move on.”

Many spouses tell us they have to write down their worst fears as they face a wartime deployment. By writing down their fears and the actions they would take if the worst were to happen, they are better able to handle the fear.

Of course, journaling isn’t just a place to vent your frustration and fear. Henderson suggests using a journal to “practice writing the positive thoughts you’d like to focus on.”

Kathie has kept a journal for years and can’t imagine figuring out her life without it. “I read back over my journals once a year on my birthday — it’s my gift to myself,” she said. “I often discover good decisions I made but never implemented so I can then choose to make the change.”

Start with a list of things for which you are grateful. That simple act can shift you into a different state of approaching life. Through journaling, you create a dialogue with yourself, your dreams and your frustrations. It’s much healthier than keeping it all bottled up inside, running through your head over and over again. And the act of writing can open up creative solutions and possibilities that you might not access any other way.

As one young Marine spouse said in a recent workshop, she and her husband decided to each keep a journal during the time he was deployed. When he returned, they each read the other’s entries. “It helped us to get a much better understanding of what we had each experienced and felt during that time,” she said, “and it deepened our relationship as we got to know each other better through what we wrote.”

It’s also a safe place to write out any anger or frustration without having to place that burden on your spouse at a time when he or she can do nothing about it.

There is value, too, in more immediate and open writing. Many spouses have turned to blogs as a way to express feelings and experiences and to keep connected with their spouse and extended family.

Crooks started blogging when her husband was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and she continues that practice today. You can read her entries at http://awtr.blogspot.com.

“Journaling through an online blog is not only a therapeutic way to get your ‘feelings’ out on paper, but you also touch the lives of your family members, other military wives, and stay connected with your spouse at the same time,” she said.

Paper journal, blog, letters that you send or burn — whatever the venue, writing down your feelings can help you calm your fears and bolster your strength.

Kathie Hightower and Holly Scherer are military spouses who have written articles and presented workshops based on their research and experience for more than 10 years.