A Writing Program for Veterans with Long-term PTSD
July 20, 2017
It may seem like a long-shot to think that creating characters, poetry and narrative writing would heal persistent PTSD, but Recon Mission, an innovative program for Viet Nam War era veterans, succeeded.
Recon Mission’s guiding principles were to provide containment and recognition, both crucial to helping defuse PTSD. The use of familiar military language also helped the veterans regain control.
The program’s goals were for participants to:
· Become more “present” to everyday life.
· Identify their main stressors by reaching within and finding their own solutions.
· Clarify their personal goals and create an action plan.
This innovative program created by Anjana Deshpande, clinical social worker, certified both as a journal therapist and a poetry therapist, is described in her article Recon Mission: Familiarizing Veterans with their Changed Emotional Landscape Through Poetry Therapy, published in the Journal of Poetry Therapy in December 2010.
When Anjana offered a 6-week online version of Recon Mission through The Therapeutic Writing Institute (http://twinstitute.net), I jumped at the chance to take her class. Although her exercises appeared simple, I found that each was powerful and thought-provoking.
Army of Emotions is one exercise presented early in the getting-to-know-each-other stage. All you need is paper and pen or pencil and some quiet time to allow for thinking.
Step One – List Your Emotions
· Divide a page into two columns.
· In the left column, write a list of all the emotions that you are experiencing right now.
· In the right column, write a list of all the emotions that you wish you could experience.
· Name as many different emotions as possible before narrowing your list down.
· Don’t stop with only one or two emotions, but go for as many as you can name.
I chose 50 emotions from The Book of Qualities, a delightful book by J. Ruth Gendler. I wrote one emotion each on an index card, then rearranged them until I recognized my most relevant emotions.
Step Two – Assign Each Emotion a Rank and a Definition
· As you create your Army of Emotions, give each emotion a Military Rank.
· Who leads this army?
· Are any emotions in need of reassigning of duties?
· Which emotions need to go on active duty?
· Which ones need a desk job?
· Are any asking for retirement?
· Anyone wounded and needs to recover?
· Which emotion is the “New Guy”?
After thinking over answers to these questions, I narrowed my list down to a few of each of the negative and positive emotions, then assigned each a number from 1 to 10 in the order of their importance in my life.
Step Three – Write a letter to dismiss one of your emotions because their time is up
· Choose your emotion that needs to move on.
· Write that emotion a good-bye letter.
· Here’s an example from one member of my group.
Dear Gloom & Doom Negativity,
I’ve lived with you for so long! You have been my response to all the events in my life. You have colored every decision, every day, far too long.
I know enough (wise old woman) to know you won’t just fold your tent and go away. I will have to be vigilant and fight you every day the rest of my life.
But, I choose the happy, joyful days of my childhood when I played and swam and painted and loved and was loved by a good and benevolent world.
Goodbye & love,
Joyful & Positive
It feels good to write this letter. The creativity and fantasy of this playful writing creates a different reality in our mind that can help us see possibilities that may never have shown up before. Creating a character who has some of our own qualities provides distance and the possibility to step back and see ourselves differently. Our brain doesn’t resist these different paths. As we write, our brain is literally changed.
PTSD is not a quick fix. The exercise above is only one of the many weekly activities during this 39-week program carried out over 18 months. But through this program, the sponsoring organization – the US Government’s Department of Veterans Affairs, Readjustment, and Counseling Center – met its goals.
Two new guided journal writing groups begin September 7th. Register online at
https://www.susanhendricks.com/events/new-fall-writing-groups-2017 To contact Susan or learn more, go to www.susanhendricks.com or www.wholistictherapyandcoaching.com