How Writing Saved My Life (cont.)

For his part, Smyth is studying veterans and victims of sexual abuse who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Despite success stories like Mulligan's, there's currently little scientific evidence that writing can help treat such a severe psychiatric disorder, he says.

A Home Remedy?

It takes a concerted effort -- and a tolerance for intense emotional pain -- to write about dark memories, Smyth says. The process is always distressing; the PTSD patients in his study carry beepers for 24-hour access to counselors. "I have serious reservations about anyone trying this sort of writing at home," he says.

Yet John Mulligan never had a beeper, a counselor, or even a home when he started confronting his past. He would sit at cafeteria tables and park benches filling his notebook with horrific images, often pausing to take a break when the memories grew too upsetting. For Mulligan, writing was always a struggle, but it was also a matter of survival. "Writing gives me a reprieve from the darkness of life," says the author, whose first novel, Shopping Cart Soldiers, was published in 1997.

Pennebaker believes people can try writing therapy on their own, as long as they follow one rule: "If you can't handle it, quit." In his book Opening Up, Pennebaker suggests writing about life's current stresses -- not necessarily events from the past -- whenever spirits sag. Without regard to sentence structure or grammar, people should try to describe their traumas and explain their feelings, he says.

Like Mulligan, they will have faced their demons -- beasts that always seem tamer on paper than in the mind.

Chris Woolston, a freelance writer living in Billings, Mont., covers health issues for Healtheon/WebMD, Consumer Health Interactive, and Time-Inc. Health.

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