Writing Therapy by Linda Martinson

Write Your Pain, Tame Your Pain: The Healing Benefits of Writing

by Linda Martinson
author of Poetry of Pain: Poems of truth, acceptance and hope
for those who suffer chronic pain


In 1987 I developed fibromyalgia (FM), a chronic musculoskeletal pain and fatigue syndrome, after I was in a car accident. For the last two years, I’ve had trigeminal neuralgia (TN) as well. Also known as tic douloureux, TN has been described as the ‘worst pain in the world’.

The article I started to write a few months ago for the APF Pain Monitor was different from the piece you’re reading now. I had planned to tell you about how I came to write my book, Poetry of Pain, how I got involved with a grass roots effort to lobby our Washington State Legislature for new chronic pain management guidelines, and how I came to be on the Department of Health Task Force to write the guidelines. I wanted to talk about the relationship between pain and creativity, and how now, with adequate pain management, I am able to teach belly dancing for the City of Edmonds Park Department. And I wanted to talk about the physical and mental benefits of regular exercise.

But while I was composing the article, a family tragedy occurred: my older brother, Steve, who’d been ill with degenerative lung disease, went into rapid decline. A coughing attack sent him to the hospital, and after four days in intensive care, he died.

My TN symptoms had been in flare for several weeks, but the morning of the first day I visited Stephen in the hospital, I awoke to find the right side of my face hugely swollen. I was surprised, as facial swelling had never accompanied my TN attacks before. My acupuncturist attributed the swelling to stress, which can aggravate any health condition. It was probably related to my brother’s illness. And sure enough, my facial swelling continued until Steve passed away. The next morning, the swelling was gone.

I canceled my doctor appointments and dance performances, and took the time I needed to grieve for my brother. I‘d learned after my step-father died that my tears would come when I least expected them, but that the overwhelming sharpness of my grief would soften over time. The necessity of mourning the loss of a loved one, however, didn’t become clear to me until I was writing my poem, ‘Acceptance’. The meditations that guided my pen helped me understand that emotional pain can become intertwined with intractable pain. I realized that I’d been in limbo for years, treading water, running in place, wishing – longing – to have the old Linda, the healthy Linda, back.

As I drafted the poem, it became clear to me that I couldn’t move forward because I was stuck in the past; that I needed to mourn for the energetic, lively, quick-thinking person I once was and am no more. I needed to acknowledge my grief in order to move forward into my life as it is today. From ‘Acceptance‘, in my collection Poetry of Pain:

…I miss the spontaneity of good health,
when I could do simple things,
like go for a drive,
or dance,
without having to consider the toll
on my body,
I miss the fun.

Still …
I can’t let the past rule my today.

So I will recognize my grief,
roll around in it,
and mourn my loss as I would
the death of a beloved child .
For only then can I get beyond it….

Writing can be incredibly therapeutic. The first poems I wrote for Poetry of Pain address several issues I was dealing with at the time – agonizing, debilitating pain, anger, frustration. Initially, I just wanted to describe the intensity of my pain so that my physician and others would understand what I was going  through. I was impressed, however, with how satisfying it was to get all that stuff out.

I gave my doctor copies of those first poems, and that was my turning point. You see, I was afraid to ask for pain medication. I was afraid my physician would think me a drug seeker – an addict. Along with the rest of society, I’d been told to say ‘NO’ to drugs so often that I was reluctant to ask, even though I’d tried every therapy my doctor recommended and none of them alleviated my pain. Even though suicide was beginning to seem my only option. But poetry can describe what ordinary words cannot. Those poems helped my doctor understand how desperate I was for pain relief, and it was then that he and I started down the long and careful road to adequate pain management. Once I knew for certain that I would put my poetry in a book, I needed to design the format. Analyzing the poems I’d written thus far, I discovered they actually addressed the first stages of the grieving process, the pattern most people follow when mourning the death of a loved one. To complete the book, I needed to address the rest of the pattern: acknowledgement, acceptance, and hope; a project much easier to contemplate now that my pain was at least somewhat under control.

The book would unfold like a novel, following my pain experience and the progressive stages of grief, ending with hope. Pondering the issue of acknowledgement, I was surprised to find that I have actually grown as a person since I’ve had intractable pain. I‘m more spiritual, not so quick to judge others, a little more tolerant, more inclined to let the small stuff go rather than get upset about it.


Am I a butterfly, finally released
from the cocoon of prosaic existence?

It’s hard to believe,
and yet, the woman I am today,
why … I welcome her!
She’s deep;
she has grown;
she has learned to listen.

This pain, while no  blessing,
may yet be God’s road to enlightenment.

I am wiser, and stronger
than that bustling former me .
Inner Spirit, Higher Power,
call it what you will …
When the pain ebbs,
hold yourself close,
and listen.

Something extraordinary happened at this point in my writing: one night, I had the same recurring nightmare I’d had since I was a child. I dreamed I was outside, alone in the rain. It was night, very dark, and I was being chased by a faceless man in a long raincoat. But I was running in place, against the wind. Every time I had this dream, I would wake up the moment the ‘bogey man’ caught up with me.

But not this time. When the monster caught up with me, I stopped running, turned around, and said to him, ‘Now wait a minute. Let’s talk about this. What exactly is it that you want?’ And I woke up! I have never had this dream again. Clearly, writing has helped me address some of my fears and recognize strengths that affect several different areas of my life.

Sometimes, I’ll even quote a segment of poetry or a short poem I’ve written in order to explain how I feel to ‘healthy’ individuals who don’t understand chronic pain. When I’m exhausted – when I’m feeling the brain-numbing, bone-sucking fatigue intractable pain sufferers know too well, the words, ‘I’m tired’, just don’t say enough. So I resort to my poem, ‘Fatigue’:

The roses will have to wait;
I’m too tired to smell them.
Too tired to breathe.

If you don’t already, I urge those of you who suffer intractable pain to write about how you feel. You don’t have to write a poem – unless you want to. It doesn’t have to be for publication. You don’t have to write complete sentences, and you don’t have to show anyone what you’ve written unless you choose to do so. Writing is a great way to sort out your feelings and deal with emotional aspects of living with constant pain.

I’ve been thinking of writing a poem about my brother Steve. And when I’m finished writing it, I’ll share it with my mother, I’ll share it with his wife, and I’ll share it with my younger brother and sisters. And I know I’ll feel better.

‘Write Your Pain, Tame Your Pain’ was first published in the November 2003 issue of the American Pain Foundation’s Internet Newsletter.

To learn more about Poetry of Pain, or to contact Linda, visit her website at www.lindamartinson.net.
To learn more about the healing powers of writing, visit Dr James Pennebaker’s website ‘Writing to Heal’ at http://www.utexas.edu/features/archive/2005/writing.html, and see http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/faculty/pennebaker/home2000/writingandhealth.html.
Dr Pennebaker is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin.


Sample poems from Linda Martinson’s Poetry of Pain:

Bad Days Are No Fun At All

On the Bad Days
I just try to exist.
I try to cope;
I try to be.

The Bear is back,
demanding full attention;
claws ripping,
spittle burning,
hungry for meat.

Oh, the hot baths,
the heat rubs,
the desperate meditations
may lessen the roar
for a moment of two,
but they don’t change the facts.

Yellow eyes gleam watchful,
ready to complete the charge.

I have no place to hide.


Supermarket Concessions

I am paying for my groceries
at the check stand.
‘How ya doin’?’ he asks.
I look at his eyes, tempted
to startle him with the truth.
But he doesn’t really want to know.
So I opt for a nice neutral,
bland word that means nothing.
A fat word that fills the mouth.
‘Fine,’ I say to his shoulder,
‘I’m doin’ just fine.’


Boiled Over Again

I do my best to keep the pot simmering,
but it’s boiled over again.

I’m a reasonable patient –
I listen.
I meditate.
I exercise,
I eat right
(most of the time).
I apply the hot packs,
I apply the cold packs;
I take the pills.
Still it’s boiled over again.

It’s tough to live with a disease
for which there is no cure
because we don’t know the cause.
Yet I guess I could
look at it this way:
At least the pot hasn’t boiled dry.


Love Poem

If you hurt, give this poem to someone you love,
to the one who cares for you. I gave mine
to my husband. If you’re handling your pain
on your own, please give this poem to yourself.

Your favors are like flowers,
bright spots of color in my life.
Your compassion is as constant
as the pain in my body.
A touch,
a look,
to be held when I hurt;
these gifts are as important as food.
You nourish my soul,
and for this,
I love you.


From reviews of Poetry of Pain on Amazon: – ‘Linda Martinson has written my soul in “Poetry of Pain”, capturing the essence of all grieving hearts and the suffering of anyone who is in pain, whether physical or mental. Anyone who reads this will identify with the ups and downs, the despair, and the joy of the brief remissions as we try to color our own days.’
– ‘When I read it [Poetry of Pain], I felt like there was someone out there that could relate to how I feel. It was as though the book was about me.’


See also Jan Williams’s poems about living with M.E. at Open Hands: Poems of Spiritual Growth and Healing.