A woman angrily writes a letter to add to a pile of other letters

The Power of the Unsent Letter: Writing Through Trauma

Editor’s note: This article is about the author's experience journaling about the trauma that occurred throughout her childhood and adult life which continued throughout her breast cancer diagnosis.

Life will bring every single one of us to our knees. The question is, how do we navigate the trauma? I discovered writing as a tool for survival almost by chance many years ago as a teenager. It began with a letter.

Restless

The year was 1994. It had been a long, hot summer. I was restless, longing for something different. At 17 I should have been freer than ever, but it was the opposite. I lived at home with my parents and two younger brothers. Of the five of us, my mom ruled the roost; we were all afraid of her. She suffered from a violent personality disorder that made living with her very dangerous. The older I got, the stronger her intimidation. A night came when I couldn’t stand the isolation and abuse anymore. I remember staring up at the dark ceiling, my life feeling helpless. I remember so clearly willing myself the courage to end my life. Instead, I flipped on the light switch and sat down at my computer. I opened a fresh document and began to type. I had no idea what I was writing, the words just poured from me.

Facing grief

Writing was not new to me. I had kept various diaries over the years but they had been more fact-based: simple reporting of the day’s events. They did not bring me face to face with my grief until that night. What I wrote was a letter I knew I would never send. It was all the things I wished I could say but had always been too afraid. “Dear Mom,” I began. The writing came out confident, defiant -- something I never knew myself to be in real life. “This stops now!” I typed. I had no idea that voice was within me, standing atop a mountain of rage. As my fingers flew over the keys, a little bit of the helplessness was evaporating. Even though I knew I would never give her the letter, that did not matter. In fact, knowing it was private freed me to write what I really needed to. As I wrote, the feeling inside of me felt a little less desperate, and a little more like a small flame in my belly. The letter let me know I was still alive.

Unsent letters

That night was just the first unsent letter. It took two more years and many unsent letters to move away, and another 10 years to finally say aloud what needed to be said. Writing became my lifeline through the trauma of child abuse. Sharing that part of me continues to heal me. Now, so many years later, I have taught the same survival skill to my daughter. While her life as a budding teen is much different than mine was, she isn’t without her own traumas. I tell her to write through it: write to the friend who hurt you, write to the injury that slows you down, write to the fear that holds you back, I say.

The power of writing a letter

I tell you this now, too, reader. Write a letter. Dear Cancer… Dear Breasts… Dear Doctor… The power of the unsent letter is in its ability to clarify our feelings, to illuminate a path through the darkness back to the core of ourselves. It allows you to claim your story. All those summers ago, as I typed desperately in my childhood bedroom, I discovered a bit of control in an out of control situation. With words, I filled out my body and staked a claim to my life.

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