When Writing Makes It Hard to Breathe

I found this entry from several years ago when I was beginning my memoir. I've forgotten just how challenging it was. Writing painful memories can affect you physically, and takes a rare courage.

March 30, 2003

Last night I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t breathe and I kept wandering around the house, back into bed, out of bed, wandering some more. It’s been strange and scary and exhausting, not feeling normal, not able to breathe, panicked and stifled and drowning. Part of my brain says: knock it off. This is just a stupid joke. You know better. Quit.

The other part is very scared and very much a victim.

I fell asleep practicing deep breathing, forcing myself to take belly breaths, remembering that when I was small, I also felt I couldn’t breathe, could never let go, carrying around secret fears and identities that no one must ever know.

For I know this is the cause:

Writing my memoir is bringing on panic attacks. The memories, the alternate reality which I never allowed myself to remember, experience or express.

It’s good, I tell me. My body and mind are owning up to the history that goes with all of me. But I squirm. I writhe. I try to get away, I get up in the night and walk around and cough a little and worry and feel like an alien in my own body, my own life.

Because The Girl in the story wants me to remember what it’s like to feel like an alien, to feel suffocated by everything and everyone around me.

I will be in the picture, damn it. I will take up the whole center of it and will force you to look, long and hard. So give up your illusion of having escaped unscathed.

Give up the demand of perfection, the hard hard price you have exacted from your very young self.

Instead of covering over all these fears, canning and preserving them once again, let the mix boil and writhe and fume, even in ways that terrify you. You don’t have to try to be a survivor, try to be magnificent in your life. Just be, flawed and scarred. Find the true gift that shows up in the most debilitating weakness. Find the honesty to tell what hurts, how bad you feel. Don’t play act anymore.

Have you ever been physically affected by a memory, perhaps one you were writing about?


  1. You eloquently put exactly how it is to experience a painful memory. Your mind has a knee jerk reactions and want to mentally run from it but in order to move on, you have to face it and I have found myself in the very same panicked position. Even writing these brings a bit of squeezing to my heart where it says, "please don't go there". Thanks for the eloquence and know that I am not alone in what it feels like to experience painful memories.


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