I was recently asked to speak at a medical conference in Budapest. The theme of the congress was ‘Therapeutic Patient Education’, which essentially involved looking at ways in which to educate people with chronic disease, and how to improve their quality of life by way of more than just prescribed medicine.

THE HEALING POWER OF SELF-WRITING was the title my presentation was assigned, and I  thought I might share it with you…




 [My name is Emily Halban, and I am an author. In March 2008, my first book was published: “Perfect, Anorexia and Me”. This is the story of my seven year struggle with – and recovery from – a crippling disease.]

When I first was asked to speak here today I got hugely excited at the thought of being granted such an opportunity to share my story – or the story of my story – out loud, in person. But then I became afraid as I remembered that I am not a speak-out-loud kind of girl; that while I was able to lay my life out on the pages of a book for as broad and extensive a public as possible to read, I just could not envisage translating that written experience into an oral presentation.

And that got me thinking. I wrote this book to put my story across, because it belongs to so many others – too many. I wanted to write for those who have suffered – or are suffering – perhaps to find a glimpse of hope, maybe to find something they can hold onto that might prod them forward, maybe just to read that they are not alone – it is such a lonely disease. I wrote in the hope of voicing what some may be too scared to tell and in the hope of inspiring others to voice their story too.

I want to make a difference; I want people to know; but all this, in writing.

I am here today, not to talk to you about my experience of anorexia, but about the writing of it.

Because while I may this year have become an author, all my life I have been a writer. All my life I have resorted to writing in moments of crisis; and in times of joy.  It has always been through writing that I have managed to channel my emotions and relieve my heart of silent tears. It has always been in writing that I have best managed to express my feelings, to account for my mistakes; to ask for forgiveness.

When I was a very little girl I used to crumple up notes of apology to my parents – for my occasional ‘monkey business’ – into tiny paper balls that I would hurl into their bedroom from a strategic invisible spot right outside their door! These soon turned into extensive letters placed neatly on a bed, or on the kitchen table, on in a bag – still never handed in person. My writing has always defined me – and this, through to my days of illness.

 “The Healing Power of Self-Writing” was the title my presentation was assigned. When I first read it I was not entirely convinced it sounded quite right; what bothered me was how to define “self writing”, and the suggestion, in the words ‘healing power’, of miracle solutions. I want to say that healing is a process; that at every stage there is a piece of writing that can help; and that with every stage there are clearer words that come.  We write as we heal and we heal as we write.

Time and time again, I am asked – or told – how difficult it must have been to write the book; how painful. I always say that it was a bit like going through a heavy detox; when the grime first has to come to surface before it can be cleansed. But actually, the real heartache came in reading the book through, because that was when my words were suddenly addressed to me.

Really, this is a book intended for others to read, the pages reach out to others, writing it was like holding out a hand. My hope was for this self-writing to have the power to heal others.  

But it was a culmination of years of my own remedial prose.

Interlaced within the narrative are a collection of diary entries, of wish-lists, of poetry, of letters and of notes. These were my cathartic channel, all come under the heading of “self-writing”, and each form does contain the potential to heal, but all in good time.

During the most dire moments of my illness, I first turned to the private pages of my personal diary, both in poetry and prose, to clear jumbled thoughts and to try to give a voice to muffled feelings.

Then, in calmer moments, I would reach out to those who loved and cared for me in long letters, a form of open diary, seeking to convey what was going on inside. We tend too often to forget the ripple effect any disease will have on those standing by; tending, nursing, supporting, always in the shadow. Letters are a form of self-writing that not only allow us to feel less alone, but more importantly they let our loved ones in – and give them a chance to respond in their own time too.

My book relates my seven year struggle with – and recovery from – anorexia; because it was only once healed that I was able to consider writing a book about my life. It was all still fresh enough that my prose could be written raw and would strike of heartfelt honesty, but I nonetheless needed to have come far enough along the recovery trail that I could gain a certain perspective. And this is important for me to make clear.

All in all I believe in the healing power of words, sometimes even just repeating the same word over and over again covering a full sheet, like something of a mantra, can offer relief; it needn’t always make obvious sense, it isn’t about how clever it sounds, or philosophical, these do not have to be tidy rationalized phrases. The liberation comes from letting go and allowing words to flow without restraint, without discipline; tapping into emotions that cannot always be expressed in a coherent language.

What it is about writing, is that it allows you to create your own language. Writing draws from somewhere deep inside and is not held back by inhibition. Whenever I speak out loud – as is the case right now – I always hear the sound of my voice and immediately I feel detached, then self-conscious, and ultimately silly. In writing I am so much truer to myself.

I believe that written words have the power to heal and the potential to touch those who read them so much more profoundly than when spoken out loud, this is when the healing begins to spread. 

And then there is the beauty of the sound of words that turns writing into a form of art – and self-writing into an artistic form of expression.

But I think it is so important not to turn “self writing” into a formulaic ‘medicinal’ approach. Writing cannot be prescribed; it can only help if it streams from the heart and comes naturally when the time is right. Writing should be encouraged – and sometimes the door to our heart does need a little nudge to open up – but from the moment it becomes a chore; forced, mechanical, intellectualized, the magic of the word is lost – and so its power to heal will disappear.