After years suppressing my feelings about my childhood, I wrote a letter to my parents to get it all “off my chest”.
I was 20-something years old and hadn't spoken to my mother in five years. I wanted to repair the relationship but I couldn't pretend that I wasn't angry at some of the things that happened during my childhood.
I hand-wrote the letter (this was before everyone had email and home computers) and photocopied it: one for my mother and one for my father. It wasn't just my mother I was angry with, my father contributed just as much to my bitterness.
In my family, it's typical to shut down and stop corresponding with someone if they say something you don't like, so that's what I was expecting.
I posted the letter and held my breath. In my family, it's typical to shut down and stop corresponding with someone if they say something you don't like, so that's what I was expecting.
To my surprise, they both responded with understanding, remorse and apologies. But my writing hasn't always been a positive thing. The estrangements with my siblings happened after I expressed myself through writing.
When the writing is on the wall
When Steven's* relationship with his mother became awkward, uncomfortable and distant, he also wrote her a letter.
In his letter, he expressed his feelings, acknowledging that they had different views and opinions, something he suspects is the reason she won't speak to him. But she never replied.
Steven says he sent the letter as a way to open up the communication lines, not sever them.
“All I know is that we used to talk, and now we don’t,” the 49-year-old tells SBS. “There wasn’t a big, specific fallout. I did try and address it with a letter.”
"I accept we are just very different people, but having a mum who at least said happy birthday to you would be nice,” Steven says.
Although it's been more than five years since Steven has had a “normal” relationship with his mother, he continues to send her cards for Mother's Day and her birthday. It's a sentiment he wishes she reciprocated.
“You’d be silly to not want a good relationship with your mum, wouldn’t you? I would like it to be better than it is. I accept we are just very different people, but having a mum who at least said happy birthday to you would be nice,” he says.
Writing can be therapeutic
Sue Pratt, psychologist and Stream Manager of Counselling at Lifeworks Relationship Counselling and Education Services says writing is a very powerful method of communicating and it's highly recommended in therapy (though you don't need to be in therapy to do it).
Writing gives way to clearer thinking and feeling which gives more opportunity to express yourself freely. Writing may be better than talking through problems especially if emotions are running high or there is high-conflict in the relationship.
“Writing is an opportunity to integrate your feelings and your thoughts. It's a creative act and whenever we do anything creatively with our experiences we're actually in the process of healing and working towards understanding, and that in itself allows us to let go,” explains Pratt.
Writing may be better than talking through problems especially if emotions are running high or there is high-conflict in the relationship.
Steven says he'll continue to write cards to his mother even though she doesn't reply.
“I don’t send the cards with the expectation I’ll get one back (though it would be nice). I do it because it feels like the right thing to do. She’s my mum and I may not agree with everything she’s done or does, but she raised me. She did a pretty good job and I have a lot to be thankful for.”
Pratt says sending special occasion cards or letters is fine but if the sender expects one back and doesn’t receive one, it could affect their mental health negatively.
“If these [estranged relationships] are lost loves or family members, it can be extremely painful if the hope doesn't come through. A lot of our work [as counsellors] is preparing people to do it but also working out whether it's useful; and determining the risk.”
For me, writing is the easiest way for me to communicate. I'm rubbish at vocalising my feelings but I can express myself openly and honestly with words when they're put on paper. Today, my relationship with my parents may not be perfect but we're doing the best we can with what we have.
*surname withheld by request
If you need help, or this story has raised issues for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or visit LifeWorks.
The ground-breaking new six-part documentary series, Look Me In The Eye, will debut on SBS on Wednesday 6 September at 8.30pm. Each episode, airing weekly on Wednesdays at 8.30pm, will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.