Column: How Writing Changed My Life

By Susan Parker
Tuesday August 15, 2006

I was not a writer before my husband Ralph had a bicycling accident that left him paralyzed below the shoulders. I worked at an international adventure travel company (located in Berkeley), leading bicycling trips to exotic locations like Tasmania and Bali. The only things I wrote were postcards, grocery lists, and, occasionally, copy for the company’s travel brochures. But in the spring of 1994 after Ralph’s accident, all writing, with the exception of completing medical and legal forms, became obsolete. I spent my days dealing with doctors, therapists and social workers. At night, I lay in bed alone, wondering what would happen to us.  

While Ralph was still in ICU fighting for his life, a friend advised me to write down everything that was happening to us. He thought that I might need these notes for a lawsuit. He bought me three spiral notebooks and a pen, and I dutifully jotted down what I saw, heard, smelled, and thought. This may have been the beginning of my writing career, but once Ralph returned home, I never referred back to the notebooks. Years later, when I found the books in the corner of a messy closet, I threw them away without looking at them. I knew they were full of bleak, depressing thoughts.  

Six months after we returned home from the hospital, I began to keep a journal. I scribbled down the things that happened to us—what I saw with my new eyes as a stay-at-home caregiver; who I met; how the world reacted to our new status as a disabled man and his helper. I was encountering people who I never would have run into before: neurologists and psychiatrists, acupuncturists and kinesiologists, out-of-luck-home-health-aides—the folks I had come to depend on for Ralph’s care, and for my own sanity.  

We were in and out of the emergency room so often that I started to think of it as my office. Waiting there took an average of seven hours. But I always had a notebook and pen with me. The ER became my home away from home.  

I had plenty to write about, and oddly enough, I found the time to write: late at night and early in the morning when Ralph was asleep, during prolonged stays in the hospital, and in the waiting rooms of doctors and counselors. Since we didn’t have much of a social life, and I no longer did the activities I used to do such as running, biking and skiing, I substituted writing for friendship, exercise, and sex.  

I didn’t show my writings to anyone for a long time. A year after Ralph’s accident, Leah Garchik, a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, asked her readers for stories about “serendipity.” I sent her a description of a serendipitous experience Ralph and I had had. The ambulance driver who had driven Ralph to the hospital after his accident had tracked us down. He came to our front door bearing carnations. He told us that Ralph had been very brave as he lay in the middle of Claremont Avenue unable to move. He explained that he had not thought Ralph would survive. My essay about this unexpected meeting was too long for the newspaper, but Leah encouraged me to keep at it, and 12 years later, I still am.  

Now I can’t imagine not writing. It’s the first thing I do in the morning before leaving my bedroom, and the last thing I do at night before falling asleep. The art of writing has taught me a new way to look at the world; it has provided me with new friends, new goals, and many wonderful opportunities. It’s brought me closer to my family, united me with strangers and lost acquaintances, made me feel worthwhile and useful.  

We’ve got lots of troubles here at my house, and many obstacles to overcome. But still, there is no doubt—writing has saved my life.