How Seeing a Therapist Helped Me Finish the First Draft of My Memoir

June 20, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Heather Sweeney

I knew from the first sentence that writing a memoir about my divorce would lead me down an emotional path I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to revisit. But when I started seeing a therapist to cope with the pandemic, I soon discovered my weekly sessions were serving a purpose I hadn’t intended: coping with my memoir.

When I first dug out the storage tub that housed over twenty years worth of journals and another box filled with old photo albums, I jumped into my past, surrounding myself with all the words and tension and imagery I had recorded and saved because, as a writer, I knew I would want them one day. I immediately felt dizzy, unsteady, uncertain. Several years had passed since my divorce, and my ex-husband and I had both moved on to other long-term relationships, but telling the story I wanted to tell required retracing steps I once vowed to put behind me. Maybe I was supposed to leave it there.

At the time, my therapist and I were still getting to know each other, still going over my background, who I am and how I found my way to her couch. But as our meetups continued, I realized I was talking more and more about my memoir, about the journals that were bringing me back to the most difficult time in my life, about the dreams I was having about that time period, about my writing sessions that often ended with intense sadness or unfiltered anger that I didn’t know what to do with.

Our talks varied from broad analyses to spotlighting specifics. Sometimes we discussed why I stayed as long as I did in a bad marriage. Sometimes we explored the juxtaposition of my life before divorce and life after. Sometimes we compared and contrasted some of the really bad advice I got from our first marriage counselor versus some of the really good advice I got from our second marriage counselor. And sometimes we dissected a single entry I had written in a journal a decade earlier.

If something was worth a discussion in therapy, I soon discovered it was worth a place in my memoir.

I rarely wrote anything more than brief notes to myself immediately after my therapy sessions. I usually needed space away from my manuscript to process those talks that picked apart conversations, events, reactions and aftermaths. There were times I came back to it only to delete a scene that wasn’t as significant as I originally thought, and other times when I added a scene I left out because it was so significant that I was avoiding it.

My therapy sessions also kept me motivated to keep moving forward. If I knew I was about to hit a particularly emotional event in the timeline of my journals, I pushed myself to keep reading, keep writing so I could take that into my next appointment. In a more general sense, my therapist acted as an accountability partner, asking about my progress and cheering me on to reach my self-induced deadline of getting to the final page.

The more I wrote, the more unpacking I did in therapy. But it was more than mere venting. Therapy allowed me to process the personal material I was writing about with the advantage of hindsight, while also interweaving the perspective from an objective observer hearing my story for the first time. My therapist helped me dig deeper than I thought I was willing to go. She helped me find discoveries I was too close to the content to see. She helped me tell my story until I finally typed “The End” on my memoir’s first draft.

Therapy forced me to do the hard work I’m not sure I would have done without my therapist walking alongside me in my memoir journey. And because of her insight and guidance throughout my first draft, I embarked on my second draft emotionally prepared to go through it all over again.


Heather Sweeney is a freelance essayist who writes about military discounts at her day job. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Healthline, AARP’s The Girlfriend, Your Teen, SheKnows and elsewhere. She lives in Virginia, where she’s currently working on a memoir about life as a military spouse, divorce and her path to self-discovery. You can find her on Twitter at @WriterSweeney.

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