Instagram writing for trauma healing? Mimi Zhu weighs in.
Opening Instagram and seeing a new Mimi Zhu post feels like a salve. Bite-sized meditations on complex experiences — from trauma anniversaries to dating in the digital age to social media flattening the spirit — are all woven with the fluidity and understanding of someone who is trying to figure it out for themselves in real time. Zhu has built a digital community of people looking to go deeper.
A writer and artist living in Brooklyn, N.Y., Zhu began writing as a way to sift through their trauma after being in an abusive relationship. “I felt so free and it hurt so much,” they say of putting these feelings down in their journal for the first time.
It was never about writing for the internet. And yet, Zhu’s entries on mental health have become the kind of thing people tag multiple friends under, commenting things like “This!!!” or reposting on their own account. (Britney Spears reposted one of Zhu’s pieces on striking and wealth redistribution in 2020, earning her the nickname “Comrade Britney.”) The visual style of their posts — bold black text overlaid on diffused aura-colored backdrops — has become instantly recognizable on its own. Zhu has found a way to lift the veil on the feelings and phenomena we experience but haven’t figured out a way to articulate to ourselves — let alone to the world — and uses their writing as both a mirror and a doorway: reflecting these parts back to us and inviting us in to process them together.
Author of the weekly newsletter “Write, to Heal,” Zhu has a debut book, “Be Not Afraid of Love,” coming out on Aug. 23. They spoke with Image about writing as a restorative practice, processing grief on a global level and the limitlessness of love.
Julissa James: Your work has almost been like a resource guide to process things that I’ve been going through, sometimes without even realizing it. I’ll see a post of yours on loneliness, and I’m like, “Oh, wait. Damn. Stop calling me out like that.”
Mimi Zhu: It really means so much to me to have people read and resonate. It feels very tender, especially since the practice is not always the easiest. In my writing practice I do every day, not always publicly, I think what I’ve realized is that — especially in the realm of work that I do which is connected with mental health and healing and generational trauma — a lot of it isn’t just about like, “Everything’s gonna be OK.” A lot of wellness writing that I have seen, especially by corporations, is adapting that language. Like, “Oh, look on the bright side. Everything gets better.” And while I do appreciate those sentiments and that intention, for me, my work is about having to trudge through honesty. Honesty not always being pretty and pleasant, and honesty not always being palatable. My own practice is very challenging because it forces me to be honest with myself all the time. Kinda like what you said about me calling you out: I’m calling myself out — my loneliness, my jealousy, my insecurity, all of those things. I write about them because I’m not here to be like, “Oh, I’m a good person.” I’m not trying to prove that. I’m trying to be like, “I’m a complicated person with complicated feelings, because I live in a very complicated place with really messy and violent histories and socialization.” It’s inevitable that we have our shadows and when they read my work, I hope that people will not feel ashamed of those shadows, and even open to exploring them with me.
JJ: Right. How do you view writing as a healing practice?
MZ: I think writing as a practice is like communicating with your own spirit. And I love being able to do that. But what’s even more beautiful is that I’m communicating with other people’s spirits at the same time, without even maybe intending to or realizing. The amount of times people have approached me and been like, “How did you know I was going through this this week?” And I was like, “I didn’t know you were going through that.” But it says so much that is beyond me. I’m not a fortune-teller. I don’t actually know what’s going on in people’s lives all the time. But what I do know is that we are connected in ways that we are still trying to understand and we are affected by systems in similar ways and we are affected by capitalism in similar ways.
JJ: Where does this desire to write things down — writing to heal — come from?
MZ: I was in a really painful and abusive relationship. I felt that I was so preoccupied and in a bubble in my own head. It’s a very visceral experience, I think, to hold trauma but to not have language for it, and just constantly thinking that there was something wrong with me. One night I was in my room, just alone, and I started free writing in this journal. I felt so free and it hurt so much, but I finally felt like I was in my body after such a long time. And so from that point onwards, I realized that this is what I needed to survive. I wrote to heal because I couldn’t find any other way.
JJ: How do you process your grief around global events?
MZ: The grief within us is so twisted at this point that [these events are] non-surprising sometimes, which is so violent to even think about. We’re just like, “Again?” The fact that we even say that is so ridiculous, and I think so many of us are so twisted in that grief and it comes out in so many unexpected and harmful ways within us. I hope that everybody gets a chance to check in with themselves and to be like, “Am I doing OK? How do I feel about this? How can I take a break from social media for a little bit and take care of myself?” I am always a firm believer that when we take care of ourselves, we take care of others. And so for me, taking care of myself, the deepest practice is writing and just being like, “Am I doing OK?” All these complex, twisted feelings, to put them on a page so they don’t feel as big or overpowering.
JJ: How can others begin to use writing as a mode of healing or restoration?
MZ: I always encourage people to free write first. To not think of writing as something with rigid structure, but as a free and liberating practice. When we’re accessing deep honesty with ourselves, the last thing I want to care about is my punctuation or whether this makes grammatical sense. What I care about is talking to myself in a way that I understand. And I think for people to get closer to themselves, I always encourage them to do that as well. Any time that an artist can access that deeper truth, they make better work, work that is authentic and true to them.