This is an essay that I wrote about the value and importance of journaling. But it also tells about a period in my life when I was experiencing the consequences of my behavior, and the whole world around me seemed to be falling apart.
The heavy blackness lay upon me. The stark reality of the situation pressed down on me like a wrestler solidly pinning his opponent to the mat. They were gone! They had been taken away. I sat upright in the disheveled bed in a dazed stupor. Everything that meant anything to me had been stripped away. What was left to live for? How could I go on?
Sitting alone in the large, empty house, I thought back over the dismal events of the previous few days. I had confessed my hideous sin to my wife and had asked for her forgiveness. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I had not been prepared for what followed.
The police had come with the determined caseworker to interview us. I was totally open as I answered all their questions, almost as though I was in a trance. Then they drove away, taking my daughter with them. I was left alone. In the days that followed, it seemed like so many people were stepping back from me. My wife, was being forced to live somewhere else. My secure world, as I knew it, had ended; it had just been swept away right in front of my eyes. My life had forever changed. I couldn't do anything about it. I had lost everyone that I loved. What would I do? Feeling weak and drained, I struggled just to get through each day. The bleak darkness of the long dreary nights pressed heavily upon me. I needed help.
Although I don’t know why I started, I began journaling to cope with what had happened, and what was yet to transpire. When I first started writing, I only wrote a few words or sentences each time, which amounted to a few paragraphs per day. I somehow gave myself an unspoken directive -- when I write in the journal, don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar, or even if I have complete sentences. Whenever I only had a piece of a thought and couldn’t think of the rest of the words, I’d just use dots “….”, which would remind me to add more words later. This turned out to be such a good decision, because it allowed me to gradually open the floodgates and let the deluge pour out.
“Sunday, August 7, 1994. Yesterday was the worst time of all. I was so ..... emotionally affected that I had a very difficult time functioning to do even simple things like fixing something to eat. I was on a roller coaster ride of emotions. Many times I broke down in uncontrollable ......tears and distress to the point that I couldn't think..... There were times that I was feeling ok, but during those times I felt guilty that I didn't feel bad. I felt that if I was really sorry for what I had done the I would be feeling miserable and be in tears.”
This also began a long painful journey where extensive periods of deep blackness swallowed me up. I turned to my journal, just to cope, to try to make some sense of what I was going through. I wondered if I would be able to stand up to the test.
“The question that keeps coming back to me over and over is, "Am I willing to lose everything that I have in order to become clean and follow God. This has been scaring the living daylights out of me.”
A few more days passed, and I had been unable to sleep for almost a week.
August 11, 1994. Last night was the first night since the kids were taken that I was able to sleep through most of the night, (about 6 1/2 hours). It has been 1 week today since the children were taken into the custody of CSD. Our lives have been turned upside down, my family has been separated. I've only been able to work a total of perhaps 1 or 2 days in the last 2 weeks because of my emotional distress and the mountain of details involved with ....
In the weeks that followed, as I found a counselor to help me through all of this, my journal became like a close friend in my counseling process. When all others seemed to be turning away from me, it listened intently to me, waited expectantly, without judging or condemning. Opening its arms, it warmly embraced me as it tenderly applied a healing ointment to my deepest wounds. As I wrestled with all that was happening to me, I wrote much of it in my journal. Sometimes I wrote in a notebook, but mostly I just typed into my computer, which I left on day and night. Then, as emotional, traumatic, or insightful thoughts would come to me, I would try to capture as many of them as I could. Months passed as I struggled to make sense of it all, through my journal I cried out from my very innermost being.
Although learning to put my deepest thoughts and emotions into a written form has been very beneficial in my life, its healing affects has not been to me alone. Many hurting people have experienced the therapeutic properties of struggling to put their thoughts into a written form. In one case John Mulligan, a Vietnam veteran, returned home to San Francisco after his tour of duty. Suffering with flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder he spent the next 10-12 years of his life as a “shopping cart soldier,” (9)(13) a homeless drunken bum, sleeping in the bushes or in doorways. One day he was taken to the hospital, where he remained for three days in a coma. His life had hit bottom and finally decided to make some changes in his life. During this time, he took a veterans’ writing and meditation workshop(8). He wrote about a horrific scene from the war, complete with all the blood, the noise, and the sense of loss. When he left the work shop he “was so elated he was ‘whistling and skipping.’”
In the following years he found the benefits of “facing his demons.” As he continued to put the horrific events of his past into words, his mind became clearer and he felt better.
“Mulligan has often described the very act of writing ‘Shopping Cart Soldiers’ as a cathartic and healing experience which helped him to get off the streets, and off alcohol. ”(9b) Somehow, being able to write about the trauma that he had experienced had set him free from the dreadful prison of his past memories. As Mulligan discovered, writing can have powerful therapeutic affects in one’s life.
While thoughtful writing, often called journaling, is beneficial for those who struggle with traumatic events in their past, it also has other uses and benefits. In the article, “Journaling as Therapy,” Jayne Ash, an artist, sculptor and writer, says, “Journaling helps me clear my mind and become conscious of what is going on inside. I have found that usually the first feeling I have is not the root cause of anything. There is always something underneath it and journaling helps me to get to what that is.” (2)
I have found the same thing true in my own life. Whenever I’m struggling with some type of problem or issue in my life, I start writing about the most troublesome or persistent thoughts. Then, once they’re out of the way, a whole new and deeper level thinking or solutions often appear.
Many therapists have learned the powerful affects of this type of writing. Some have included journaling as an indispensable part of the healing process.
Laurie Nadel, Ph.D. psychotherapist, regularly suggests to her clients that they keep a journal themselves For people who are depressed, in a crisis, or feel "stuck," journal- keeping is a way to gain insight into their thoughts and feelings, says Nadel. "Journaling allows you to dialogue with parts of your psyche that are frozen in time. It allows you to tap into deeper reserves of creativity and problem solving. By keeping a journal, you can get a flash of knowing and awareness that you haven't seen before." (11).
One famous psychotherapist has found journaling so beneficial that he has focused much of his practice, and his success, upon getting the patients more deeply involved in their own therapy in this manner.
Dr. Ira Progoff, a renowned psychotherapist, began pondering the value of such behavior [pouring out one’s heart and soul to a diary] in relation to his field. In his practice, Dr. Progoff encouraged several patients to use journals. He called these journals “psychological workbooks” and asked that the subjects record anything that came to mind, including emotions, anxieties, thoughts, and fears. The doctor soon realized that they were able to work through their particular feelings or situation much more quickly and easily, and he became convinced of journaling’s value as a powerful therapeutic tool. With his development of the Intensive Journal Method in the mid 1960’s and 70’s, the “father of modern journaling” established the journal as a valid therapy. (7)
Michael Rank, Ph.D., associate professor and co-director of the International Traumatology Institute at the University of South Florida in Tampa says that journaling is simple to do and it forces people to do something. (11) He states that some people resist it because it is a lot of hard work, especially if they are depressed. It’s painful write about bad feelings. However, for those who work through their resistance and do it in earnest, they will improve. “What journaling provides is a way of turning subjective thoughts to objective words on paper that can be analyzed, changed, even destroyed, says Rank. ‘Once your thoughts are externalized ... once they're out of your head and onto paper, there's no longer a mystique attached to them.’” He also says that keeping a journal forces people to be honest. While he didn’t specifically say it, I think that we can safely assume that being honest with oneself is an important part of the recovery path.
Research is also beginning to show the beneficial and valuable affects of jotting down one’s thoughts. James W. Pennebaker, M.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, began journaling during a stressful time in his own marriage and found journaling to be a great help. (1) He wrote, "There are dozens of features to a relationship, journaling helps to slow things down and put them in perspective." Journaling helped him understand what he wanted and what he valued, and the marriage survived. Seeing the great benefits in his own life, he went on to conduct studies that showed that participants who journaled about the most traumatic experiences in their lives stayed healthier than those who journaled about shallow events.
Dozens of studies have found that most people, from grade-schoolers to nursing-home residents, med students to prisoners, feel happier and healthier after writing about deeply traumatic memories, says James Pennebaker, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and leader or co-leader of many of the studies. (8)
In another example, a team of clinical psychologists and immunologists performed tests (5) that showed improved wellbeing from subjects who wrote thoughtfully and emotionally about traumatic experiences in there lives.
Our choice of words seems to make a difference in our health. The journaling that’s best for us seems to be where we give some deep, meaningful, thought to the traumatic events we are going through or have been through, and how we are really thinking and feeling. “The physical act of writing triggers brain processes that lead you to make new connections among ideas.”(12-pg 2) “Writing forces you to clarify your thinking as you use words to convey your thoughts, and a journal instills the habit of close observation and discovery.” (12-pg 28) I have personally encountered many times where answers to tough problems, which I hadn't seen before, have come to me while I was writing in my journal. Journaling has helped me to keep focused on what is really happening, and why, and has greatly helped me to make sense of all the trying times.
I’ve kept a journal for the last seven years. It has helped me tremendously in my counseling. I’ve had to be brutally honest with myself and to see myself as I am. As I look back and read my journal from those periods, I still get misty-eyed. I have written hundreds, if not thousands, of pages in my journal. This has been terrible and it has been wonderful. It has been a journey of self-discovery. I’ve had to look deeply within myself, and to see some things about myself that I really didn’t like, and didn’t want to see. Nevertheless, I had to look, and I had to admit that about myself. Then I had to work on changing those things about myself. I’ve had to do a lot of inner work, and my faithful journal has lent his compassionate ear to hear my every word. Many changes have been happening in my life, much of it recorded in, and even helped by, my journal. This has been such an invaluable time, as it allowed me to express my anger, pain, confusion, discouragement, and frustration. I have also written much about my joy of learning new things. I've expressed my thankfulness for God’s work in my life, for the new friends, and for what He has done with my family.
Since that time when my family was swept away from me, I’ve had to deal with many heavy consequences of my previous actions. I've had to learn to accept the many requirements and restrictions that have been placed upon me. For lack of knowing what else to do, I have just done what I was required to do. My journaling has really helped me to keep focused on this often arduous journey. Along the path, my wife and my daughter have been restored to me, and now we have a 3-year-old son.
“Honey,” calls my wife from the kitchen. “Could you come spend some time with the children? The kids need to spend some time with their daddy.”
I sit back and pause for a moment. As I stretch, I think to myself, “Yes, this has been a difficult journey, but its all been worth it. Keeping in the “write” frame of mind, keeping focused and following the rules have helped me to become a better daddy and a better husband. I wouldn’t trade what I have for the world.”
Shutting down my journal, I get up from the computer and go into the kitchen. My daughter and son are excitedly waiting at the kitchen table to play a game. As they spot me, their gleeful eyes twinkle with enthusiasm.
“Daddy! Daddy!” They both cry out in unison. “Can you play now?”
As I pull up a chair, I smile warmly and think to myself, “Well, I guess I’ll finish my journaling later tonight before I go to bed.”
What about you? Are you in the write frame of mind? Could you benefit from journaling? The research seems to indicate the positive benefits associated with journaling. It is easy to begin. All you need is a pencil, a notebook, and a desire to begin the journey of self-discovery. Do you have any thoughts about what you just read? Why not write them now as the beginning (or continuation) of your own journal?
1. How Journaling Keeps you Healthy, http://www.healthierliving.org/health/journaling.html
2. “Journaling as Therapy” by Wendy Burt http://www.inspiredlifestyles.com/July%202001/7801_p17.htm
3. Strange but True: Improve your Health Through Journaling, http://www.shpm.com/articles/health/journal.html
4. Brief Writing Exercises Can Reduce Symptoms In Patients With Chronic Illness
5. Effects of Writing About Stressful Experiences on Symptom Reduction in Patients With Asthma or Rheumatoid Arthritis (A Randomized Trial) http://jama.ama-assn.org/issues/v281n14/ffull/jpc90005.html
6. Writing tonic for chronic complaints, BBC News, Online Network, Wednesday, April 14, 1999 http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_318000/318953.stm
7. A History of Journal Therapy - University of Pennsylvania – School of Arts and Sciences
8. Writing for therapy helps erase effects of trauma By Chris Woolston CNN.com March 16, 2000 http://www.cnn.com/2000/HEALTH/03/16/health.writing.wmd/index.html
9. John Mulligan’s book, “Shopping Cart Soldiers” http://www.curbstone.org/authdetail.cfm?AuthID=28
9b. Writers Online, volume 3, No.1 Fall 1998
This gives more of an in depth story of his book and of John Mulligan’s life
10. Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy.
Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology. 1988 Apr Vol 56(2) 239-245
11. Writing Your Way Out of Depression - Keeping a journal can help you cope. By Carol Sorgen
12. Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers, Lynn Quitman Troyka, pages 2, 28
13. “Choose from three excellent, healing works on Vietnam” August 24, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us