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Journal to the Self
By Kathleen Adams
Warner BooksCopyright © 1990 Kathleen Adams
All right reserved.
In moments of ecstasy, in moments of despair the journal remains an impassive, silent friend, forever ready to coach, to confront, to critique, to console. Its potential as a tool for holistic mental health is unsurpassed. -Write On! workshop advertisement
For nearly 30 years I have had the same therapist. This therapist is available to me 24 hours a day and hasn't gone on vacation in almost three decades. I have called upon my therapist at three in the morning, on my wedding day, on my lunch break, on a cold and lonely Christmas, on a Bora Bora beach, and in the dentist's reception room.
I can tell this therapist absolutely anything. My therapist listens silently to my most sinister darkness, my most bizarre fantasy, my most cherished dream. And I can say all this in any way that I want: I can scream, whimper, thrash, wail, rage, exult, foam, celebrate. I can be funny, snide, introspective, accusatory, sarcastic, helpless, brilliant, sentimental, cruel, profound, caustic, inspirational, opinionated, or vulgar.
My therapist accepts all of this and more without comment, judgment, or reprisal.
Best of all, this therapist keeps a detailed record of all of our work together, so that I have on my bookshelf a chronology of my life-my loves, my pains, my wins, my wounds, my growth, my transformation.
Has this cost a fortune? you ask. Not at all. My therapist doesn't want payment.
My therapist is my journal, which I write in spiral notebooks, obtainable for under a dollar in any city in the country. That's why I call my journal "the 79¢ therapist."
My own journal journey began when I was ten. Envious of my older sister's nightly retreat into her locked diary, I waited impatiently for the time when I, too, would have a life sufficiently unpredictable that it merited chronicle. My favorite gift my tenth Christmas was a five-year diary that allotted six lines for each day's entry.
In 1962, the life-style of the average suburban sixth-grader wasn't particularly glamorous. Some days it was a struggle to fill up even six lines:
It snowed. I had to wear boots to school. I hate wearing boots to school! They're UGGHHHH!!!!!
Mr. Mason was sick. We had a substitute. She was boring.
Barbie M. and I ate lunch together.
And so one day I recorded not what had happened in school that day, but what I wished had happened:
Jack T. was waiting for me at the corner. He carried my books. He said he's loved me since 4th. He asked me to go steady. I said ok but only if it's secret.
Tommy S. walked me home from school and boy was Jack mad!!!!! He said he won't go steady anymore unless it's not secret. I don't know who I like better.
As I warmed to my fantasy life, the cast of supporting players (all plucked from Mr. Mason's classroom) grew, and the plots began to take intricate twists and turns. Not only was my own fictional love life logged for posterity, but also scandals involving my school chums popped up with alarming regularity.
The inevitable ethical dilemma (What if somebody reads it and believes it?) and the nagging literary fear (What if somebody reads it and doesn't?) finally cut short my budding career as a soap opera scriptwriter; I destroyed my first diary and vowed not to write another.
But I did. And another, and another after that.
I have now been writing journals and diaries for 27 years, and I'm happily hooked for life.
As it turned out, soap opera scriptwriting wasn't in my professional future. But writing was, and so was psychotherapy. And then, at last, they married.
Since that happy day, I have taught and lectured about Journa1 writing and its applications as a tool for personal growth and self-discovery, both to therapists and to individuals who want to learn how to heal themselves. It has been, and is, a consummate joy. I am in love with my work.
RACHEL'S JOURNAL JOURNEY
Perhaps the most rewarding and fascinating part of journal therapy is this: it spreads out before you in black and white the contents of the heart, mind, and soul. You simply cannot appreciate how healing and powerful this is until you have experienced it.
Take, for example, eight weeks in the life of Rachel, an adult child of an alcoholic father, whose husband had filed for divorce unexpectedly and without explanation. Rachel began her journal journey in the summer of 1988:
June 30. So! Here I am writing in my journal, feeling self-conscious. A new pen and notebook do not a journal make.
July 1. Hmmmmm. Fighting the urge to rip out last night's entry to "do over." But last night was last night and cannot be done over. Be here now!
It didn't take Rachel long to address the painful issues common to Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACAs):
July 3. Why should I be afraid to ask what I possibly couldn't know? I never realized the extent to which the prison of not knowing has contributed to my aloneness.
July 4. I don't want to write these words. But I have already written them, and they are true. And lightning didn't strike. But it is so painful to be vulnerable.
Despite her early discomfort, Rachel soon found herself using her journal to take inventory of her life:
July 6. So today is your birthday. It's been quite a year, wouldn't you say?
July 9. Today I had an experience that has shot huge gaping holes in everything that I believe to be true....
Rachel found that her present-day feelings of discomfort and depression echoed an earlier time, which she explored in a Steppingstones essay:
July 14. It was a time when I felt like a nobody and when I lost everything I thought was mine-including people I had counted on, home, as well as my own heart....
With some of her ACA issues in focus, Rachel used Unsent Letters to clarify her feelings about her father's recovery from alcoholism:
July 16. Dear Dad: I want you to get help but I don't believe you will.... Take the plunge. You have nothing more to lose.
Three weeks into the process, Rachel noticed a shift in her relationship with her journal:
July 18. I just reviewed the last few entries in comparison to the first. I must feel more comfortable-my handwriting is messier! Hello, journal!
The "disidentification" process continued with a list of " 100 Things I Am Not." Rachel followed up with:
July 20. I know now I will not die-knowledge I previously had in my head but not in my heart-and I will stay with this sadness as best I can.
This shift in awareness allowed her to verbalize long-denied anger and resentments:
July 28. I'm sick of it!! I'm sick of being in recovery and still feeling unclean and dishonest. I'm sick of sadness and pain. I'm sick of trying so hard and still not getting it. And I hate this journal for pointing it out to me all the time. I hate you, journal!!!
And as if this entry were the "labor pains" of her soul, the very next entry logged a dream:
August 1. I am pregnant and give birth to a girl. The labor is swift....
In a whimsical dialogue with her cat, Rachel received cogent feline advice:
August 2. CAT: Hey-loosen up. Be more like me-live in the moment, without judgment, get love where you can and purr a lot.
RACHEL: Yeah-well, it sounds good-but ...
CAT: Those endless buts! Let's go play!
An entry logging "current events" opened the door to more exploration of her anger:
August 7. Today I found out the divorce will be finalized in September. I feel angry about it-the whole sense of its being done to me as if the divorce is an entity of its own, going on about its way without taking my feelings into account.
In a Stream of Consciousness spiral, Rachel began with the word "Self" and circled her way around and around until she was finally able to break loose with the phrase "get angry," which she did in a journal dialogue with her husband. Her anger and hurt expressed at last, Rachel found a curious calm in an Unsent Letter to her husband:
August 15. The time has come to say good-bye. You're right-part of me has been attached to the pain and energy connected to the unresolved status of our relationship. I'll miss you.... As I write this, I realize I never had the chance to say good-bye and that's been part of my struggle to let go. So I use this time and space to say good-bye, to say I forgive you and wish you the best.... Adios. Good-bye. Love, Rachel.
Tender with harvested pain, Rachel ended this eight-week leg of her journey with a list entitled "Things I Am Grateful For."
We live out our lives in cycles. The tides ebb and flow. The moon blooms into fullness and recedes. We live a hundred tiny deaths from hour to hour. And as it did with Rachel, each death inevitably leads to rebirth.
Every time I begin a class, I ask the students what they want to gain from the experience. We create a list of "collective class goals," which usually includes items such as:
Get to know myself better
Learn how to use the journal for problem solving
Take time for myself Record my personal history
Get over a relationship
After everyone has had an opportunity to contribute to the collective list, I add the last one:
For the journal journey is not always dreary, heavy, or tumultuous. Sometimes, to be sure, the path is a steep uphill climb; sometimes it seems you're hiking down the Grand Canyon without a burro. But remember that your journal will log your joy just as faithfully as your pain, your laughter with as much expression as your tears, your triumphs in as much detail as your tragedies. Notice the parts of the journal journey that are playful, joyful, and exuberant, and write about them, too. Remember that rainbows are real, even if the pot of gold isn't.
Ready for the journey? There's not much to pack-only a notebook of your choice, a pen or pencil that feels good, and this trail map. If there's anything else that you need, just throw it in your backpack. And away we'll go!
Excerpted from Journal to the Self by Kathleen Adams Copyright © 1990 by Kathleen Adams. Excerpted by permission.
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