Writing Home: Finding Myself Through Journaling

by Lisa P.

It was the first day of my junior year of high school, and my English teacher had just handed each of us a blank notebook.

“You’re all going to keep journals this year,” she said. “I’ll periodically collect them to count pages—not to read—so I want you to feel like you can be totally open and honest.” She told us that our final exam would be writing a paper about our observations of how we’d grown through our journal writings from the entire school year.

I’d always loved to write and had kept a diary in the past. But after a bad experience a couple of years before involving my mother reading my diary (“I thought you were writing a book!”) and discovering my growing interest in having sex with my boyfriend, I’d basically sworn off putting anything in writing. But this, I thought, might be different. It was a school notebook, after all. No reason for anyone to go snooping there!

Or so I thought. One night in February, I received a call at the restaurant where I waitressed—I’d best come home right away. My parents had indeed read my journal, and something they’d found in it had prompted a thorough search of my room, which turned up the following: a bottle of vermouth one of my brother’s friends had left after an impromptu “the parents are away for the weekend” house party; a copy of Playgirl magazine; a racy thong and an NC-17-rated Christmas card given to me by some of the kitchen staff at the restaurant; and what was left of a stale pack of cigarettes. I was grounded for a month, and I never saw the journal or any of the offending items again. I wrote the paper about how my trust and privacy had been violated, but never again had the urge to put my thoughts and feelings into writing. Until recently.

I participated in the inaugural Kripalu Healthy Holidays online program last fall, in which instructor Jennifer Young talked about journal writing as a means to deal with stress. Despite my daily meditation practice, I was still stressed out—about parenting, work, my long-distance relationship, finances. I was feeling the physical effects—trouble sleeping, irritability, tension in my neck and shoulders, and overeating. I thought about it, and realized her words were true. When I’m dealing with a problem, I often feel better after writing a long e-mail to a friend. A couple of years ago, when my boyfriend, CC, spent the summer in Alaska without phones or Internet, I spent hours writing long letters to him about what was going on at work or with the kids. He rarely read them—claimed my handwriting was illegible—but writing and reading the letters helped me see the situations differently. Issues that seemed huge at the time—an incident involving one of my sons at school, a workplace drama, an argument with my mother—seemed almost comical, or at least less traumatic, after I’d rehashed them on paper.

First, though, I had to find the perfect journal. I spent hours scouring stores—Barnes & Noble, Amazon, the Kripalu Shop—but nothing seemed right. I put it on my Christmas list: Maybe something sparkly, with a periwinkle cover, wide-ruled, and not spiral bound? I wondered if there was a reason I was making this journal nearly impossible to find. And then, on Christmas Day, I received the perfect journal from my son—a beautiful blue notebook that he had painstakingly covered with glitter, green rhinestones, and silver ribbon. Still, I found a reason not to start immediately. It was going to be my New Year’s resolution.

On the evening of January 1, I reached for the journal and decided that instead of writing about my intentions for the coming year, I would just write about what was bothering me and what scared me. For 27 pages, I vented about my feelings of inadequacy as I swam through the deep end of single parenting, hoping to raise children who were intelligent, well adjusted, and happy. I ranted about my parents and how their lack of trust was still affecting my life, 20 years after that diary incident. I wrote about my relationships—with my friends, my boyfriend, my children—and how I often felt I was failing at those. By the time I was done, I was tired and emotionally drained, but I felt good. There was a lot of negativity in that first journal entry and, in all honesty, there’s a lot in the subsequent ones, too. But I always feel better after I write.

Of course, I no longer have to worry about my mother reading my journal, which makes a huge difference. I find I’m able to say exactly what I want—no matter how inappropriate, risqué, or silly it may sound. When I first started, I assumed journaling would help me deal with the daily stressors of my job, parenting, life in general. But a happy byproduct has been the way that writing down my thoughts, feelings, and fears has helped me to be a better mother. I’m able to express my worries or anger and evaluate what’s really bothering me, instead of immediately reacting. Often, instead of yelling at my sons over something that isn’t really at the root of my anger, I run from the situation to write down exactly what I’m feeling. By the time I emerge from my room, I’ve usually figured out that it wasn’t the underwear in the middle of the living room floor or the homework left at school that was eating at me. It was the argument I had with a co-worker, or the bill that wasn’t getting paid this week because I just didn’t have the money.

Months in, I continually return to one piece of advice from Jennifer: “Holding in, willing ourselves through, ignoring our feelings, moving on, all lead to physical and mental stress,” she said. “By taking a moment to check in with your body, what is happening—the physical response to writing about your deepest thoughts—you can figure out why you’re feeling this way.” It sounds so simple—and it is.

You don’t have to write 27 pages. One of my entries simply says, “Hate.” Another, “Breathe.” A favorite: “There is nothing better than cuddles on the couch with my sons.”

I still get cranky and stressed at work. I still reach for things that aren’t good for me (chocolate, butter, the TV remote) more than I’d like to admit. But these days, I reach for a pen as often as the Munchos, and always feel just as satisfied. Now if only I could write in my journal while using the elliptical.

Lisa is Editorial Director at Kripalu.

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