At the suggestion of a school counselor, I started journaling when I was 16.
“First,” Ms. Liz told me during our introductory session, “write about normal, everyday things. Like what you do at school, what you eat, future plans. When you’re a few months in, add in reflections about how you feel at the end of each day. In a year or so you’ll be ready to write about your past — you have trouble opening up, yes? We all need to vent out loud, to accept what’s happened to us, so that we can move on and be happy. Doing so by writing means keeping things to ourselves but becoming better ready to accept them.”
Sounded like bullshit. Still, I’d run out of options. Sordid memories haunted my sleep, school was increasingly difficult, and social interaction was excruciating.
So I did it. I bought a spiral-bound notebook from a run-down Kmart knockoff, Rose’s, for $0.99 and began writing. My first entry, dated June 22, 2003, fell on the day my estranged father married a delusional woman who pretended to host a radio show from her bedroom closet. I had no problem in Entry 1 jumping to Journaling Step 2, Reflection: “Woman is friggin’ CRAZY,” I wrote.
My family — ahem, my “guardians,” comprising my brother and sister-in-law who, gracious as they were taking me in after my mother’s death in order to save me from my father, seemed to despise me — were unwilling to pay for professional therapy and were indifferent to my travails; overworked school counselors acted in their stead. It was unsurprising, then, that Ms. Liz had forgotten all about me six months after our first meeting.
“Hi, Ms. Liz,” I said as I entered her office for our second session. “Do you have any Krispy Kreme donuts?” — she’d had them during our first meeting and we talked extensively about our shared love for the Traditional Glazed.
She met me blank-faced and stuck out her hand.
“I’m sorry, have we talked before?”
Disappointment engulfed me. She doesn’t remember me. But… How? The things I’d told her… The excitement I felt to see her again—
“Yes, you told me to keep a journal — a journal about my past. Remember? And we talked about how excited we were when we saw the ‘fresh baked’ sign outside Krispy Kreme?”
“I see a lot of kids, Justin. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I imagined this wasn’t the first time she’d forgotten a troubled student. But I didn’t want her to feel bad. “I know you’re probably really busy.”
Her not recognizing me killed any chance at a productive conversation. She asked me the same questions she had before, only this time she wasn’t listening to my answers. She studied my face as I spoke, as if for the full thirty minutes we met — thirty minutes that took a lifetime to schedule with her — she spent trying to remember me.
Who then to turn to? Friends? Friends I could confide in, maybe. They wouldn’t forget me.
But no. Friends wouldn’t understand my trials. I’m certain many of them remembered my outbursts in second and third grade, when I screamed in class for what to them seemed no reason, but for me were reactions to hallucinations of Gene, the man who’d shot himself in front of my mother and me when I was six — he’d watch over me in class, half his face intact, dripping blood on my construction paper.
My peers taunted me as a kid, for being “psycho.” I began stuttering so badly that teachers asked me not to raise my hand in class (my contributions would take too long to enunciate) and that they’d reserve special time during recess to work with me “one-on-one.” No, confiding in friends wasn’t an option. I wouldn’t risk holding the mantle of head case again.
So I turned to my journal, the only thing — friend — who’d listen. I cried and laughed in its pages. I told it things for which I was most proud, most devastated, most infuriated. It was everything to me: my reason for coming home from school, the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.
I credit my sanity as a teenager, and now as an adult, to keeping a journal. Tedious and often painful, simply spelling things out may not have had an immediate effect, but its tendrils were lasting and profound. It takes only a peek into old journals to see it.
Keep one. Yeah, you. And if you need some advice:
- Write by hand IN INK — let your mistakes show
- Cheap journals are the best (they listen better)
- Keep up with it at least weekly, but don’t give up if you miss a month
- Date and number every entry (to track how far you’ve come)
- And, for good measure, inscribe it with “This is the journal of ____. Keep out or die. Hugs.”