How my diary transitioned from a survival and coping tool to a self-healing tool
“…for years I have been searching, seeking my identity, my purpose, my meaning, in life. Years. I’ve concluded that I am a prisoner to myself…
I have had some hard lessons. I know I can live with myself only if I accept that my mistakes, my bad experiences, can be the catalyst, the seed, for new beginnings and fulfillment.
I find great difficulty in understanding myself, my behaviour, but I must try to understand myself, my fears, my needs, if I am to correct myself and live out the rest of my life free from the nasty inhibitions that have plagued my inner self for so long.”
–June Alexander (Diary entry, age 38)
My first diary, a Christmas gift in the same year I developed anorexia nervosa at age 11, provided above all, comfort. The first entry, on January 1, 1963, is crammed with minute details such as the time and amounts of food consumed and exercise taken, and the time of awakening and going to bed. Until the diary arrived, all these secret thoughts had been crowding in my head with nowhere to go. Sharing them with my new friend the diary somehow helped me to feel less anxious. When I transitioned into anorexia-bulimia in adolescence, more self-expression is evident. Words tumbled out, as I tried to make sense of thoughts and feelings. My world was small. There was the diary, and me. Not for many years would I learn there was also the eating disorder, and that the diary’s influence extended far beyond the two of us.
The illness, like the diary, thrived on privacy—and encouraged the keeping of secrets. As a child and young woman, my diaries were safe places in which to express and analyse thoughts, and develop coping strategies. But, without guidance, confiding in the diary also strengthened the eating disorder, its unrelenting and stringent demands becoming increasingly impossible to meet. Nothing I did was enough and the rules of the illness became secrets within secrets that had to be guarded and hidden. For years, the diary was my only outlet. By age 28, my diary had recorded an almost complete disconnection of self from body.
Moving from secrets to truth
Trust was essential in transforming the diary from a secret-keeper that aligned with my illness, to a healing tool for my true self. I had several U-turn shifts in healing from severe and long term anorexia nervosa. First, at age 28, when I sought help for the first time, and second, in my early 30s, when I met the health professional who gained my trust. Development of trust is vital because one needs to trust the therapist more than the powerful eating disorder thoughts within. Outwardly, I presented as a wife and mother with a full-time career but within, the diary revealed a desperate struggle to honour daily lists and pledges, for instance, having a strict weight limit; running a set distance; and noting every calorie. At age 28, thoughts of suicide after 17 years with the disorder drove me to break the silence, and reveal the thoughts hitherto confined to my diaries, to a doctor. He and other doctors, upon learning I kept a diary, encouraged the continuance of such writing as a tool for expression. However, like me, those doctors were ignorant of the diary’s potential to play a pivotal role in my illness, and of its ability to be a foe as well as friend. Eventually, in my 30s, a psychiatrist gained my trust and suggested the diary could assist my healing process. He encouraged its use as a means to engage in written communication with him. Gradually, aided by patient, therapeutic guidance and discussion, what I wrote in my diary began to reconnect with and strengthen authentic thoughts and feelings. Self-abuse and self-harm gave way to self-care as my body and mind progressively reintegrated.
Decades later, at age 55, I healed sufficiently to re-enter life’s mainstream. As I “came out” and began to share my story publicly, the diaries “came out” too. For instance, besides providing the main resource for my memoir, A Girl Called Tim (2011), the diaries became a pool of documented “lived experience,” for other literary works. In another outcome, people with experience of eating disorders wrote to share their stories, which until now had been revealed only, if at all, in their diary. Many adult readers wrote at length, explaining that they had felt isolated and had kept their eating disorders a secret for decades, but upon reading, connecting and identifying with my story, were able to share and externalize their thoughts and experiences for the first time.
Reflecting on the responses from readers sparked recognition that perhaps my friend the diary had been destructive as well as constructive throughout my long illness, leading to my latest book, Using Writing as a Therapeutic Tool for Eating Disorders –The Diary Healer.