Finding self-direction through daily writing

By June Alexander

Twenty minutes a day is all it takes. Writing in your diary for 20 minutes each day can help you to feel in control of your life. You can write in your diary anywhere, at any time of the day. You can use pen or paper, a tablet or even a cell phone.

Regular diary-writing can help you feel you are leading a life that is true to you. It does this by helping you to connect with and strengthen thoughts and feelings that belong to your healthy self. It helps your mind and body be one. When experiencing negative thoughts and behaviours, you tend to lead a life that is only part full. The good news is that daily writing, especially when shared with an experienced mentor, can help you to reconnect more fully with your healthy self.

Do you ever feel trapped, and annoyed and angry at yourself for giving into these powerful but negative, self-defeating thoughts?  As one reader, who is in her fifties and has had an eating disorder for many years, wrote this morning, ‘it is like being caught in a powerful spider’s web, and I can’t get out’. I understand, because I was there, stuck in the illness web, for decades, too. If you are feeling stuck today, it is important to remember that you are not being weak. You have an illness and need help to get out.

Diary writing helped me to get out of my eating disorder, anxiety and depression, and now I am in a position to be a mentor and through the diary-writing process, to help you. 

It can be easier to write than talk
At some innate level, you may know the real ‘you’ is ‘there’, or you may think this is how life is: that the way you feel is normal. Certainly, I thought this, for a long time. Or you may realise you have negative thoughts and feelings, but don’t know how to free yourself from them. Writing in your diary about how you feel is important. Writing can help you find a way when others might think you are self-centred or ‘lost’.

Reading works by experts in the field of narrative medicine field (for examples, see references to Pennebaker, White and Epston, and Bolton) helped me to understand why since childhood I preferred writing to, rather than talking with, therapists and family, throughout my illness and why writing has been pivotal not only to recovery but to creating a life beyond the illness.

Pouring feelings into your diary, in whatever form feels right, can help sustain life until bit by bit you can adequately nourish your body, and gain the skill to examine emotions, follow them to their source, and link them to events in your life. Secrets, when buttressed by starvation, chaotic eating, and inadequate nourishment or other forms of self-abuse, can form a wall between your life’s narrative and emotional truth.

Writing is a form of conversation
Writing provides a way of expressing emotions instead of repressing them, and with guidance this process of writing can help you feel better about yourself. By tracing feelings back to traumatic events, and reflecting on them, you can defuse their power to affect you in the present. When my treatment team encouraged me to do this, even though many years had passed, I began to experience calm instead of chaos and peace instead of torment.

I gained sufficient self-awareness to realise when ‘something is bothering me’, and became more able to follow the feeling, find the cause and attend to it. This skill allowed decision-making to occur without feeling overly anxious or defaulting to self-harming behaviours such as restricting food intake or binge eating to ease distress.

Your diary can help others to help you
I was in my 30s when a psychiatrist gained my trust and suggested I could use my diary to assist the healing process by drawing on it in engaging in written communication with him. Gradually, aided by patient, therapeutic guidance, what I wrote in my diary began to reconnect with 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, upon healing sufficiently to re-enter life’s mainstream, I departed a journalism career to reflect on these decades of diary writing and write a memoir.

As I ‘came out’ and began to share my story publicly, the diaries ‘came out’ too. For instance, besides providing the main data source for my memoir, A Girl Called Tim(2011), they became a resource pool of documented ‘lived experience’, assisting the dissemination of science-based knowledge and evidence-based treatments in books for health professionals and mainstream readers.

Sharing our stories in a safe place can help us, and others
In another outcome, the creation of a
websiteas a companion to the memoir led to people with experience of eating disorders writing to say they had ‘connected’ with my story in a way that gave them ‘permission’ to share their stories until now revealed only, if at all, in their diary. Adult readers wrote at length, explaining they had felt isolated and had kept their eating disorders a secret since childhood, but upon reading and identifying with my story, were able to share and externalise their thoughts and experiences for the first time.

Reflecting on the reader responses sparked recognition that perhaps my friend the diary had been destructive as well as constructive throughout my long illness. This revelation in turn became the catalyst for my PhD in Creative Writing, investigating how diary entries from multiple diarists might be used in writing a book.

A writing mentor can help
My research and reflection also led to the conclusion that my diary could have played a far different role in shaping my life if a writing mentor with experience in eating disorders had worked with me when my eating disorder developed in childhood.  A writing mentor who gained my trust sufficiently for me to feel safe in sharing my diary writings with them would have recognized from the very first entry that I had a serious eating disorder. 

Today I encourage use of the narrative as a therapeutic and self-healing tool for people of all ages. When we do not feel confident enough to speak, often, in a trusting environment, we can feel safe in expressing our thoughts on paper. When trust is formed with a writing mentor, gentle guidance can be provided in confronting and addressing painful feelings and strengthening the healthy self.

To inquire about engaging me as your writing mentor, I invite you to send an email to: june@junealexander.com

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