I should have been picking up my two sons at daycare. Instead, I was huddled in my car by a dumpster in a convenience store parking lot. Overwhelmed by a painful gust of anger, fear, shame and heartbreak that made it hard to breathe, I had no choice but to pull over. I needed to unpack my brain. I needed my journal.
But first, I needed this store’s help. For perhaps the first time in my adult life, I somehow didn’t pack a notebook in my bag that day. Corner stores, however, support a wide variety of vices, stationery included. When I spotted a coiled notepad on a dusty bottom shelf beside the motor oil and bungee cords, I felt as if I’d been tossed a life jacket.
Back in my car, as line after line of woe poured out of my pen and onto the pages, the pavement under my car—and the wider world—began to feel more solid. Air slowly refilled my lungs. My output was not as gracious as I imagine Joan Didion meant when she wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,” but for me the effect was the same. The pages even looked as sad as I felt as they caught my blobby tears and the ink ran and swirled.
At that point in my life, I was not a casual journal user. Though I’d always had some kind of diary in semi-frequent use since my teens, it had stopped being a cute hobby months ago. My marriage had ended and I wanted to trace what had happened. Why did I feel as if I’d landed flat on my face and had seemingly made no effort to brace my fall? What had I missed in my self-help books that might have saved me from this mess? And as I was now the Only Divorced Person In The Entire World, how would I live with this miserable, lonely shame? Surely my pen would lead me to some answers. Scratching away in my notebook several times a day for 12 pages at a stretch, I would feel something like understanding. Control. Or hope.
But then, without me noticing, something changed: journaling became a problem.
It was my gentle-but-tough therapist, Susan, who pointed it out one sunny afternoon in her office. “I think you should stop journaling,” she said. “Immediately.” Although she had encouraged my writing habits for therapeutic purposes for months, she now advised a cold, hard separation. I was stunned. Experts love journaling for boosting mental health—how it can help you slow down and take stock of your fears or worries, and then brainstorm solutions. In fact, many of the self-help books she’d recommended extolled the healing properties of journaling.
I’d dutifully done Susan Anderson’s exercises in her book The Journey from Abandonment to Healing where “Big Me” talked with “Little Me.” I’d write a dialogue where kid-me would say whatever she was feeling. Grown-up-me would then respond in a soothing way, acknowledging the lousy feelings and confirming that it does indeed suck to feel that way. But then, she’d offer adult logic and suggestions for action. (As my mom had long said “talking to yourself is okay as long as you don’t start answering back,” this activity felt strangely badass.) And I carried Christina Baldwin’s self-help book Life’s Companion: journal writing as a spiritual practice everywhere I went. (Sample exercise: “What’s the potential for growth here?”) Sometimes I’d just freestyle and let the words tumble out stream-of-thought style.
Pretty soon, any free time I found was spent with my notebook—or reading about how to better use my notebook. If I held tight to my pen and stayed committed to reflecting hard, how could all of this not get me back to being someone who didn’t wander around neighbourhood cemeteries wearing giant sunglasses and weeping?
But just as unrelenting self-absorption isn’t a great idea on social media or during coffee dates with friends, it can also be unhelpful in your handsome Moleskine. A journal’s creamy pages and pretty pens can help foster a decidedly unhealthy pleasure in wallowing in puddles of sad-sackedness. It was kind of like pouring vinegar on my wounds, keeping them fresh and deriving some kind of weird pleasure from hanging out with the pain. A lousy loop had formed: I was miserable and I began to believe that my journal was the only way out of the misery. Alas, my notebook had me trapped.
As the months wore on, my comforting habit had locked me into my own head. Instead of looking out, I was holding the mirror up to my own sniffling nose. This made me want to cry even harder. The possibility that I was tiptoeing from introspection to narcissism was not cool. And it was also no way to move on.
My therapist’s journaling-detox plan? Read books. Fiction. No self-help stuff. Detective novels. She also suggested I consider, say, watching TV for a while. I was skeptical at first. If I looked away from my woeful problems, how would they ever be solved? But I was also afraid. What if I was no longer able to let go and relax enough to watch, say, Friday Night Lights? Could I forget myself enough to tag along with P.D. James’ Inspector Adam Dalgliesh’s gentlemanly crime-solving? It turns out, yes. With ease. Books and television shows is what tethered me back to the real world. Although I thought I’d been mindful when I was journaling, I realized I’d just been going over the same old stuff.
A few months was all it took. And today, as a recovering journal addict, I’m far more conscious of its importance to me for playful purposes. I’ll make dates with it. For instance, we aim to hang out a few times a week at the kitchen table before the kids get up. (Although cute picnic tables in parks or cafe tables definitely make my output smarter.) I’m still soothed every time I open to a fresh, new page. But I’m careful now to treat my journal more like a friend. I’ll still share insights, complaints and secrets, but I’ll also look up and around to write thoughts about a broader issue or an idea. Sometimes I’ll just doodle. Blabbing all-about-me in a dull, unrelenting way is no fun for anyone—especially me.
Julie McCann is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. She teaches journalism at Algonquin College.