I remember seeing a therapist three times in my life: once as a near toddler after my family found that my grandfather…had boundary issues around kids, a few years later because I’d developed “violent tendencies,” and then several decades later when I was a twenty-something year old disabled adult living on my own and dealing with a tidy portfolio of chronic diseases.
Obviously I don’t remember much about my earliest visits; only that I made up my own rules for Candyland, and that I liked playing with a dollhouse where I’d fastidiously put every piece of furniture in place and position the dolls and got unreasonably upset when I came the next week to find it all knocked over again. The only thing I remember about the later ones was a family session where I sat with my mother and little brother and having to hold my breath to keep from screaming as the shrink basically said everything was my fault. (On a side note, I do not recommend holding your breath to contain some kind of strong emotion; I did that a lot as a kid and it really doesn’t help much in the long run.)
Most of my childhood experiences with therapy left an imprint on me – one that involved me being totally and utterly misunderstood, pushed aside, and left alone. I felt that nobody cared about me, about what I wanted, how I felt, or what I had to say, and that there was nobody to trust. So I became a very quiet kid, hiding out in coatrooms during family gatherings and Girl Scout meetings, quiet to the point that a few of my teachers thought I was physically unable to speak.
Since I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I wrote and drew. My earliest journal was a slim purple book with some lavender flower on the front and a list of prompts inside – stuff about my best friends, crushes, and favorite color. I can’t even look at it these days because what I actually wrote inside (aside from my favorite color and adoration of fluffy kittens) was so raw, angry, and painful that just seeing the cover inside my huge journal storage box makes me cringe a little. The next one, a bright yellow cover with cats all over it, was much the same. I even have a large black hardcover sketchbook from my dad where alongside drawings of kissy faces and bunny-girls are swirling vortexes, stick figures leaping off buildings, and “I want to die” scribbled in blue crayon. The sketchbook was from 1993 – I had just turned 11 years old.
Journals became my safe place. At first just to express myself, a place to be angry or sad when I wasn’t allowed to be in real life. To question why people teased me, why I felt a certain way, to regret things I did or didn’t do. As it (and I) evolved, it was where I hammered out my opinions about the world, picked at the edges of my own unnaturalness, decided where I stood and who I thought was worth standing with. Dreams were shared there – both my crazy nigthttime visions and what I hoped to accomplish in the world, and all the scariest things about myself. My journals all document the journey to who I am today – all in a safe(ish), judgement-free space.
I kept journals sporadically until high school when I rediscovered journaling and started using them to work through problems instead of just venting them. I called my books “scratch books” or “my other brain” because I did the bulk of my thinking in them. Through my journals, I was able to both express whatever feelings I had, reason them out, and then decide what, if anything, to do about them.
I don’t even know how many journals I have now – I keep them tucked away in a big old cardboard box. Slowly, I’ve been scanning them over the years into digital form where I can still look back on them, without worrying about them disintegrating over time or taking up valuable apartment storage space. And I still journal today, though most of my scribblings these days are keeping track of my medical minutia and appointments. But I’m still a huge supporter of the practice of journaling as a means of healing, gaining perspective, and generally coping with the insanity of living.
Happily, my adult experience with therapy was a much better one. But my journals will likely always be my first and main messy sandbox for working my way through my problems.
Do you have a journaling practice? Is it helpful in navigating life’s pitfalls? Tell me about your journaling experiences in the comments.