How My Journal Became My Therapy Weapon
Humans are forgetful, and part of therapy is learning how to remember important things.
When my job counselor, Nadia, asked me what I thought my strengths were in terms of work, I couldn't answer her.
Because frankly, I couldn't remember.
It was August 2017 when she and I first sat down to discuss employment options under the Lighthouse Project, and the last time I had worked confidently was earlier that year in March. I hadn't been able to remember how I had managed to work so well, or how I landed myself in an "unemployable" situation in the first place.
I knew I came to Toronto from my hometown of Vancouver, BC around this time of year in 2016, but the rest of the year was a stressed, dark blur to me, and I couldn't pinpoint why.
My mother is a published writer and was a proliferous web-novelist and freestyle writer on a Korean newspaper website up until the 2010s when she had to give it up for more stable income. Books and journal keeping were two things she always emphasized in the family home, and whenever we would feel troubled by our emotions growing up, she would always tell us to write it down.
Mom also kept her own journal ever since she was in high school, apparently. The ones that survived were the ones she wrote in the 90s, shortly after marrying Dad (It didn't start out as a happy relationship, although Mom's told me lately that she misses him as he works away in Korea 11 months in a year).
I used to hate journal writing. I preferred writing out my fantasies of my favourite cartoon characters (they call that "fan fiction" now) rather than the reflections of my own reality. I was bullied a lot in school, right up to graduation, so the idea of facing this self that I had grown to hate so much wasn't something I was willing to do, even if you bribed me.
As I got older, though, and the more my fantasies had failed me and the more my own writing began to make me cringe, I started writing journals more often. Not going to lie, though, the one that really kickstarted the whole process was my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. MacMillian. When we were assigned a free-write, she got angered by how I chose to ignore my own mind by writing out shallow fantasies instead. She challenged me to start facing myself, and if it hadn't been for her, I don't think I would've made the revelation I did today that made me sit down and write this article.
While my friends back in Vancouver were stuck between a weird purgatory between Peter Pan Syndrome and a deep-seated rejection of their realities, I was writing away my concerns in either song or diary entries. But even then, I kept hitting a wall. Long story short, that wall led to my arrival in Toronto shortly after graduating university, leaving the old Neverland behind.
My first year in Toronto landed me in a boiling pot of black tar. My first time living alone might have been made bearable had it not been for the fact that I was struggling in a graduate program that I was obviously not welcomed into by my peers, who were also supposed to be my potential teammates for the year-end capstone. Fun...
Through the tears and the shakes and the numb pain I would feel every night when alone in my eerily quiet sharehouse room, I wrote out as much as I could. From August 29th, 2016 to April 7th, 2017, I wrote out page after page after page of twisted emotions that I had difficulty reaching out to others for reassurance for. The emotions that had wrangled my relationship with my family and threatened to end my dreams of becoming an arts manager were forcibly squashed into rows of scribbled writing every other night.
In the moment, when I was without any immediate assistance and spent most of my time alone... the journals didn't really do much except for keep record of how I felt.
Looking back on it now, though, that record-keeping was an unconscious attempt at future-proofing.
You see, I wasn't sure if I would survive the year, let alone longer. Nothing was panning out because I was too busy writing everything down and not acting upon it (something I learned from CBT therapy in the North York General Day Hospital). Obviously, since I lacked proper support networks (especially after realizing at Christmas time just how meaningless my relationships in Neverland Vancouver were all this time), by late April of 2017, I crashed and would be admitted into an ER psychiatric ward at North York General about five months later.
I hadn't even touched the journal since, except for when I was packing my things this past August. It wasn't until today that I sat down and spent a good amount of time with the darn thing.
The journal is leather-bound with a leather strap wrapping around the book to keep it closed with a knot. The pages are lined and thicker than printer paper. My sister knew how much I loved the vintage aesthetic and knew that I still wrote in my journal, so she had bought it for me as a gift. It's a beautiful notebook that I had neglected for far too long.
Just from the first flip through the passages, some entries shocked me.
According to my journal entries, I had started showing signs of my current depression relapse on October 5th, 2016. Things started getting serious on October 19th, 2016. But, I didn't start seeking help until May of the following year.
All this time, in the midst of therapy and picking myself up again, and meetings with Nadia at Lighthouse, I thought that my symptoms had begun showing in early 2018, or around Christmas 2017 when I went back to meet people in Vancouver for the holidays. What I hadn't realized was that my symptoms had already been forming shortly after arriving in Toronto—the shock of starting a new life in a new place far from my family was apparently just too much for me.
All this time, I was grasping at my memories and my dreams, trying to figure out what my identity was and whether I should dispose of the one I vaguely remembered. I rifled through my shaky handwriting in purple and black inks in an attempt to find it, but what I found was far more valuable: that I had already formed an evolved identity based on my experiences laid out in the leather-bound pages. Had I not gone through that journal, I wouldn't have come to that realization, and my therapy would have come to an abrupt and violent halt.
It's easy to say "My time at Humber sucked. I hated it there," but it's another to really go into the details and explain why. That's where journals come in—for everything we vaguely have a grasp of from our memories, the journals put them into focus for us. We might not be able to figure out our handwriting sometimes, or we may have to rifle through a folder of digital entries to find the right one, but it's never lost. It's never forgotten.
And the best part is that we're able to reflect in retrospect. Reading through my journal entries from 2016 to 2017 made me feel like I was looking into the life of a mildly familiar stranger: I would agree with some things my past self said, but I would also disagree with her. It felt like I was having a silent conversation with myself. I was able to remember the details from the parts that the journal entries had left out, simply because the entries triggered the rest of the neurons in-charge of completing that scene in my head. Combining both the past and present perspectives in my mind, I was able to understand exactly where I had done wrong. But most importantly, I was also able to understand what I had done right, regardless of the final result. From these two perspectives, I was slowly learning to love myself by forgiving.
There are seven more entries that I wrote in the psychiatric ward after I was rushed to ER, but they aren't located in my leather journal. (My partner managed to remember, so early on in our relationship, that I had a notebook in my backpack that I would carry with me everywhere. Before leaving me at the hospital, he left it in the nurses' possession.) Where I wrote the entries doesn't decide how much I value those entries. Like Mom always says: "No piece of writing is unimportant." Even shopping lists have a purpose!
During my time in university, I had hated writing because I was aware of how terribly underdeveloped my skills in it were compared to my experience. However, in my darkest times, the one thing I relied on the most in a house I was forced to be silent in was a leather-bound notebook and a set of nice pens.
My case file with Lighthouse Project closed this past August, as I had managed to secure full-time employment and a lasting relationship with the seasonal-based company I was fortunate to work for. I'm currently seeking therapy in other places that can be covered by my public health care (Feels great to be Canadian!).
If Nadia were to ask me what my strengths are in a job now, I would tell her: "Something with a lot of writing..."