William Cope Moyers is executive director of Hazelden’s Center for Public Advocacy and author of “A New Day, A New Life,” a 365-day guided journal for people in early recovery from addiction. In 1989, he landed in a New York City psychiatric ward following a 15-year struggle against alcohol and other drugs. When his mother came to visit, she brought him a $1.79 Mead notebook and the suggestion that he write down his thoughts and experiences. Her suggestion launched a practice he continued throughout four treatments for drug addiction, a cancer diagnosis, and his present day recovery.
“At first I didn’t know what to do with the notebook,” writes Moyers. “I was emerging from the fog of an addiction that had numbed me to the real world for too long. One day I picked up the notebook and began to write. Those journal entries became touchstones; a ‘real time’ recording of what I had experienced during the long and often arduous journey on the road of recovery. But more than anything, those thousands of words and sentences and paragraphs and pages remain a potent and heartfelt reminder to me of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.”
After 10 years of sobriety, in 2004, those journal entries and more became the basis for Moyers’s memoir, “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption.”
Like Moyers, many people have discovered the healthy benefits of journal keeping. Emotions that threaten to consume us when we struggle to hold them inside ourselves can lose some of their power when we put pen to paper or sit down at our keyboard and release them. Writing about our thoughts, experiences, fears, confusion and joys helps us examine our emotions more objectively and understand better why we act and react the way we do.
There is no right or wrong way to keep a journal. Cynthia Orange, a writing teacher from St. Paul, Minn., who has written extensively on addiction and recovery, suggests that people simply sit down and make a contract with themselves to write for five or 10 minutes each day. “It works well to set a timer and write until the bell goes off,” she says. “Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or whether or not your writing makes sense. Just write. Sometimes it helps to use a repetitive phrase like, ‘I used to . . . , but now I . . .’ Just start out listing whatever comes to mind and follow your thoughts wherever they lead.”
She stresses that journals aren’t just “negative dumping grounds,” but places to record positive thoughts as well. She suggests recording a “blessing a day” in a journal. “Each night before you go to bed, list the gifts you were given that day–anything that made your heart lighter, even for a moment. It’s a great way to fall asleep in what recovering people call ‘an attitude of gratitude.’ ”
Orange also says that while journal keeping is not a substitute for therapy or treatment, it helps people synthesize their own experiences and can create a bridge to understanding others with whom they might be in conflict. She suggests doing a “journal conversation” with someone with whom you frequently disagree.
“Address the person on the page and let him or her ‘talk back’ to you,” says Orange. “Just write without analyzing each statement and response. Often you will discover that by the end of this exercise your compassion for the other person has grown and your anger has diminished.”
People in recovery learn to accept what they cannot change, seek the courage to change what they can, and pray for the wisdom to know the difference. These goals make sense for all of us, and a journal is a safe place to sort out what we can and cannot control. As we sort, we are better able to let go of the things over which we have no control and get clearer on the course of action we can take to make necessary changes.
Published October 11, 2008