The evolution of a diary into a self-healer

My first diary was a Christmas gift in 1962, the same year I developed anorexia nervosa. I was 11 years old. The diary and I bonded immediately and diary-writing has been part of my life every day since. The entry for January 1, 1963, is crammed with details of food consumed, exercise taken, the time of awakening and going to bed, and cricket results. In adolescence, words tumbled out, as I tried to make sense of my thoughts and feelings. My world was small. There was the diary, and me. Not for many years would I learn there was also the eating disorder, and that the diary’s influence extended far beyond the two of us.

The illness, like the diary, thrived on privacy. As a child and young woman, my diaries were safe places in which to express and analyze thoughts and develop coping strategies. But unbeknown to me, confiding in the diary also strengthened the eating disorder, its unrelenting and stringent demands becoming increasingly impossible to meet. Nothing I did was enough, and the rules of the illness became secrets within secrets that had to be guarded and hidden from others. By age 28, my diary had recorded an almost complete disconnection of self from body. 

Outwardly, I presented as a wife and mother with a full-time career in journalism but within, the diary revealed a desperate struggle to honor daily lists and pledges, for instance, having a strict weight limit; running a set distance, and noting every calorie. Thoughts of suicide after 17 years with the disorder drove me to break the silence, and reveal the thoughts hitherto confined to my diaries, to a doctor. This doctor and other doctors, upon learning I kept a diary, encouraged the continuance of such writing as a tool for expression. However, like me, they were ignorant of the diary’s potential to play a pivotal role in my illness, and of its ability to be a foe as well as a friend. Eventually, in my 30s, a psychiatrist gained my trust and suggested the diary could assist the healing process and encouraged its use as a means to engage in written communication with him. Gradually, aided by the patient, therapeutic guidance, what I wrote in my diary began to reconnect me with my 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 live true to my healthy self, I departed my journalism career to reflect on these decades of diary writing and to 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. The creation of the forerunner of this website as a companion to the memoir had another unexpected outcome. People with experience of eating disorders began writing to say they had ‘connected’ with my story in a way that gave them ‘permission’ to share their own stories until now revealed only, if at all, in their diary. Many adult readers wrote to me privately at length, explaining that they had felt isolated and had kept their eating disorder/s a secret for decades. However, upon reading, connecting, and identifying with my story, they were able to share and externalize their thoughts and experiences for the first time. 

Reflecting on the responses from readers 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 another book, this time investigating how diary entries might be used in writing a book exploring how the process of diary writing can be a tool for self-healing and renewal.

The story behind The Diary Healer

In January 2014, I set out on a literary journey with more than 70 strangers. They had responded to an invitation I posted in a blog on my website, asking if diarists with experience of an eating disorder would like to participate in a book. I had met none of them face-to-face and was unaware of their ages or countries of origin. Over the ensuing 30 months, my work with these diarists would form the basis for my PhD, investigating how diary entries can be used to write a book. The book, as a creative work, explores diary writing as a recording, healing, and therapeutic tool, while the accompanying exegesis, the critical interpretation of my work, seeks to drill down to examine the essence of the diary genre and how it could be used to write a book. This process would involve drawing on, and reviewing, the layers of interaction between each of the 70 co-travellers and myself, the threads that bound us, and furthermore, the techniques involved in utilizing this material as a source and foundation for literary endeavor. The creative work, a book titled Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders: The Diary Healer (hereto called The Diary Healer) was the outcome. Routledge published this work in July 2016. 

The Diary Healer book, on which The Diary Healer website is based, integrates the voices and experiences of the 70 respondents with my own, exploring the role and use of diary writing as a coping, survival and healing tool, and how diary writing can be a tool for self-healing and renewal. Preparation for this literary mission required transitioning more fully from being a diarist to an observer of my diaries and, subsequently, also the diaries of others. In standing back and looking in, I was shocked to discover the extent to which the diary had been an accomplice in my own illness. The two had been in collusion over many years. Yet, despite this deceit, diary writing had helped me to function and survive, during decades of chronic mental illness. Moreover, with the right therapeutic intervention, the diary had helped me to reconnect with and reconstruct, a long-suppressed true identity. My diaries had helped me to develop the ability and skills to live a full, rather than part, life. But did my healing journey have to be so long and tortuous? How much did the diary help and how much did it hinder my recovery? Could the diary have provided a more pro-active role in healing? I wanted to find out. 

Writing a memoir (A Girl Called Tim) had helped to place the illness in the context of my life and to relate with others. Now I wanted to learn about the diary’s usefulness more widely, and explore its status as a literary genre. An investigation revealed scant reference in eating disorder literature on the effect of diary writing. As well, there was a dearth of evidence-based literature on the diary’s influence during the process of disconnection and reconnection between body and identity. 

These discoveries inspired the concept for The Diary Healer book and The Diary Healer website. The book explains the pitfalls and benefits of diary writing and, specifically, explores the ambivalent relationship with body and identity that could occur when experiencing an eating disorder. Furthermore, it studies the role of the diary in self-healing and renewal. 

Consideration of submissions, from diarists who had responded to my blog invitation, gave rise to telling the story from two viewpoints – that of diarists, and of scholars. The approach allowed both myself and other people with experience of eating disorders to ‘speak’ through the written narratives of our private diaries. My challenge was to contextualize and have these voices heard alongside the backdrop of evidence from researchers. This technique created a text that offered fresh perspectives on the diary’s potential to motivate and assist healing, and moreover, excitingly provides the platform for the new-look Diary Healer website.

The Diary Healer’s fresh-look for you

If you’ve been following the Dear Diary blog for a while, you will notice The Diary Healer website has a new look. I invite you to explore the pages at your leisure and to get in touch if you would like more information about any of my services or would like to contribute to the blog. Above all, I hope you find this site a safe and supportive place to visit for understanding, comfort, connection, hope, and inspiration. 

To assist with managing the ever-increasing communication with The Diary Healer,  I have welcomed Sarah Cannata on board. Increasingly, since we met almost two years ago, Sarah has been assisting with the everyday operation and administration of The Diary Healer. She brings enthusiasm, life experience, and highly professional expertise in communication to the site. She helps me to help you. Most recently, Sarah has worked closely with me to redesign The Diary Healer to create a welcoming, warm, and cosy feel, and to emphasise that everyone, including you, has a story to tell. 

Regardless of where you are in your journey — if you’ve journaled extensively in the past or have never written a word — you’re in the right place at The Diary Healer. I am passionate about sharing my expertise in diary writing, memoir writing mentoring, and editing. My wish is forThe Diary Healer site to assist with your own ongoing growth and healing, and engagement in the fullness of life. I invite you to get in touch through any of the many forms on the site. Sarah and I are here to help. The Diary Healer is for you, as well as for us. 

Story-sharing in a safe and supportive environment like The Diary Healer can nurture a sense of belonging and purpose. Such is the power of storytelling.

A quick word from Sarah

June and I met quite randomly through a mutual contact. I do not believe in coincidence. Deep down, I know that our paths have crossed for a reason. What instantly drew me to June is her warmth and the immediate connection I felt, which in my experience, hardly ever happens. We had walked a similar road and, like June, my goal is to harness the pain and suffering and to channel it into positive energy. I am deeply passionate about writing. I have experienced first-hand how writing can become the difference between life and death. I have had the privilege of working closely with June on The Diary Healer site and other literary projects. June is kindly (and patiently) teaching me the art of memoir writing mentoring and healing through writing. Meanwhile, if you see my name popping up every now and again on the site, you’ll know why.

June Alexander

About June Alexander

I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.

All articles by June Alexander

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