Understanding the healing power and teaching potential of daily diary-writing

Six months after developing anorexia nervosa, at age 11, I received a diary as a Christmas gift. The diary and I  became inseparable. Nobody told me to write or gave guidance in what to write. I just did.

More than 60 years later, my diaries fill a bookcase. These books document decades of mental health and trauma struggles. One day at a time, they have recorded my life. Today they help to shape and strengthen my authenticity, and are a resource in writing books about eating disorders, but it wasn’t always this way.

From the start, the diary seemed a friend, confidante and coping tool. However, journeying through childhood and adolescence, into young adulthood and beyond involves maneuvering through a complicated map at the best of times. With an eating disorder, the challenges and pitfalls multiply rapidly. My diaries reflect this struggle. As I proceeded into adulthood, I lost direction. For decades I became consumed with the search to regain myself.

The eating disorder infiltrated my diary as well as me

Reading the diaries, and reflecting on their content, helps 71-year-old me to understand how the disintegration and healing of myself took place. Firstly I had to absorb the shocking revelation that this small book that has been a friend, as intimate as one can be with the written word, has not always been what it seemed.

The eating disorder, besides embedding itself in my brain, also surreptitiously infiltrated my diaries. Often, while pouring thoughts out on page after page, in a bid to gain clarity and order in my mind, I was strengthening the eating disorder instead of me. Right before my eyes, by writing rules and counting calories to help me feel I was in control, I was self-destructing. I was doing what the eating disorder wanted me to do. Recovery involved acknowledging and accepting I had been led astray in this way. This was difficult. How did this happen? I wanted to know.

First, I had to absorb the awful truth, recorded in my own hand, that when one has an eating disorder, the illness can worm its way into one’s diary-writing and encourage disconnection from, and denial of, self. Debilitating and self-defeating thoughts and behaviours taunted and sabotaged my efforts to function ‘normally’ for many years. The daily entries are testimony to this.

I wanted to shout, ‘Wrong way!’

Diaries are valuable not only in coping with life in the present moment, but also for the insights that emerge as the years roll on. Upon studying my diaries from decades before, the process of self-disconnection is evident. I couldn’t see it then, immersed as I was in the clutches of anorexia, but I can see clearly now. Now, I can see the gradual alignment of diary entries with the eating disorder and the deepening suppression of authentic me. Thoughts, through my pen, become entwined in the eating disorder web. It’s quite maddening to watch this slow fragmentation of self. I want to intercede, and shout, ‘Wrong way!’  I want to grab the hand of the child that is writing and say ‘No, no. Not that way. Come this way, trust in me.’

A glimpse of hope emerged in my 30s, when a psychiatrist gained my trust, and I slowly began to share with him the thoughts and feelings that for years had been confined to my diaries.

I don’t know if a thought is authentic, or if it belongs to my eating disorder, or is influenced by prescription drugs.
(From my diary in my memoir A Girl Called Tim)

The development of trust with the psychiatrist eventually enabled a U-turn, or ‘you-turn’. I was in my mid-fifties when my healthy-self became stronger than my eating disorder. From this point, recovery accelerated. The diary records the amazing process of reintegration and the liberation that comes when our body is synchronising, is at one, with self.

A diary records a story that only you can tell

Today I have a ‘family diary’ that contains not only daily observations and reflections but also pictures, text conversations and drawings, from all members of my family. There are no secrets. There is an abundance of healthy communication. There is no eating disorder.

Writing in my diary helps me to help myself. This is because healing is enhanced through narrative connection. Try it. A diary records a story that only you can tell. Even when not suffering physically and/or mentally, by writing a diary, you are creating your personal story. Through this form of narrative, you can connect with your authentic self and, if you choose, also connect with others, thereby creating the opportunity for generating, belonging to, and enriching a community of caring. Writing a diary helps me to analyze situations and experiences, and to pursue a path that is best for me.

I always wanted to be able to use my past experience to do something positive in the future. Writing is a way of remembering my mindset when I’m in my darkest moments. It also provides a type of catharsis, helping to empty out my worries, stresses and thoughts, calming my mind before sleep.
Hayley, in Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders

Sometimes I write multiple entries in one day. This is usually when a “triggering” or anxiety-provoking situation is about to occur or has occurred. Narrative skills help me to prepare like a soldier going into battle, for self-preservation is the priority. Through the process of diary-writing, strategies are considered and put in place; later, after the event has passed, the diary enables a debriefing.

Diary-writing helps to focus on rational thought

At stressful or momentous times, diary-writing provides a pause, slowing the eating disorder’s push to think the worst immediately, and instead compelling a focus on measured and rational thought. This helps put things in perspective and, ultimately, achieve calmness and comfort. Diary-writing is a great tool for processing situations and emotions and for putting distance between thoughts and feelings.

Lacey describes it this way:

I have always used journals as a way of processing situations and emotions, and as an introvert this is usually the best processing technique for me, especially for thoughts that I feel unable to share verbally (or even at times don’t have the words for until I’m writing them down)

Writing can help organize thoughts, that otherwise feel scattered and overwhelming.

From a very young age, my thoughts and feelings had nowhere else to go except round and round in my head…. the diary was quite simply the only outlet for describing, albeit for my eyes only, how I felt.
Renee, in Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders

Why the legacy of a diary is priceless
Diary-writing is not an end unto itself, because a diary is a series of narrative snapshots. It is rather like a serial or never-ending story, with a new page or chapter every day. Tomorrow cannot be written until tomorrow is experienced. Each snapshot is recorded, fixed in time; it reflects moods, feelings, insights, biases, and convictions at any given moment. Each diary entry is individual but together they reveal a reality, which cannot be changed but, with guidance from a trusted mentor, can be re-storied to provide guidance for today and tomorrow. As such the diary is potentially a great healer and teacher. The challenge is to learn its lessons.

My diaries are a testimony to my eating disorder experience. Their pages are not always easy to read but ultimately they are proof that I made it. I persevered, and the diary helped me all the way. Even when aligning with the powerful eating disorder, the diary was helping me to survive, to hang on, as best I knew how at the time. The diaries’ record of struggle helps me to place the eating disorder experience into the context of my life. Without their record, I would not fully understand the destructive power of the eating disorder, or the incredible power of hope.

The legacy of a diary is enduring, and priceless.

I will not be “famous”, “great”. I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.
Virginia Woolf (Woolf, 2003), A Writer’s Diary

 Reference

Woolf, V. (2003). A writer’s diary: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Avatar photo

About June Alexander

As founder of The Diary Healer my prime motivation is to connect with people who have experienced an eating disorder, trauma or other mental health challenge, and provide inspiration through the narrative, to live a full and meaningful life. My nine books about eating disorders focus on learning through story-sharing. Prior to writing books, which include my memoir, I had a long career in print journalism. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing), researching the usefulness of journaling and writing when recovering from an eating disorder or other traumatic experience.
Today I combine my writing expertise with life experience to help others self-heal. Clients receive mentoring in narrative techniques and guidance in memoir-writing. I also share my editing expertise with people who are writing their story and wish to prepare it to publication standard. I encourage everyone to write their story. Your story counts!
Contact me: Email june@junealexander.com and on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

All articles by June Alexander

Leave a Reply