Finding My Way Back

When doctors and counselors could provide no help, a journal became the medicine that cured this accident victim of her fears.
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"My mum said, 'You weren't going to die. I wasn't there to hold you.'" So started my journal on Oct. 24, 1998. I continued with, "My heart broke ..." and the rest of the page is smudged with tears.

A couple of weeks before, I had nearly died in an accident on a white-water rafting trip in Nepal. When I was finally flown home, after several nightmarish weeks, my doctor diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed counseling with a trauma counselor specialist. The only problem was, where I lived in England, there weren't any trauma counselor specialists. The closest, several hours away, had a one-year waiting list. The doctor said the only thing I could do until then was "give it time."

I tried talking to family and friends, but you can only go through the same old story a couple of times before people are bored or uncomfortable or both. Plus, England has what we call a "stiff upper lip" mentality, which means you keep things to yourself and get on with them. The only support groups around are for cancer patients or people who have lost a child. For those traumatized by accidents, there is nothing.

Eventually I locked my emotions inside and stopped talking. I disassociated myself from the world around me and put up barriers to everyone and everything. According to the doctor I was "unreachable." Nobody could get close. In desperation, one friend who did stay around gave me a journal with these words inside: "Use it. It will provide you with more help than any medication."

One night the nightmares were so bad I did not dare go back to sleep, so I picked up a pen and started writing. Every day, sometimes several times a day, I would sit and write about what was happening to me. Sometimes it made no sense, even to me, but it was how I felt. The confusion around me and within me was reflected in what I wrote. At times of great stress my handwriting became like that of a child, and the pressure I put on the pen was sometimes enough to tear through the page.

My Progress Begins

For the first few weeks, I wrote about my flashbacks. I described in my journal the feeling of wanting to scream with terror and run away when I first faced going back onto a beach that was similar to the one where I nearly died. I talked about the terror of being near or in water and how I had to psych myself up to face taking a bath or a shower.

Then I wrote about the obsessions. A specific kitchen surface had to be kept clean or I might die. I couldn't take a specific medication without sitting by the phone in case something horrible happened. I had to spend every hour on the computer because if I didn't and someone e-mailed me, she would be upset if I didn't send an instant response.

All of these events went into my journal unvarnished and exactly as they happened. Every few days I would read back over my writing, and I started to see patterns. I realized that when I had an obsession, it tended to last for two or three days before I saw that I was being irrational, and then it would take me two or three days to stop it. I also saw, from noting the dates in my journal, that my obsessions got worse on the weekends when everyone else was out. As a remedy, I started to plan specific things (read a book, ask my neighbor to visit), so that I could divert myself from cleaning or being on the computer.

Gradually, as my journal kept me aware of my progress, I started to come back to the cheerful and happy person I had been before I went away. My mum got her lost daughter back. I could read back a few days, a few weeks, a few months and see how far I had come. I'd find significant passages where I wrote, "I smiled today" or "Mum and Dad brought me a kitten, and she made me laugh by falling off the sofa." They were little things, but when you have not smiled or laughed in six months, they matter.

Rediscovering Joys

If you are having a bad day, it's so easy to convince yourself that you've had months of bad days, that it's rained on every one of them and that you've burnt every meal you've ever cooked. On these days, a quick read back to a description of a fabulous sunrise or a beautiful flower was enough to make me say, "OK, today is bad, but it won't always be this way."

I started to realize as I wrote that an event is just an event, but what you do with it determines how you view it. I started to talk to people again about my experience, but this time about what I had learned from it. As I started to focus on the outcome rather than the event itself, I slowly started to heal.

As time went on, my writing became more positive, the grief over my accident subsided and the joy in the little things around me started to grow. I started to deliberately include in my journal entries one good or happy thing that happened each day. If there wasn't one I could muster from that particular day, then I dug around in my memory until I found one. Sometimes it was as simple as someone smiling at me at the bus stop. Other times it was more monumental, such as riding on a boat without being afraid. Each entry became a celebration of the positive.

Your Turn

What do you think? Have your journals been like medicine to you? Has writing in your journal offered you an outlet and opportunity to heal at some point in your life? Whether it was a physical or emotional challenge, we want to hear your inspirational stories of how journaling helped you get through it. Selected submissions will be published in the August 2003 issue. Send your response (no more than 200 words, please) to with the Subject Line: Journal to Heal. Personal Journaling has the right to edit the submissions and publish them electronically and in any of our print publications. Include your full name as you would like it to appear in print, mailing address and phone number. We will notify you only if your response is selected for publication. Deadline: March 1, 2003

My Journal, My Cure

My journal did for me what no one else could. It gave me a chance to talk without being judged, to be understood without having to explain. The journal never answered back or told me what I was feeling was dumb. It never said to me, "You should be over this by now" or "Keep your chin up, old girl." My journal allowed me to feel and to recover in my own time and in my own way.

Now that I have recovered, my journaling is a reminder to me of how much pain I felt and how hard it is to relate to the pain of others. I try to remember this whenever I find myself wishing someone would talk to me about what he or she is going through or feeling. It is easy to feel rejected when someone will not open up. My journal reminds me of how tough it can be to say, "I need help" or "I'm lost" or "I'm confused"—because there are pages upon pages describing myself struggling to say the same things. Through my journaling experience, I learned to stop turning away from others at those moments—and instead to turn toward them. Because of my journal, I'm now able to share moments of great joy, as well as be there through others' sadness. But most of all, my journaling has helped me remember that there are blue skies behind the grayest of clouds.

From the Febrary 2003 issue of Personal Journaling.

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