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Write the New Story of Your Life in Your Journal

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“I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.”

-Oriah Mountain Dreamer

D.T. was in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction when she first came to my writing circle. She was in her 20’s, a little gruff, and not too sure she was going to like this writing thing.  But after she sat down in the sacred space we’d created, listened to the poem “The Invitation” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and picked her writing prompt, she poured out the following poem:

I want to know

I want to know why
I do the things I do,
did what I’ve done,
hurt who I loved,
am careless about
myself.

Do I have a heart
full of compassion?
Compassion for others?

Will I die an addict?
Will I live long?
Will I prosper?

I want to know
if someone truly loves
me for me.
I want to know
why people are so
hypocritical.
I want to know
honest
affection,
how to truly love
someone.

Does anyone truly
love me?
Yes!
I know my parents do.
Is that enough for
today?

I want to know
will I die happy
or even painfully?

I want to see
the world with all it’s beauty
For how God
made me as well
as this earth.

I want to know
happiness, joy, laughter
from the soul.

I want to know
who can count on
me but who I can
trust and lean on too.
Does anyone hear
me? Does anyone
have faith?

– D.T.
Women’s Writing Circle
Aug. 28, 2015
(used with permission)

Afterwards, one of her friends stared at her a moment and said, “I’ve never heard you share anything like that before.” Writing within the safe container of the circle, D.T. was able to express something she hadn’t been able to articulate previously.  She’d broken through a wall using the power of her own pen.

As a writing circle facilitator, I work with all types of people, in and out of recovery. I’ve seen how, in times of trauma and transition, writing can be a powerful recovery tool, especially when combined with other keys to recovery, like therapy, a sponsor, and a 12-step support group.

Why does it work so well?

For one thing, it can help you tap into your creativity with less self-judgement, according to Cheryl Anthony, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Addictions Professional. This is especially important if you’ve been affected by addiction, since shame and self-judgement are so common. Writing helps you get beyond the judgement to a more compassionate integration of the many parts of yourself.

“On the page, we break the silence that has trapped us in shame. We find the strength in our own stories, the resilience that has allowed us to get this far, no matter what has happened or what we have done. We start to retrieve the the thread of our authentic selves beneath the falsity of our addictive selves,” adds Mary Reynolds Thompson, a poetry and journal therapy facilitator with over 30 years of recovery.

Second, writing is a great way to get in touch with your own “inner wisdom.”  If you write something down, you can process it at a deeper level, which helps you listen for the deep truth of a situation.  We all have access to this truth, but, when we write, we can get away from all the noise in our heads that gets in the way.

Third, it’s literally a way to write the new story of your life by rewiring your brain for sober living.

“If we focus our attention and create an intention to serve healing, well-being, and recovery, we are firing neurons that will become a circuit in our brain.  This circuit strengthens each time it’s fired.  If we use our journals to focus our attention and write about our intention, honoring progress and charting our course, we keep firing that circuit of healing,” according to Deborah Ross, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Journal Therapist. This leads to powerful insights, healing, and a new life story that emerges right on your pages.

The benefits are worth it. In the jail where I work with incarcerated women, many of whom are recovering addicts, I recently asked them what writing in the circle has done for them.

  • “It taught me how to write my feelings on paper and dig deep,” one said.
  • “It releases me and I leave feeing great and refreshed,” said another.
  • “I’m able to allow all my feelings to come out in my writing,” said a third.  “It allows all of my negativity—and even my love—to come out.”
  • “Writing in this circle has opened my eyes to things about myself that I never thought about and made me realize some feelings I had inside.  Writing about my feelings helped me to release them from my mind.” said a fourth.

Writing also just makes you feel better.  Out of the 18 women I surveyed in my last two classes, 16 said they felt better after writing in the circle (the other two came in great and left great).

Of course, through specialized training and certifications, I’ve learned many ways to create a sense of safety in the circle to allow people to dig deeper.  But each of us can do a lot of work on our own, just by working things out in our journal, according to Kathleen Adams, a pioneer in the field of journal therapy and author of the classic book, “Journal to the Self.”

Here are 10 tips for writing in recovery, as inspired by the ideas in Adams’ book.

  1. Get a simple notebook, or, go ahead and treat yourself to a special journal and pen as you document your recovery journey.
  2. Write your name and “Private. Do not read!” in the front of your journal.  (It’s a great way to practice boundary-setting.)
  3. Date your work, so you can see your progress over time.
  4. Create a special time and place to write, like early morning or late in the day; you can combine it with your daily Step 10 inventory.  Light a candle, breathe deeply, and have at least a moment of silence before you write. This will help you quiet the noise in your head.
  5. Write only for brief, timed periods, like 5 or 10 minutes, especially if you are early in your recovery.  This protects you from trying to process too much in one sitting.
  6. Inspire yourself by reading poetry or a page from your program literature before you write.
  7. Use your journal as a safe container for your thoughts and feelings anytime.  Before reacting to a situation, take the time to write about it in your journal first.
  8. Share what you’ve written with a trusted friend, your sponsor, or your therapist every now and then, to make sure your writing stays healthy and productive.
  9. Find or create a writing circle with other people who like to write, and share your journey to your new sober self with each other.
  10. Keep writing!

For more information, check out WomenWritingJacksonville. For more information specifically about journal therapy, go to JournalTherapy.com. Or, to find a writing group in your community, try Women Writing for (a) Change or look for your local writer’s association.

Meanwhile, keep writing!  Here’s a prompt you can use to jumpstart your journaling this fall:

  • Take a walk and collect several leaves. Think about the various fall seasons of your life—the sights, scents, and sounds.  Pick one memory and write about it for 6 minutes only, starting with the prompt, “I remember when…”
  • Afterwards, read what you wrote, and reflect on it by writing down one or two sentences about your piece, starting with “I’m aware that…” or “I notice that…” or “I’m surprised by….”  This is a reflective write, and helps you understand your piece at a deeper level.  Share with a program friend or your sponsor!
  • Jennifer Wolfe
    Jennifer Wolfe

    Writer, Facilitator, Consultant

    Jennifer Wolfe is a writer-facilitator and the owner of Women Writing for (a) Change, Jacksonville. She’s been facilitating personal and organizational change for the past 25 years and working in the recovery community for the past six. As a certified journaling instructor, she facilitates writing circles for individuals, organizations, and communities. She can be reached at WomenWritingJacksonville.com.

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