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5 Reasons to Journal Your Recovery


Growing up, my favorite book wasn’t a novel or a fairytale, it was a diary: The Diary of Anne Frank. Without knowing the ordeal that was coming, someone had given Anne a typical birthday gift for a 12-year-old… A diary full of blank pages just waiting for her to fill them.

In the midst of an incredibly dark time, we saw something magnificent and normal–a young girl growing up with the same thoughts, feelings, and dreams as every other teenage girl.

As you’re going through your own difficulties, journaling could be safe ally for you–a place to share your thoughts, dreams, and struggles. There are some excellent reasons to consider journaling as you go through your recovery journey:

1. To sit with your thoughts for a while

“Life moves pretty fast… If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

– Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

When you sit down and write out a thought, you’re committing to being with it for a while and going through the journey that thought can take you. It’s so easy to push a thought aside. But the real work is to follow a thought or an emotion where it will go, even (or especially) a painful one.

2. Get It Out of Your Head

There’s a special word for thoughts that won’t go away: rumination, like a cow chewing and chewing on cud, then spitting it back up and chewing again.

The reason why psychotherapy and group therapies are so effective is they get those thoughts out of your head into a place where they exist. You can’t take your group or your therapist with you, but you can take a notebook.

Ruminating thoughts are like a bad haircut

Without fail, I only have to make a hair appointment to get my otherwise frizzy and unruly mop to start behaving perfectly.

Ruminating thoughts can be like that, too. In the counseling office or group, they’re nowhere to be found. At bedtime or when you’re alone (or actually trying to get work done), they show up like a hurricane.

A notepad by the side of the bed, your computer keyboard, or even your phone can purge it out of your head and onto a page.

Once it’s out, you don’t need to think about it:

  • You can read it–when and where you want to–you’re in control.
  • It’s always available to take to group or therapy.
  • Instead of getting stuck in that circular pattern that returns to the same place over and over again–you can make it lead you where it’s trying to take you–where you can resolve it.

3. To Chronicle Your Recovery Journey

“Why on earth would I want to remember this?”

Even if you’re just starting detox, writing is going to help. It’s a gift to your future self.

A detoxing brain doesn’t always store memories the way  it should. Also, all of us find that a challenge looks so much easier when looking back at it. You’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come.

Even a simple entry like:

“Really strong urge for a drink.”

Or “I went to the park with my 5-year-old after school. He played on the swings.”

…Can be a testament to how things are changing.

Journaling will give you insight into your triggers, help you challenge your cognitive distortions, and let you remember all that was difficult and beautiful later.

4.To Gather Wisdom

You don’t even have to journal your own thoughts. Collect quotes from other people–conversations, T.V., even memes.

5. To Help Your Brain Heal

Over the course of your first year in recovery, your brain is working hard to repair the damage that substance abuse has wrought, and it will continue that work over the next few years.

The brain is amazing! We used to think the brain couldn’t do that.

The magic of neuroplasticity

Treatment is hard work because your brain is figuring out new ways to deal with life without your substance of choice. It’s making new neural pathways and learning new ways to interpret life while also taking the old ways and putting them in a storage shed in the back. Your brain is cleaning house and redecorating.

Writing helps your brain renovate, especially because it combines your thoughts with something physical–holding a pen and making it do something.

Don’t worry if what you’re writing doesn’t seem genius (or even if it doesn’t seem worthy of 4th grade). It’s still helping you heal. At this point, it’s not about writing the great American novel. It’s about kicking those brain cells back into gear.

But What Should I Use to Journal My Recovery?

The delightful thing about journaling is you can use anything you want:

  • Your computer
  • An app on your phone like Evernote or Keep (which also let you log pictures and recordings)
  • An audio recorder

But some experts insist that the physical act of writing on paper challenges your brain differently than screen interaction.

For print options: a spiral notebook and a Bic pen, or a designer notebook with ruled lines or dots to keep things orderly–whatever will encourage you to write. I use a Moleskine notebook because I’m done with it at the end of the month, it’s light, and I can take it with me. However, I’ve been known to use the back of a receipt when desperate.

If you don’t like to write a lot but like to see the progression of things, a 3-year or 5-year journal could be ideal. These journals devote a few inches of space on each dated page; the next year, you write in the 3 inch space just below that. In 5 years’ time, you can look at a page and see that date’s story over 5 years.

Whatever you use–electronic or paper–just get started. Even a few sentences in any form, on a regular basis, will add a new dimension to your recovery process.

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