Today I finished reading a book called Leaving A Trace: On Keeping A Journal by Alexandra Johnson. I bought the book for my Kindle because the reviews were good and because from what I read the author writes about taking journals and turning them into a memoir or fiction. That's what sold me on it because lately I've been brainstorming about creating a book from my journals. I have journals spanning the last 20 years all in a muddle in a large storage container near my diningroom table. And so I am not at all organized, but I hope to begin to be, starting this month. My original idea was to take excerpts from my journals and maybe write present day responses to them, first dividing the excerpts into themes such as Family, Schizophrenia related, Creativity, Life with an abusive alcoholic and so on. What I didn't and perhaps still don't want to do is to write the standard novelistic memoir. I see memoirs made out of reconstructed memories and actual fabrications as not genuine. They are fiction/fact, which doesn't mean there aren't great memoirs written in that style; I just can't see myself right now creating dialogue out of a vague general memory. I might be resisting it because I don't have the skill or talent to construct a story out of my life. I don't know for sure because I haven't even attempted it.
I started writing in a journal in 8th grade when I was 13 years old. It was what was to be my final year in a public junior high school. The school housed perhaps two thousand students in grades 6th to 9th. Much of the student population, if I recall rightly, was Hispanic and there were several gangs that subtly and not so subtly ruled the school, much to the chagrin of many teachers and students, including me and my friends. We were in the rather vulnerable position of being in the top Advanced Enrichment (AE) classes which allowed us certain privileges such as being able to take our books home each night, go on overnight school trips to places like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, work on yearbooks, participate in plays and generally be the favorites of the best teachers in the school. We weren't particularly aware of these privileges at the time, we just accepted where we were, but here and there primarily tough girls from the local gangs would threaten several of the girls in our group. The boys from our class escaped becoming targets mainly because they were avid basketball players. Their love of sports created a bridge between them and the tougher boys, but the girls in our group had little in common with the violent, self protective, critical girls we would have contact with in gym classes and during lunch. We also commuted about 17 blocks from another neighborhood. The year before I had been popular with the boys and the girls in my class, but in 8th grade I stayed primarily close to my group of friends and we were all a bit distanced from the boys particularly because we were dealing with more stress than they were.
Anyway, it was in this atmosphere that I began writing in an ordinary notebook. Rather foolishly I also began bringing the journal to school and writing in it there, letting only some of my friends read it, which led to some of my group imitating me and to conflict amongst us. I would love to say that my journal was filled with insights and good descriptions, but from what I can recall I wrote pretty petty, complaining stuff. I put down "the boys" and was critical of some of the "the girls" and was generally unhappy in school, though I was never chosen to be picked on by the tough girls. I think this was because I looked particularly Hispanic even though I was 3/4 Irish American. My first impulse to write was a way to take a stand, to voice those puerile opinions because they gave me the illusion of having some control over my life at a point where I felt rather helpless. That helpless feeling only intensified as the year progressed. We wound up as a group deciding to leave the school a year early. There was a sort of random lottery for the better Brooklyn public high schools and I didn't get chosen. Instead of going to my local neighborhood's lousy high school, my parents enrolled me in a private high school in Manhattan, much to my horror. My sense of isolation grew as the school year came to a close and because of that I continued with my journal, bringing it to my new school the next fall.
As the years went by, journal writing became very important to me and I began reading other women writer's journals: Virginia Woolf, Anne Frank, Ettie Hillesum, May Sarton, Alice Koller. I bought book compilations with excerpts from famous people's journals and diaries. I bought books on journaling and creative writing. The number of my journals began to grow. I kept them in one box, then two. I wrote during the rest of high school, during college and after college. From time to time I would re-read my journals and feel a sense of continuity in my life. Then at age 27 I moved seven hours northwest of New York City to a small college town and promptly got involved with a young man who turned out to be mentally ill, alcoholic and abusive; that's when the continuity in my journals stopped. My boyfriend read some of my journals without my permission when I was away on a trip. Several months into our relationship his abusive behavior began. I had never been treated with such callousness and condescension. Feeling helpless once again, instead of taking it out on him, I took it out on myself: one day after reading through some of my journals, I became so disgusted with myself that I carried the several boxes of my journals from age 13 to 27 and I went to the local dump and threw them all away in a fit of temporary self hatred, which I shall always regret.
I didn't stop writing. I wrote in secret and hid my journals in the house, but that precious sense of trust and continuity was gone and I wrote awkwardly. I was living in an intolerable situation partly of my own making and I had to have some place to release my frustration, fear and anger. I had to have someplace where I could keep in touch with a personal self honesty that was beginning to erode under the pressure of the cycle of abuse. I left my abusive partner repeatedly and stayed with my parents and each time I did my journal began to blossom with self-reflection, only to have me return to him yet again and begin the destructive living pattern over again. Finally, I left him for good and returned again to journal writing as a way to strengthen my resolve to never go back into an abusive relationship with him. In my journals of those several years after I left him, but before I became psychotic, there is a certain toughness to me, a certain numbness and emotional detachment that I'm not sure I like, but that I understand. There were a few indications of the illness that was to come, primarily certain romantic fixations that I didn't pursue because I was still too raw. And then one day, I became crazy.
And I continued writing, sporadically at times, but I kept in touch with myself and ironically with my illness. For three and a half years I remained inside my primary delusions and my journals of the time are obsessively fixated on them. Insight shines out from time to time, but for most of it I am still quite lost. I wrote in junior high school because I was in conflict with my environment, somewhat isolated even amongst my friends. In high school, though I made a couple of friends, I would often keep to myself and my journal kept me company. Isolation has been a theme for why I continued to keep a journal, isolation while with others and isolation while on my own. I was always aware of being a separate self, on the periphery of society and normalcy. Journal writing has been a life line. When I was young, before I threw out my boxes of journals, I imagined them eventually becoming published and now I've come full circle, though in my heart of hearts I believe that the journals I threw away were somehow better than the ones I've since written and kept. That may not be true, may just be the wear and tear of having lived a difficult life and internalized negativity.
So here I am again, with the equivalent of several boxes worth of journals in no particular order asking to be reviewed and taken seriously, covering my life in abuse, out of abuse, into psychosis and then in an extended recovery from psychosis. I think it's a story worth being told, but as is true with all of our life stories, it's not easy to go back to difficult times in life and renew them once again. And it is not just a matter of review, but of organizing and editing and responding, all of which takes careful consideration and time. Right now, I have the time and I pray that I will continue to have the time to complete this ambitious project. I've had several other ideas of how to approach this. One is to read my journals from the beginning and keep a new journal to follow my progress through them, taking excerpts here and there and commenting on my present day reaction to my past life. Another idea is to just start a new journal and continue with it for a year, writing with the intention of showing it to an audience, touching on different aspects, most specifically of my life living with abuse and with mental illness. In any case, I am starting now and will continue to brainstorm throughout the process. If anyone of you has suggestions, I would love to hear them because, once again, I am working from a standpoint of isolation and am in need of help.
A Recovery Blog
This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.