Part IV: Brain re-set: A year of Journal Writing

“My friends, it is wise to nourish the soul, otherwise you will breed dragons and devils in your heart.”  

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Writing words on paper, expressing my thoughts and feelings in a journal: this is a practice I welcome. I have tried it several times during the unhappiest times of my life, primarily two painful divorces and the death of my mother. In my experience, journal writing is a very useful supplement to any variety of psychotherapy/counselling/coaching that you might engage in. I speak as someone who has had a period of psychotherapy during every decade of my adult life. I can’t recommend that highly enough for health and happiness; it’s the mental equivalent of going to the gym.

During the happy periods of my life, that is, most of the time, I have no impulse to write about my experience. Why would I? I’m too busy enjoying myself.

So, why spend time journal writing? The benefits of doing so have been extensively researched by positive psychologists, the brand of psychology that prefers to study what goes well for people, rather than what goes wrong. Convincing studies support journal writing as a process that improves mind, body and spirit in the following ways:

Impact on Mind

  • Self awareness
  • Understanding others
  • Understanding relationships
  • Resilient thinking
  • Leaving problems behind
  • Gain perspective
  • Learning about your thought processes
  • Letting go of negative thoughts
  • Integrating your experiences
  • Reduce rumination and promote action

Impact on Body

  • Enhance well being
  • Strengthen the immune system
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Quality sleep

Impact on Spirit

  • Boost your mood
  • Reduce depression and anxiety
  • Calming and clearing your mind
  • Discover your authentic self
  • Maintain a sense of self, solidify identity
  • Release pent up feelings and every day stress
  • Release tension
  • Find healing from traumatic events

“If the recovery you seek is for the death of a loved one, one of the most traumatic and heartbreaking events of all, journaling can help with that as well. Writing can give you a chance to process your enormous loss and reduce the most severe symptoms of grief.”

(Kalantari, Yule, Dyregrov, Neshatdoost, & Ahmadi, 2012).

Tino died in October 2017. I planned to use journal writing as part of my well being recovery programme, from January 2018. I found I couldn’t wait, so I started in December 2017, following some simple guidelines:

  • The purpose of my journal is to record my feelings and thoughts about what was going on in my life; to capture my mood over time
  • As it was for my eyes only, I would write in stream of consciousness jottings; no need to worry about prose style or perfect punctuation
  • It would not be a record of events

Now, over a year later, I have reviewed my journal (a rather painful process) and can see the changing flow of my grief and my eventual return to living fully again, in spite of my loss. Here are some glimpses of my writing over the course of the year.

Journal 1: Dec 2017 – Feb 5th 2018 Seven weeks

During this time of acute loss, I wrote almost every day, mainly about my sleepless grief stricken nights.  I tortured myself, ruminating on Tino’s death: how did it happen? why did it happen? could his life have been saved, if only he hadn’t been alone in the woods?

Somewhere in my heart and mind I seemed to be acting from a belief that if I could just prove it had all been a terrible mistake, I could go to a special Government Department, fill in a form and have it rubber stamped: ERROR. Oh yes, they’d say, dreadful mistake, so sorry. Then they’d call out, Tino Tsoflias? Time to come out now. And my living, breathing, grinning brother would be restored to life. Magical thinking at its finest.

The last day of this journal was a day that I visited Pat; we walked up to the woods where Tino fell, and laid some flowers on his deathbed. Some weeks before, a stranger had erected a cross on this spot; and someone left a tiny note of commiseration rolled up inside a small glass jar. Whoever you are, we love you for it. A large nearby oak tree became part of our rituals here, we circled the tree, holding hands, and laying our faces against the rough bark.

Journal 2: Feb 7th– May 7th 2018       Three months

My daily journal entries during this time were often about my tortuous attempts to meditate, in the hope of achieving a more balanced emotional state. Energetically, I was very flat, finding it hard to motivate myself to do things that might actually make me feel better. An entry from February 9th“I do want this journal to be mostly a record of me getting to understand how my own mind works and how I can, at will, conjure up a calm still mood.”

I also faced up to an unwelcome truth: over the last year my weight had crept slowly upwards, and, with two family weddings later in the year, urgent action was needed.  I embraced a vigourous new exercise regime with a personal trainer and this attention to my physical health heightened my energy and improved my mood.

During April I was introduced to the Red Book by Carl Jung. I read a page each day and noted, in my journal, the ideas that I found striking or illuminating.  This gave a new impetus to my writing, as I combined my inner reflections with provocative thoughts from philosophy and psychology. One of the most striking things that captured my attention from the Red Book was the quote at the start of this blog, along with Jung’s painting to represent that idea.

As Spring turned to Summer, my energy revived and I began the work of re-designing my writers website and my blog, which distracted me from my sadness and lifted my spirits.

Journal 3:  May 10th– July 24th   2018 Ten weeks

By May, I had succeeded in losing ten pounds in weight, which made me really happy. My step daughters wedding was seven weeks away, and I was looking forward to buying a dress in a smaller size.  Retail therapy: you can’t beat it.

I had a beautiful and consoling dream: I sat with Ella, six months old, on my lap. Tino sat opposite us, radiant with joy as he gazed at his sweet granddaughter. She stared at him, pointed, and said That’s Tino! The dream was suffused with happiness that Tino had met Ella.

Other entries at this time showed that I was reflecting, for the zillionth time in my life, on the complex family dynamics that had shaped me.  One vehement journal entry proclaimed: “I CAN have what I want; and I CAN be who I am. I don’t have to fight for these things. I simply assert them as my needs and desires.  AMEN TO THAT.” 

On July 21st, nine months to the day since Tino’s death, we scattered his ashes, a beautiful ritual that  I’ll write more about in a later blog. For me, this event marked a moment: not an end to grief, but a turning point, back to living again, to “turn again to life, and smile, for my sake,” as the poem said.

Journal 4  July 25th– ongoing Six months

During the first six months of the year I had filled three notebooks with my scribblings. For the following six months, only one notebook was needed, my impulse to write was reducing. During August through to early September I wrote as frequently as previously, mostly reflecting on the scattering of Tino’s ashes, and the feelings it aroused: “I miss my mother. I have missed her for 36 years. I’ve still been a daughter as I have Dad. But I haven’t been a daughter to a mother.”  The plans for my own daughter’s imminent wedding reminded me: yet another occasion my mother is missing, the wedding of the granddaughter she never knew. Like my brother, my mother died young, aged 51 and, again like my brother, she died a few weeks before the birth of her first grandchild.  Neither my brother nor my mother lived to see their grandchildren.  Unbearably sad.

A strange dream: an old friend from long ago sent me a psychology textbook from Canada; highlighted in fluorescent green on one page were the words: People leave their marriages either because of something they used to have but had now lost, or because of something they had never had but now wanted. Random. But a very provocative idea. I expect I read it somewhere.

From early September to mid October (the week after my daughters wedding) I didn’t write in my journal at all.  Most of my time had been absorbed by a programme of uber grooming in preparation that I had embraced with enthusiasm.

I wrote only twice in October.  I had stopped reading the Red Book at the point where my understanding of it had broken down, though I’d like to try again at some point. During November I wrote once, in December thrice and in January seven times.

As I strengthen and recover my need to write in my journal is decreasing. It’s always there should I need it, and I’ll continue to use it as and when I feel like.

Journalling has nourished my soul, I feel sure of that; hopefully that’s kept dragons and devils of anger and bitterness from taking up residence in my heart. I really can see how easily that can happen in the face of grief. Journalling is such a simple process, with powerful results, I recommend it.

Tino and our Dad…. always laughing…

Next blog coming soon: Resilient Thinking

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4 thoughts on “Part IV: Brain re-set: A year of Journal Writing

  1. Thank you for your words Voula. Sometimes I wonder why I feel like I do, and feel guilty about it when there are others who seem to be having a much worse time.
    My first experience of death was a baby and then, much later my parents. Most recently a very dear friend. I think I have blocked some of my feelings but after reading this I realise it does help to recall my emotions. Thank you x

    1. I’m so sorry to hear of your losses Sheila… that is a lot to bear. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I’m so glad my post was helpful to you. warm wishes Voula x

  2. I am your cousin stavriannoula fotikas daughter from greece . I just read the bad news and i could not believe it . My brother sotiris died to on october 8 2016 . I understand you a lot but try to be strong . What about dorothea and chrysanthi . I would like to hear from you . Give my love to mmy uncle antonis .

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