By June Alexander
Your diary can be your friend when you are struggling with an eating disorder or other life crisis. Confusion, pain, anger and sadness may be offloaded into this private refuge. However, what can you do if this process of private writing perpetuates bad feelings, instead of helping you feel good? One way to help ensure diary writing is assisting you positively is to share what you are writing with someone you trust.
How can you do this safely?
Your diary can be a self-help tool
Diarists participating in my PhD research* revealed that sharing of our writing does not need to be face-to-face; an online blog, like this one for instance, can open up a world of support that can offer new perspectives and insights, and help us to lower the protective but debilitating wall of shame, stigma and secrecy.
Certainly, for 10 years, writing a blog has helped me to maintain ongoing healing from my eating disorder. Sharing my story has enabled connection and sharing with like-minded others and the joy of continual discovery of who I am without my illness.
But what can you do if you are feeling caught and trapped within a downward spiral right now? You may be aware that intrusive thoughts are affecting your health and behavior, but are having difficulty finding the right path that will lead you to peace and contentment. You know you need some guidance, but who can you ask?
Your diary can be your advocate
Sometimes, persuading a therapist you are, indeed, ill is the first challenge in accessing treatment for symptoms of a mental health challenge such as an eating disorder. Eve, through sharing her diary with the psychiatrist she had just met, began to receive essential care for her eating disorder.
“From reading my diary he realized how sick and suicidal I really was, and made decisions that saved my life.”
Eve’s diary served as a personal advocate in her diagnosis. Through sharing excerpts, her diary became her voice and saved her having to re-tell her story over and over to doctor upon doctor, which could be exhausting and distressing. Her diary entries also preserved the “accuracy” of her story. Sharing your written work with a trust therapist or treatment team members gives them opportunity to read, absorb, contemplate and translate back to you. Translating back to you is important, so that you can feel confident your feelings and thoughts are understood and interpreted correctly.
Maintaining freedom of expression
However, if thoughts and feelings are masked, due to fear someone not trusted might read your work without permission, your diary may lose the ability to hold you accountable to your true self. Feeling safe to discuss potentially triggering matters in your diary without restraint is vital.
Andrea’s solution was to share a food diary, an instrumental part of her therapy, with her treatment team, but her personal diary remained private.
“My personal diary was just for me. Knowing I would have to share all of my diary-recorded thoughts with my therapist might have led to self-censorship.”
A food diary is helpful when used in a self-affirming way, for example, to reinforce meal plan strategies. However, logging food details can be risk-prone to eating disorder manipulation. Remember, the eating disorder loves self-defeating rules and secrets. To avoid this risk a food diary is best used openly with professional guidance.
Developing truthfulness with self
A primary focus in diary writing therapy is to develop intimacy with, and be truthful to, self. This process, when shared with a therapist or mentor with narrative skills, can help to ease deep-seated feelings of shame and stigma that may have been impeding your efforts in engaging in therapeutic work.
Besides providing a safe place to offload and sort thoughts too scary to voice, perhaps to share in full or precise form in the next therapist session, the diary can also assist afterwards, helping to digest and process what the therapist has said. In this way, your diary can remain a place in which to confide, but also becomes a medium for reflection and communicating with others.
A record keeper for the treatment team
The diary can provide a practical use, not only for the diarist who has a mental health challenge but for their caregiver, too. The recording of medication dosages and treatment visits, and of day-by-day emotional and physical side effects, can give a fuller picture and pattern of experience to share in therapy sessions.
In this way, the diary can be a valuable participant on the treatment team, with your “in the moment” observations assisting in creating the most appropriate and effective care plan.
More widely, a summary of regular “in the moment” narrative can provide treatment team members with an informed patient-based or caregiver-based perception of therapeutic programs and encourage reflection on practice and approaches.
An informant for you
Most of all, the diary can inform you, the diarist. When feeling confused, writing a diary can help you sort thoughts and identify patterns. It can help you to focus on the facts and counter self-doubt, like, when a friend does not ring as expected, you might rationalize why by releasing your thoughts on paper:
“…my friend did not phone when she said she would…this does not mean she does not care about me – her phone may have a flat battery or she may be stuck in traffic …”
In this way, writing in your diary can help to still your mind and create a pause in galloping, negative thoughts.
The diary, as a friend, is a place to record and hone life lessons in relation to decision-making, interpersonal relationships, self-awareness and mindfulness.
Action beats anxiety, and it is much better to pick up a pen and write rather than to give into the eating disorder thoughts that demand and urge you to binge, starve, over-exercise or engage in other forms of self-harm.
Writing until you can write no more is a positive self-help technique
It can be backed-up with other coping mechanisms that might include a cuddle, a bubble bath, your favorite music or movie, a phone call to a trusted family member or friend, or flowers, to manage negative moments and those times when thoughts crowd and seem overwhelming. Recording positive, self-love solutions like this in your diary, will help you to remind yourself of them when vulnerable moments strike.
A life coach for your self
Writing and reciting favorite mantras, such as “action beats anxiety,” can help to propel you forward. Looking for the positive in every situation, noting completion of self-affirming tasks, no matter how small, and in-the-moment happiness, like playing with children, progressively strengthens authenticity. In this way, the diary, like a life coach, enables self-mentoring and fosters self-belief.
Diary pages become a practice ground for living. Constructive exercises replace the eating disorder’s rules. With much repetition, these exercises strengthen new thought patterns.
No place for secrets in a whole self
For the diary to be a friend and not a foe, there is no place for secrets in a whole self. Even when a secret’s contents cannot be resolved, re-storying in the diary or other narrative forms can defuse its power and allow you freedom to move forward.
Sometimes, effects of an illness like an eating disorder, or a traumatic experience, may linger: physical, emotional and mental challenges may continue; some relationships may remain hurtful or become irretrievable. The diary can help to acknowledge and put this pain in context of your life story.
Coping with irretrievable loss
It can help you to focus on “now,” rather than what is lost, and to focus on addressing and resolving issues rather than suppressing them with self-harming behaviors. In this way, the diary transforms from a tool for survival of self, to a tool for living.
A launching pad for coming out and sharing your story
Evidence-based evaluation of diary-writing or story-telling as therapy in relation to healing from eating disorders is scarce. However, the diary is part of life for many people, and is applied as a self-help and therapeutic tool in many treatment settings.
Through integration of mind with body within the diary, a foundation is formed for integrating and participating more in the outer world. The diary can be a launching pad for moving from an inward place of isolation and secrecy and privacy to stepping out in safe and supportive environments and sharing in public discourse, for instance, by sharing your experience on social media or writing a memoir.
In this way your diary is in a prime position to assist in patient-led recovery and facilitate entry into mainstream living, as well as informing and helping others.
Sharing writing, in a supportive and safe environment, and learning writing self-awareness techniques can free you to engage fully, purposefully, and productively, with your self and in the wider world.
* Excerpts in this post are drawn from Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders—The Diary Healer, the creative work in my PhD. For details, see http://www.thediaryhealer.com or go to http://acquire.cqu.edu.au:8080/vital/access/manager/Repository/cqu:13833
I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.