I am writing this down before I lose my resolve. I can never drink again. I will never have a normal relationship with alcohol and any attempts I make to justify drinking again in the future are lies.
– Jen Anderson
Since writing those words in my journal on September 4, 2014, I have not had one drop of alcohol. Author Charles Duhigg gained wide acclaim for his book on Keystone Habits. In essence, these are habits that provide the foundation for all other aspects of your life. They vary greatly by person, but ultimately shape the way you navigate your day-to-day life. By adopting just a few keystones, you can expect a domino effect of positive change.
In my case, it was a matter of survival to adopt a keystone habit when I gave up drinking. I felt as though I’d been through the biggest break-up of my life and I needed a way to honor my grief. Addiction communities employ the term “dry drunk” to describe a person who gives up alcohol, but neglects the other aspects of recovery. Nurturing one’s physical, emotional, and social needs are just as critical to sobriety as putting down the bottle.
Journaling felt like a natural fit for several reasons. First and foremost, I was reading a great deal of sobriety literature, which included workbooks. Daily, I underlined meaningful passages and highlighted useful exercises. Exploring these further through writing was a logical next step. Additionally, I had a long-standing love affair with language and had allowed my passion for writing to become one more casualty of my drinking behaviors. As a teen and young adult, journaling had proven a useful tool in working through my emotions. Why should that be any different now?
A background in writing and journaling is, by no means, a prerequisite for reaping the benefits of a regular practice. According to an article on BJ Psych Advances:
“[G]iven its simplicity, expressive writing appears to have great potential as a therapeutic tool in diverse clinical settings or as a means of self-help, either alone or as an adjunct to traditional therapies.”
Below, I’ve listed various ways to utilize writing in the recovery journey. The beauty of personal journaling is that there are no rules. You can find what works for you and run with it:
Journaling to Prepare
My clients that struggle with addiction often ask, “When will it click? When will I be ready?” Typically, this question results from failed attempts at sobriety or moderation, and while there isn’t a one-sized-fits-all response, I often say the following: Readiness is difficult to predict. What flips that sobriety switch for one person might not phase another person with the same addiction. BUT, there are ways to nurture readiness and complacency is not one of them. You do not have to be sober to make progress toward sobriety. Collecting tools and establishing keystone habits like journaling can equip you in ways that will further anchor you to your commitment when that day does come.
Journaling to Grieve
Eliminating drugs or alcohol can feel like a death. The substance dependence that results from years of abuse is both physical and psychological. Despite the healthy implications of quitting, addicts regularly experience the feelings one associates with loss. A journal provides a safe space to process those emotions–particularly those that are difficult to share with loved ones. In some senses, a journal allows you to eulogize alcohol, and that process of letting go can be a critical step toward healing.
Journaling to Process
Sobriety ushers in a mixed bag of emotions. The highs and lows can be overwhelming–so much so that they often lead to relapse. The simple act of documenting daily moods and feelings prevented me from compartmentalizing them. By getting my thoughts down on paper, it was far easier to process them in an objective way. Oftentimes, I shared excerpts of my writing with my therapist. I was on such an emotional roller coaster in early recovery that having detailed documentation of the ups and downs took a weight off my shoulders. It also afforded my therapist with a more concrete sense of my current mental state.
Journaling to Help Others
On day 100 of my sobriety journey, I felt compelled to share my story with others. At that point, writing felt like a completely natural way to put my experiences out into the world. I’d learned so much and believed that my message would resonate with others. Not only did the process feel cathartic, but it also cemented me more fully to my own commitment. I was no longer just accountable to myself and the loved ones in my support network, but to my readers as well. The feedback I’ve received has been humbling.
Journaling to Document Progress
An unexpected benefit of writing daily for a year and a half has been the ability to look back. In early sobriety, I couldn’t imagine forgetting the details of my emotional journey, but, like childbirth, they quickly faded into half-formed memories. Once I hit my first “sober-versary” I immediately pulled out the entry I’d written on my first day of the recovery process.
It was like opening a time capsule–like holding up a “before and after” picture following an extreme makeover. Not only had I redesigned my life, but I’d documented the process each step of the way. As a coach and therapist, I’m able to draw from those “then and now” contrasts to encourage clients and to normalize the various stages of the recovery process.
When I wake up early each day to complete my morning journaling, there is no dread or resistance. Because I so closely associate writing with my recovery, it feels as non-negotiable as brushing my teeth. Adopting this particular keystone habit has opened countless doors for me, both recovery related and otherwise.
Living in our heads can be overwhelming and a blank page affords us with a safe space to process those thoughts. As I look back on my journal entry from September of 2014, I hardly recognize the author. She was so vacant–so lost. As of today, she feels whole and would argue that it was the direct result of throwing out the wine bottle and replacing it with a really powerful pen.
Jen Anderson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Sobriety Coach, and former alcohol enthusiast living in Florida with her husband and son.