Dear Diary: What Journaling Says About My Addiction

For years I was really into journaling, writing nightly with a pen onto a bound book of beautiful empty pages. Then one day, I stopped. As far as I can figure, this occurred around the time Wi-Fi came into my life and my apartment. Instead of bringing my journal into bed with me, I brought my laptop. And while I’m pretty sure I meant to shift my reflections to the digital device I was now using so often, I was clearly an analog-only journaler. 

Which is a shame, because those weathered, decades-old books hold insights that are extremely valuable to me now that I’m sober. I went through them recently — 30-plus notebooks that contain writing that began in the eighth grade and went right through my 32nd birthday. It’s a 20-year record of some of the most important (and not so important) moments in my life and rereading them has been eye-opening. And startling. 

Because they show me that the negative voice in my head — that THING that’s so closely tied in with my alcoholism — existed before I ever drank.

In my earlier entries, the teenage years, there’s a pervasive undercurrent of self-loathing. It’s also clear that social anxiety had me in its grips very early on. 

This entry, from October 22, 1991 (I was 16), sums it up the best:

“Why was I born like this? I try so hard to speak, to pull those strings of thought from the pit of my stomach into my throat, but it only makes me choke. I doubt what I have to say makes much difference anyway, but why can’t I at least say it? I find safety in silence, but it also makes me hate myself. How can I expect to be or do anything with my life when I’m so afraid of everyone and everything in it?”

Or this poem (cringe!), written on January 3rd, 1992:

“She rests her hand on her empty belly
That is starved not of food, but of feeling.
In a light sleep, she can trace the edges of happy memories
But the pictures fade and her open eyes erase.
She frowns and sees her companion birthed by the mirror
And knows that she can only starve for so long
Before nothing molds her into nothing.”

Okay, so the poem is pretty bad. But its basic message is helpful to me now: I was empty. I was lost. I had no idea who I was or what made me happy. 

One of the most telling entries from my early adulthood was written in 1998, when I was 23 years old and working my first job in publishing. Though I didn’t know it then, it’s clear to me now that this was the night I found the solution to my biggest problem: ME.

“FINALLY. I was the person I want to be tonight. I was in my body and able to speak. XXXX took me to a launch party and I was actually able to talk around people I didn’t know. And enjoy myself. I felt like I fit. They were all grown-ups, and I felt like a grown-up, too. The open bar certainly helped – FREE drinks! Fancy ones! So maybe it just takes time? Getting older. Believing I’m a grown-up, cocktail in hand (!!), unafraid to express myself and tell my funny stories. Could this be it? The end of my social anxiety? God, please, I hope so.”

Sadly, the answer was yes, but for a limited time. Because really, it was the booze that gave me a feeling of self-worth that night — a feeling I had never really had before. I wouldn’t call it liquid courage, it’s more complicated than that. Instead, it was a solution, something that finally filled that hole, squashed those fears, shut off that negative voice and allowed me to express myself. It was what I had been missing all along.

And it worked for quite a while. That’s the insidiousness of this disease — it works until suddenly it doesn’t anymore. It turns on you when you least expect it, and if you drank as much as I did, it leaves you in the clutches of a progressive, irreversible illness, and will not let go without a vicious fight.

Unfortunately, I had many years of struggle ahead. And as I came to depend on alcohol more and more, I started journling less and less. And when I did journal, very little was coherent (or legible, for that matter).

But I’m so grateful to have a glimpse into the early years of my drinking — when it was wooing me, so to speak — because it helps minimize my shame over how bad it eventually got. It was so simple in the beginning. Alcohol offered a quick fix for my internal discomfort and gave me an easy on-ramp to adulthood. Looking back, it makes sense that alcohol eventually came to rule my life because I gave it so much power.


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