Writing for Recovery
There is a good deal of evidence out there that promotes the health benefits of writing—especially while in substance abuse recovery. But as is the case with too many other habits that we know can be good for us, it is much easier said than done.
The following tips will help you develop a journaling routine that advances your recovery goals.
1. Start with the basics.
Journaling will always look differently for each person because it is a reflection of each person’s life. Sometimes this perspective alone is enough to keep someone from starting a journal— either because the concept of recording your life feels overwhelming or not exciting enough. But both of those deterrents are built upon societal expectations of what journaling should entail.
Who is to say that your daily commute, 9-hour workday, and quiet evening is not worth recording? Only you. And who is to say that journaling has to be all-comprehensive or even accurate? Again, only you.
Do not worry about what anyone else might have to say about your journal. You are writing for yourself.
Try to open your mind to the potential in everyday and think outside of the box about what you want to remember.
Some examples of what to record for each day:
- What you did (as detailed or as brief as you’re feeling)
- What you are grateful for
- How you felt and/or are feeling
- What surprised you and/or what you expected
- 1 high and 1 low moment
- One moment that you are proud of or that made you smile
- Your current favorite song, or one that feels right for that day
For those who do best with a little more structure: there are “One Line a Day” journals you can buy which are specially designed to make writing everyday easier and more enticing. Most are designed for multiple years of journaling, so that you can see what you wrote on that day each year.
If an aesthetically-pleasing journal is something that will make you feel more intrinsically inspired to write, then go for it—there should never be any shame in spending money on the little things that can bring yourself some joy. And if that’s not your style, this “One Line a Day” concept is definitely something you could DIY.
2. Switch up your journaling routine (or what you want to someday become your routine).
Try other kinds of writing that’s not “typical journaling.” Maybe this looks like formal poetry, stream-of-consciousness essays, lists, letters to friends or God, or even frantic texting into the notes on your phone.
Writing in the creative nonfiction and autobiography genres can often be cathartic, and there are many wonderful memoirs about recovery as proof. Check out these memoir prompts and tips to begin your own self-writing exploration.
For many people, the most difficult step in this process is the beginning, so just try to dive in head-first to any prompt that sparks even a tiny bit of interest or memory. Often, that kind of writing is what will lead you to your own memoir prompts and topics.
If you are worried that your writing (of any kind) will not be properly beneficial because it is not directly about your addiction and recovery journey, have no fear!
One more tip: Try switching up your writing environment too, e.g. your bedroom, at a coffee shop, outside on a park bench, during your commute, etc. The time of day that you journal can also affect your writing. Some people prefer nighttime so that they can reflect back on the day’s events, others prefer the morning because they are less self-critical while they are still waking up. Some people have no consistency or preference about when they write at all!
3. Let go of the self-critical mindset.
Everyone struggles with feeding negative lies to ourselves and everyone is always their own worst critic. It is easy to forget that those around us are often also being silently self-critical, but why is that? It is because we never see them in the unrealistically harsh light that we so willingly place upon ourselves.
Trying to shed this self-critical mindset will be beneficial not only to your journaling process, but to your overall health and identity.
To make matters worse, society tends to box us up at an early age as either “creative” or “not creative” people. Whether this label is true or not, we often build many of our choices upon it. However, the benefits of art are built upon fostering self-discovery and understanding, so everyone can benefit from journaling.
If you feel like this “I am not creative” mental block is your biggest challenge when trying to write, check out this blog post on creative expression in recovery for further advice.
4. Do not think of journaling as a task or a chore.
Similar to when meditating in recovery if you go into it with a skeptic, apathetic, or forced mindset, it is unlikely that you will truly be able to benefit from writing—which will just fulfill whatever negative expectations you started out with.
Try to put the action of writing into the same mental category that you would put “getting coffee with a friend.” In a way, journaling should use up the same kind of energy and reap the same kind of rewards as checking-in and catching-up with someone you care about (i.e. yourself).
5. Reflect on your journaling process.
You can reflect through writing, simply in your thoughts, or talk it out with someone—remember that everyone processes and learns best in their own ways. Consider how it feels when you express yourself, what types of thoughts are easier to write about than others, what kind of writing environment suits you best, and what part of journaling is the most therapeutic for you.
Is it the symbolic magnitude of taking something from inside yourself and bringing it out? Is it the physical action of writing? Is it being able to look back on your thoughts, and notice connections and revelations that you had not made before?
After deciding what makes journaling meaningful to you, get creative about how to emphasize that aspect. Some examples:
- If the symbolism of lightening the burdens that you carry within you is what inspires you, try taking this kind of self-reflection a step further by writing about why this aspect is important to you. Why are these thoughts heavy and why does it feel refreshing to bring them out of your mind; i.e. why are you suppressing them or do not usually feel comfortable talking about them?
- If the kinesthetic perspective is how you can get the most out of journaling, try mixing up the physical aspects to find what works best: handwriting vs. typing; long paragraphs vs. one-word lists; adding collage, doodling, or just some color to your entries; etc.
- If gaining hindsight is what is the most fulfilling to you, try handwriting letters and then send them to yourself through snail mail. Putting a little bit of distance between initially writing and then re-reading can make some space for you to emotionally interact with the feelings you had when you journaled.
And finally, reflect on what exactly it is that you want to get out of writing while in substance abuse recovery. Of course, this will look different for each person—it could be something practical and comforting like being able to check off something on your to-do list every morning, or something more philosophical and profound like gaining some slow progress in uncovering hidden trauma that was the catalyst for your addiction development. Your intentions and goals for journaling are great conversations to have with your post-treatment therapist and support team. Let the people around you in on your sober life as you continue to discover, understand, and love yourself.