I went hiking/camping this past weekend; I live near the Canadian Rockies, so beautiful solitude and serenity is only about an hour away. (I like people, don’t get me wrong, but I also don’t mind being away from anything resembling civilization.)
How camping relates to what follows is simply that I’d brought a bag of old journals to be used as literal fuel for fire, and an unintentional trip down memory lane ensued.
Six years ago I entered in-patient treatment for alcohol and drug addiction; that’s not the story here, however. What is, is that within the first few days I was encouraged to start journaling. I hadn’t in many, many years–hadn’t journaled ever, really. The last diary-type device I remembered having was sometime around the age of 10, and I recalled never logging more than a handful of entries before abandoning it, like so many start-stop endeavours of my life (still a bit of an issue all these years later; maybe an issue to be confronted always?).
I do recall that one of the main reasons (unbeknownst to me at the time) for giving up on the pen-to-paper was this unrelenting desire to get every word, every sentence, every entry entirely perfect (yet another issue, though one that plagues me less the older I get). I don’t know why, or for whom. Perhaps a combination of fear and ego (the issues abound!)–the former suggesting my 10-year-old musings might one day be uncovered; the latter decreeing that if discovered, the writing ought to be good! Thus I had my earliest experience of writer’s block (funny enough, not an issue after all these years), coupled with aforementioned aspects of character that would come to define so many decisions, consequences, and catastrophes thereafter.
Fast forward about twenty-five years to a room on the other side of the country, life put on pause, life in tatters, pen in hand and a dollar-store notebook in front of me. The latter put into my hand an hour before by a counselor who asked if I wrote. At the time, I didn’t. Or hadn’t, in many, many moons. She asked me if I’d heard the term “stream-of-consciousness writing”. I don’t recall if I had or hadn’t, I just remember now she said it. The essence, of course, to write as fast as the pen could keep up with my thoughts, and to do so without structure, or the pursuit of eloquence, or the paralysis of judgement.
It strikes me now as one of those pivotal moments in life. All of that particular time was, sure–I was three days sober, feeling like a man who had fallen asleep on a freight train that derailed, waking some time later to discover that while I had nominally survived the wreckage, I was engulfed in it. But the writing… the suggestion that it might do me some good, might lead to something positive… and to simply write the things I heard within as I sat and listened, without prejudice, without judgement… well, here we are.
I’ve never really returned to those journals. I’ve little desire to revisit that particular time (it was a case of things getting worse before they got better), and I certainly don’t want to examine whatever needed to be expressed (to no one, no matter what my 10-year-old self imagined) at that time. Mostly I don’t want to ever second-guess the process, because in many more ways than one, it led me to the way I write today. And apart from love and family and sobriety, writing has been the most beautiful experience of my life.
Anyway, there sat a canvas bag filled with half a dozen cheap journals, filled cover to cover with the musings of a once-broken man, evolving into those of a person in-repair and in-progress. I was ready to tear out and ball up the pages, and position them between pieces of kindling. Before I did–met with an unexpected trickle of nostalgia–I opened that first book. All of a sudden, in that strange quality of memory, I was met with that ineffable immediacy of moments long forgotten. I recalled the initial suggestion to start writing. I remembered the subsequent encouragement, four weeks later, to continue writing. I thought of a life indescribably changed, in no small part by that book, and the words within. So I read the first and last entries.
I’m not going to transcribe the first. Suffice to say it’s about as depraved and despairing as one might expect from a person three days into a rehab. It took less than five sentences for the self-loathing to unleash, and what emerged were 45 questions I wanted answers to. Answers from whom, I wasn’t entirely sure, but the questions remained. Things like “Why can’t I follow through on anything?” or “Why do I feel like the only thing I was ever good at was drinking and using drugs?”, and far, far worse.
Some of the answers came in those first thirty days. Some wouldn’t come until years later. And some questions remain yet unanswered. Such is life. I will share what I wrote about five weeks later, however, an entry I titled “The Rebuttal”–that of the original entry of pain, uncertainty, and despair.
I still burned most of the journals; that time now no more than the ashes the paper it was written on would soon become. But I was, and am, profoundly grateful.
Beyond the words themselves is my indescribable gratitude for words as a whole. The beauty of language. Its ability to connect. Their ability to heal. The opportunity they offer to be moved. To be changed. I’ve experienced those things and more, both in that time, and the time since. Many things saved my life, but the words just might have been one of the things worth saving it for.
April 14, 2014
44 days ago I sat on a bed of an extraordinarily pricey rented room, thousands of kilometres away from my house on the other side of the country, and I cracked this book (now weather-worn in more ways than one). Put pen to paper, and engaged in this new frontier of journaling. “Stream of consciousness,” I was told, and as I wrote then, just my words – well, for the most part – and my thoughts… the good, the bad, the painful, embarrassing, hopeful, vulnerable… sometimes the downright horrendous. Scattered, incoherent, transcendent, illuminating… poetic? I have laughed, literally, as I transcribed thoughts as fast as the pen could write; I have paused to regroup from eyes burning by tears falling on the page. I have been real… it’s messy, but it’s me. In some of these pages I have euthanized parts of me that had no use anymore… probably never did. In others I have re-opened wounds I thought were too scar-hardened to ever be properly examined. I have searched this soul, initially scared out of my wits – not because of what I might find unpleasant – but out of fear maybe there was nothing left at all… nothing worth believing in, anyway.
And so the infamous first entry, completely unplanned, no forethought, flowed out. What emerged was a level of self-hatred, that for as self-aware as I thought I was, I never saw coming. It was naked, it was raw, it was pain… and left me with such despair that at first reflection, it seemed simply to be a final admission of defeat. Not twelve hours later, however, I was able to see it for what it really was. Genesis. Breakdown. Breakthrough.
44 days later… and I still get angry, I still get sad. I have days loaded with disappointment, doubt, and fear. I worry at times about the future, about my ability to follow-through. I get nervous that at any moment those 45 “Why do I…” questions from that first entry may rear their ugly heads and I’ll regress to that shell of a man who penned that vitriol. I still question myself constantly, I still feel the twinges of regret – not guilt – but regret at the damage I caused, as if feeling shrapnel long ago embedded. I still get confused by this soul, and am nowhere close on some of the answers. I know I may never get there. My dichotomy is still prevalent and acute. I may still crash, I might yet be defeated.
But the difference between the person penning this back page from the first? I look and re-read those dozens of questions, and I feel emboldened, not discouraged. Sure, I still have some fear, but as many a wiser person than I has quoted, “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something is more important” – the willingness to press forward despite seemingly overwhelming pitfalls. The audacity to fail and show up again. The ability to embrace sorrow and tears as merely the wrapping of a profoundly immeasurable gift – the gift to be human. The gift to know we can be reborn, remade, renewed.
We must toil, we must endure, we must be willing to look at those dark or broken parts of our hearts and spirits, and embrace them as we would a lost and wounded friend. And if we can learn to love again, if we can cohere, we may stand a chance. We will remember hope. We will understand that the beauty of a mosaic was fused and forged by what was once broken.
Thanks for dropping by, Dear Reader! Please feel free to follow along as I continue to post excerpts from my memoir, The 10 Minute Time Machine, and my novel, Of Dreams & Angels. Glad to have you here!