How Journaling Became Part of My Journey
People who have met me were always surprised by the fact that I never journaled as an avid writer. As a child, I tried keeping a journal or diary numerous times, but as a lazy Libra, I never stuck with it. I think I disdained the warm and fuzzy "Dear Diary" stuff. As I got older, I think I avoided journaling because I hated seeing my pain on paper. I hated feeling and expressing even more, so I would just bottle everything up and let it explode when a big incident arose.
When I came into the rooms of Al-Ateen and Al-Anon in my late teenage years, journaling is a tool that many members used and was highly recommended. Due to my past experiences and not being ready to address all of my issues yet, that recommendation was something I did not take. When my life became really unmanageable as a result of the progression of my codependency and adult children of alcoholic issues at the age of 18, I entered counseling. I thought that they would just give me the formula for not caretaking for my cousin and not feeling the compulsion to do it. I was not prepared for how deep we were going to go. It all started when my male counselor told me to get two notebooks. One was for positive lists, letters, thoughts, and feelings, and the other was for negative lists, letters, thoughts, and feelings. Originally, I pretended to forget that he asked me, hoping it would not be a big deal, but then I was told that they were the most important part of our work. My female counselor told me to keep a thought catalog of situations, feelings, and thoughts and to start journaling major thoughts and feelings. I was surprised to learn from her that journaling was actually an evidence-based therapy technique, but now I am not surprised.
After having an "aha" moment almost four weeks ago that has kept me straight regarding my codependency issues with my cousin ever since and really getting deep into the negative and positive notebook and thought catalog, I started keeping a whole separate notebook related to journaling. To help it feel more like essay writing as opposed to warm and fuzzy stuff, I call each entry a "Thought of the Day" and give it a theme most of the time. The theme is usually a quote, Al-Anon slogan, or concept that sums up the whole day. I am actually eager to write my thoughts of the day because I have so many of them. I wish I could have seen the beauty in journaling sooner.
Why Journaling is a Powerful Therapy Tool
A Gift Many of Us Had Given Up On Too Soon And/or Had Stolen
For as long as I could remember, I could not wait to grow up. As a result, I did not fully savor doing the fun childhood activities when it was my time to do them. I gave up on childhood way too soon when I made the decision to become the family addictions counselor at 11 years-old. I had job applications submitted before I even turned 16. I always lived so many years ahead of each day, which I later learned was futile because those plans almost never came to fruition.
The first the reason that I grew up too quickly is I was like every other young person. I did not like being told what to do and was too smart and mature for my own good. After all, George Bernard Shaw said, "Youth is wasted on the young." The second and more significant reason that I grew up too quickly is I was a child of an alcoholic/dysfunctional families. A classic trait of children of alcoholics and adult children of alcoholics/dysfunctional families is we tend to be rigid and take life very seriously. I titled my first book A Stolen Childhood for a reason. Addiction/family dysfunction robs children of their childhoods. Children of alcoholics get exposed to harsh reality sooner than most people, experience harsh realities no one should have to experience, and take on more responsibility than they should by either force or obligation to survive.
Living a Second Childhood
Age is only a number. Activities are always fun. Two counseling sessions ago, I was given a homework assignment. To my surprise, it was not a cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, or any other orthodox psychotherapy homework assignment. Instead, it was a play therapy assignment, but my counselor did not call it that. He simply told me to do "kid things" such as coloring in children's coloring books instead of those expensive adult coloring books that have about a million microscopic coloring spaces in each pictures, playing with and talking to stuffed animals, solving 50-piece puzzles instead of 1,000-piece puzzles, and just going to the dollar store and treating myself to some toys from the toy aisles. "This is therapy?" I thought. Needless to say, I was thrilled and headed right to my local dollar store after my session to get started on it.
As I was browsing through the toy aisle of my local dollar store, I could not have felt more out of place as a fish being placed in a household aquarium upon being brought home from the pet store. As each person passed me by, I felt the need to hide or explain myself. Slowly, I released my inhibitions and just started picking. I ended up buying a princess coloring book, paw patrol coloring book, mini sand art kit, checker game, pink bouncy ball that lights up, foam ball shooter, and toy handcuffs. During another trip, I bought more kid's coloring books and puzzles that had 25-60 pieces. I also ended up buying Candy Land, playdough, and a fairy necklace-making kit from another store. After some time doing these childhood activities, I felt happy and liberated. Some happy childhood memories were evoked, and I started to remember what I really like to do. For example, every time my parents and I would go to Ocean City, NJ when I was a young child, I had to make a sand art. I had not made a sand art in about 11 years, and I forgot that I even liked doing sand art. As a child, my dad and I would always play Candy Land, and I would cheat by shuffling the cards in a way that would put me ahead and set him back. For years, I was able to easily rehash bad memories of arguments and my cousin's drug use, but those happy memories were lost in the shuffle of chaos and insanity and seriousness of studying addiction and recovery. I no longer feel obligated to give up going on amusement rides down the shore next summer. Even though I am developing motion sickness, the log flume is still calling my name. I even took it upon myself to watch some old episodes of Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack and Kody when I was bored one night.
When we were children, we had little control over our lives. Our parents and other adults in our lives made all the decisions, and sometimes, their choices regarding their lives ended up dictating our lives. Since they were mere humans, they did not always make the best decisions that would give up the happiest childhoods. For example, my dad was overprotective and would not allow me to ride a Ferris wheel until I was 14. My mom was a clean freak and did not let me play with glitter. As I was browsing through that dollar store toy aisle, I was thinking, "Nobody can tell me no because I have my own money now so no temper tantrum is required." Living a second childhood helps us access our true self, identify our own desires, remember the good in our lives, and make new memories.
How to Play
Having fun is essential to development. Erick Erikson's stages of development show that those who do not have fun put themselves at risk for a midlife crisis. While going to the extreme and doing nothing but children activities is not healthy and can give you the diagnosis of Peter Pan Syndrom, loosening up every once and a while to go the playground or a theme park is not a crime. Integrating some soothing activities that were originally intended for children (e.g. coloring, molding playdough, simple puzzles, etc.) is actually healthy. Besides, there are adult coloring books, clay, and puzzles for a reason. Doing the kid ones is just easier and more economical in most cases. Taking a break from watching TV shows that have sad storylines, horrific violence, and wild sex to watch a Charlie Brown movie or Disney channel show once a week or so is perfectly fine. The only people that will know what you are doing are you and maybe the people that you live with. A poem I read in the past few weeks said, "It's never too late to have a happy childhood." Your inner child is always a part of you, so feel free to let it come out to have fun and be nurtured. Remember to keep it simple and just be yourself.
What Inspired Me?
I've been doing inner child work in my personal counseling. My counselor told me to do activities I would have done as a child and to allow myself to enjoy doing them without inhibition or feelings of embarrassment. I went to the dollar store and the craft store after that session and was amazed and how many activities (e.g. sand art, jewlery making, playing checkers, etc.) that I enjoyed and lost touch with due to getting caught up in the insanity of everyone else's lives. I have learned that it is never too late to have a happy childhood and adults do not always have to do adult things all the time. This week, my counselor suggested for me to buy a simple kid's puzzle that was about 50 pieces. I have not done a puzzle in years and never really finished one because I always despised that because they require one virtue I do not have: patience. When I was this 100-piece Peanut's puzzle in target, I could not resist. It took me a whole afternoon and even time stepping away to take a nap, eat a snack, and walk, but when I finally finished it, I was amazed at how many lessons about life I learned from doing a simple puzzle. The therapeutic and spiritual experience impacted me so much I felt compelled to write a poem about it.
Life Lessons from a Puzzle: By Bria Rose Riley (Me)
You have to piece together one part at a time,
Not worry about the whole picture before the first piece is laid.
To yourself you have to be kind.
If it does not fit, don’t force it.
It just wasn’t meant to be there.
Remember that it’s not that you don’t care;
You were not the one who designed it to be able to buy clothes that fit.
You cannot leave one piece out
Because then the picture can never make sense,
Even if you have a plethora of doubt.
If you try to force the wrong piece somewhere out of hard-headedness or yearning,
You are only going to have a hard time later.
But it’s not the end of the world, you are only learning.
You do not have to be your own hater.
Later on, you discover some pieces go where you never thought they would.
Perspective comes in retrospective,
So how you possibly could?
Sometimes you have to start at the core,
Where it is the most complicated,
To piece together the simple board.
Some toiling, wiggling, twisting, and even pounding are necessary to know if it piece is really where it is meant to be.
After all, not all puzzles were meant to be easy as a lock and key.
One step further is always worth celebrating.
Bria Riley is a published author, recovering codependent and adult child of an alcoholic, who is active in several recovery programs. She knows the turmoil and heartbreak of growing up in an addiction-stricken family and wants to help others who have also been affected by addiction through her writing.