I started keeping a diary when I was seven. It was the Beezus and Ramona diary because the Ramona series was one of my favorites at the time. The other was the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura was the reason I started keeping a diary; I wanted to grow up and have a record of my life. In fact, in response to the Beezus and Ramona diary prompt, “If I could write a book when I grow up, this is what it would be about:” I wrote, “Me and my life.”
That dream is coming to fruition as I’m currently working on a memoir spanning late grade school into my early twenties. Digging through my box of old journals and diaries is a key part of the process and one I thought I would be excited about. Instead, I’ve found it awkward and embarrassing at best, and downright painful and uncomfortable at worst. Don’t get me wrong, some moments and epiphanies that were glorious to relive, such as discovering my favorite band and meeting the girl who has been my best friend since age 15. There are some things that I probably found terribly embarrassing at one point, but now I think are funny and endearing: My eighth grade diary is a Star Trek: The Next Generation “Captain’s Log,” and in one entry I describe the boy I have a crush in between running commentary on the ST:TNG episode I was watching while writing (“the one where Riker gets a cut on his leg and microbes get into his nervous system and he has flashbacks”). But along with all that came parts of a picture of myself that I didn’t want to see: anger, depression, excuses for shitty actions, and a whole lot of insecurity.
I have memories of revisiting the Beezus and Ramona diary in sixth or seventh grade and being mortified mainly over my clumsy writing skills (I spelled carrots, “carrtots”) and the fact that my seven-year-old life seemed pathetic by my almost teenage standards—trips to the library were the highlight of my existence and I wrote about them a couple times each week; I thought a dream about my cat falling in the bathtub was most hilarious thing ever. What I experienced this time as I revisited all of the post-Ramona diaries was a lot more complicated. It tore entire parts of my self-perception to shreds.
The first one to go was an idea I’ve had of myself as the proud weirdo rebel who didn’t care what others thought of her. Now, I’ll admit that was always something I tried to project and knew deep down it was a front, but my old notebooks made that even clearer, especially the pages I tore out for fear that someone would read them. I found half of the pages from my sixth grade diary (which had a lock on it, but I knew was easy to break into) in an envelope addressed to my cousin Becca, who lived out of state. I remember doing this hoping that if something were to happen to me my parents would give the envelope to Becca and she would know what to do with those pages: burn them! What I had written that I wanted burned? Details about the crush I didn’t want my local friends to know about, and my real feelings about the girls I was hanging out with at the time, who I knew talked about me behind my back.
I can certainly recognize that we all experience these kinds of insecurities, but what I really struggled with was seeing how they continued to manifest in my teens and twenties, the period when I saw myself as a punk rocker/goth who gave zero fucks. There were still entries where I berated myself for having a crush on someone that I thought my friends would make fun of me for, where I questioned my own “coolness,” wondered if the people I hung out with thought I was boring or stupid or in some other way unworthy, and questioned if the friends who I still hold near and dear now liked me. The worst entries are from when I was 18 and pining for and sleeping with an older guy who was an alcoholic, had a girlfriend, and would seriously fuck up my life for years. I felt unworthy of and lost without that tool to the point that I was suicidal. I inevitably threw that journal, which had a beautiful blue floral cover, across the room and cried every time I had to revisit it.
Equally as hard to handle was the innocuous-seeming black vinyl journal with a tuxedo cat cover that resembled my beloved cat Sid. I knew that the two journals that followed it were going to be rough reading, I’d filled the sticker-covered composition books with my darkest pain and deepest anger over six-months when I was 17. The journal preceding it, a green spiral notebook from freshman and sophomore year, was gone—I’d torn out pages and rewritten most of it while in an abusive relationship. I’d held on to it for several years meaning to reconstruct it, but in a fit of frustration I’d thrown it away. I’d opened the cat journal which was from junior year, hoping I might have re-recorded some of my early high school memories from the green journal and fearing that I’d find the post-abuse pain and anger from the composition books, but instead I found something that made me feel sick: documentation of the six-month stretch between when my abuser and I broke up and when I realized what he’d done to me. During those six months, I missed my abuser, I loved him, and I recollected all of the wonderful things that made me love him. I’d forgotten that part of myself had existed at all, and I didn’t like her.
Another hard truth: I wasn’t only a victim, I was also a bully. I came across one journal—a flowery, pastel pink thing that must have been a gift—and although I’d scrawled all over the cover about this being the “whole story” and “THE TRUTH” about my fall out with a friend in seventh grade, I had once again ripped out the pages, and this time they weren’t stuffed in any envelopes. I had to piece together that time period through entries about it in the (definitely self-bought) Star Trek journal and my own memory, which is admittedly clouded by the swirl of angry, depressed feelings I was experiencing at the time. I realized, though, that “THE TRUTH” as I would have written it then would have been one-sided and defensive, full of the nasty things my friend had said or done, the psychic dreams I’d had about her betrayal, my own version of a daytime talk show. I saw myself as 100 percent the victim back then. Here’s what actually happened: My best friend was going through something terrible and taking her feelings out on me in ways that were cruel and abusive. I confided in another friend about some of this and the depression I was experiencing, as well as a crush I didn’t want anyone to know about. That friend betrayed my confidence and shared these secrets with another friend. I iced the girl who betrayed me out of the friend group. She retaliated by reporting me as suicidal (which, again in retrospect, could have been out of genuine concern), and then by getting her friends from another school to harass and bully me at summer camp (definitely not out of genuine concern).
For years, I’ve clung to the idea that I was the victim and she, the bad guy, because of how deeply depressed, scared, and truly suicidal her actions made me feel. But the situation was more nuanced than that. Yeah, that girl betrayed my trust and yeah, she incited other people to hurt me, but I iced her out, which is a bullying tactic, and I know now that I poured all the other, more complicated feelings I had about my best friend into the drama with her. Another thing that I totally minimized in my journal entries was the way I lashed out at yet another friend in the wake of all of this. I did cruel, classic bully things, like inviting her to my birthday party and getting everyone else to ignore and make fun of her. My immediate response to to these memories and realizations was shame. I wanted to bury them, to forget them, and definitely not ever write about them. But I continued to ruminate on these situations and realized how important it was to share them, because they show what a cycle bullying can be and how it stems from the feeling of loss of power and control. I was consciously aware of this and even had a conversation about it for Rookie with a girl I bullied in high school after my abusive relationship, but it wasn’t until I revisited this even earlier period of my life that I saw how deeply entrenched in that cycle I was.
I had to really read between the lines—and the torn out pages—to see that cycle clearly in my journals. The process also made it clear to me that sometimes I don’t even feel capable of telling myself the full truth. I needed a good 20-plus years additional experience to really gain perspective on what 12-year-old me was experiencing. That is frustrating in some ways, I really thought I knew “THE TRUTH” back then, but it’s also the joy of journals—revisiting them can provide a path to deeper understanding. However, I also noticed that they aren’t a full picture of a certain period of time, at least not for me. I tended focus on my dominant emotion at the time, and as a result those sticker-covered composition books from senior year were pretty much all pain and anger. Occasionally there would be a poem about how much I loved one of my friends, but if a stranger with no other knowledge about me were to read them, they would probably think I was the most miserable person in existence. I’m also sure that if I had the journal from when I first met my abuser, it would be all mushy, head-over-heels-in-love stuff with no hint whatsoever as to what else was going on—and that would have been even before I censored my writing. Journals are an emotional outlet so this makes sense, but I do mourn some of the missing moments. Recognizing this has actually changed the way I journal now: I rant and pour out whatever emotions I need, but I’ve also taken more time to record small details so they don’t get lost in the shuffle.
This deep dive into my journals, although painful in many ways, has helped me to see all the different pieces of me and made me work to make sense of them. In a lot of cases I did this through more writing, like this essay about forgiving myself for loving my abuser. The pieces don’t fit together nicely like in a puzzle and that can be uncomfortable, but rather than run from the discomfort, I’ve been trying to sit with it and understand how it is part of the larger picture. This has made me more accountable for my actions and more aware of where some of my reactions come from. In the end, my years of journaling didn’t have the sole purpose of keeping a record of “me and my life,” they helped me decode and understand that life. ♦