Today I burnt 15 journals. Journals I had written during months of a mania episode after going back on medications for bipolar 1 disorder two years ago. I was encouraged by my psychiatrist to journal rather than blurt out all my disjointed thoughts on Facebook. So I filled over 20 books, mostly school exercise books and scrapbooks with colourful scribblings, often in felt tip pen rather than biro.
I had felt an extreme need to express myself at the time. I understood what I wrote, but it would have been complete nonsense to anyone else. Trauma was a recurring theme in amongst all the mind-maps, associations and symbolism. I was trying to process my trauma and calm my racing brain. Often my brain was racing too fast and was too disorganised to write, so I painted brightly coloured abstracts instead.
In my last therapy session for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), my psychologist asked, 'what will help you let go of the pain and move on?' I said 'I don't know?' I've processed so much - expressed it, analysed it, even been creating something new from it (my work-in-progress novel and numerous paintings). My psychologist said I've done a lot of processing on my own. But sometimes I find it therapeutic to destroy what I've created. I knew that I would destroy my journals at some stage but today I decided it was time to destroy three-quarters of them.
It's a process I have done from time to time - delete photos, delete Facebook posts, delete blog posts. Even destroyed several symbolic objects during a mania episode. It was part of the processing and letting go.
I chose the most 'manic' journals - easily identified because of the large, scribbly writing in brightly coloured felt-tip pens and flicked through them, skim-reading portions for the last time (which wasn't easy because it was barely legible) before ripping out the pages and tossing them into the fire. I wrote a page full of notes about what the mania was like, going from my journal writings.
It's not the first time I've burnt journals. When I had a breakdown when I was 20, I had a 'secret' journal of poetry - the only time I'd written poetry - it was an outlet for my suffering while I was being told I was 'demon-possessed' (back in the early nineties there wasn't much awareness about mental illness). I told someone about the journal and they told me to burn it to let go of the pain. Well, I still had a lot of other pain but I can't remember what was in the journal now. If it's destroyed, I can't go back to it and I'll forget about it.
I wrote a memoir when I was hypomanic and published it under a pen name. But then I unpublished it and deleted it in a rather impulsive decision. That was because after a few people read it and told me they felt so sad, I didn't want a story that didn't inspire. But the process of writing it and then deleting it was therapeutic.
For the past few years, I've been writing a semi-autobiographical novel with a pet theme called Pet Purpose. I decided to go with a novel mainly to give me some 'privacy' while I tell a very personal story. So I've changed the story-line but woven some of my story in there. Sometimes I feel like deleting it, but I have worked so hard on it and it's a matter of getting it to a point where I feel comfortable sharing it publicly. It has been very emotional and therapeutic to write, but now it's at the 'hard work' stage of re-writing and editing so I don't think about it everyday now. But at one stage, thinking about it every day, gave me a sense of meaning and purpose.
It was a rather impulsive decision to destroy the journals, even though I knew I would burn them when I was ready. I still have half a dozen more, but they are when I was more stable, so it would take longer to read through them before they get destroyed too. Another time.
How did I feel when I destroyed them? Earlier I'd had a migraine. It seemed to ease when I made a decision. I had a surge of energy (like hypomania) and felt purposeful. I did it quite quickly, writing a few notes (summarising 15 journals onto 1 page of notes about mania), then tearing out pages and tossing them onto a fire. I only kept 2 pages which had symbolic sketches on them.
During the burning process, I felt abdominal cramps building up. Immediately afterwards, I had a physical release on the toilet - the 'runs'. Quite often, I have had a physical release of some kind when I have 'let go' (eg crying, orgasm, laughing, diarrhoea, even seizures). I am hoping that I will have let go of a lot of that psychological pain poured out into those journals too. The pain that has kept me 'stuck' and stopped me from moving forwards.
Edit: a few hours later, I'm still feeling a lot lighter than I have in a long time. Like I've let go of a heavy burden (that has been in my dreams). It has felt like a transformative process to burn some intense writings. I intend to burn the other journals when I am ready. I'll skim through them to find any 'gems' first.
Xanthe finds writing and painting to be therapeutic. She has lived with mental illness for over 25 years. She has been diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety disorder after originally being diagnosed with 'treatment resistant' depression with general anxiety.