How Keeping a Journal Helped Save My Life

Some people are into “journaling” as a way of life. Not me. I started a journal as a way of survival. 

My first entry was written on Sept. 23, 1997, the day of my wife’s diagnosis: “The doctor told Martha she probably has ‘early onset’ Alzheimer’s disease—a devastating blow to us both. No known cause, no known cure. This came after an EEG, blood tests, CT scan of head, other tests.” 

My last entry was posted a decade later on January 11, 2008: “Today Martha moved into her new home—the Menorah Manor nursing home. Sad time.”

These two entries form the bookends of a 14-volume, 1,376-page journal of an estimated 150,000 words. 

One hundred and fifty thousand emotionally wrenched words.

Words drawn from memories, experiences, and images. Life-breathing words, dead words, inane words, profound words, healing words, words bright with insight, and words dim as ashen embers. These are the words that inexplicably reflected the Christ-Presence drawing Martha, our children, and me into love, joy, and meaning along our trail of tears.

After Martha’s diagnosis—the start of a crisis so freighted with emotional and spiritual fireworks—I began doing things without knowing why or how. The first of those initiatives was to start this journal. So much stuff was coming at me from so many different fronts—medical, emotional, reading materials, my business, caring for our family—I needed a place to store it all. 

Figuring out what it all meant would have to wait. 

I didn’t start a journal because of my training and career as an editor and journalist. Nor did I begin one because I wanted to write a book; that didn’t enter my mind until a decade or more later. 

I started a journal out of desperation. I began to understand that a journal could help build a rational structure for things that otherwise seemed fleeting and ephemeral. If not rational, it at least was quasi-rational as it helped me remember and understand later what was going on in a real-time sequence of events.

You may or may not want to keep a journal. If you do, here are some tips drawn from my decade of writing one:    

  • A journal is not a diary. At least mine wasn’t. I didn’t feel the need to write something daily. In fact, I often went days between entries. Other times, though, I couldn’t write fast enough to get down on paper what I was seeing, experiencing, and feeling.  
  • If you’re in a crisis and feel compelled to write down your thoughts and emotions, do it. I began a journal for only one reason: Some deep, unconscious need was driving me. When that need lifted, I quit. No doubt there are other reasons and other situations for keeping a journal, but our crisis with its explosive fallout is the only reason I needed.  
  • If possible, write longhand with pen on paper. This helped connect my heart, mind, and hand in a way that typing on a laptop (if I would have had one back then) could not. Besides, it was a healthy thing for my tears to stain the paper I was writing on. And on occasion, as I re-read and looked at that ink on the paper, I wondered if I was seeing my blood on those pages.
  • Be honest about your feelings and any sense of spiritual darkness. To place your confusion and your lostness on paper can help lift those feelings from you. At the same time be honest about any sense of hope and joy that breaks through, even the slightest sense. For me, such moments—both the darkness and the rays of insight and relief—often came with tears. Being honest before God, and with yourself, has a way of doing that. 

    Let me point out a couple of things about the two pages below from my journal, which were written a few weeks after Martha’s diagnosis. First, I’m not trying to put my thoughts into a comprehensive, final form. As a matter of fact, they’re rather scattered, real-time comments. 

    Second, on the left page I quote Thomas Merton, the late monk from Gethsemani: “The Bible prefers honest disagreement to dishonest submission … One of the basic truths put forward in the Bible as a whole is not merely that God is always right and man is wrong, but that God and man can face each other in an authentic dialog …” (from Opening the Bible).

P.S. If you remember nothing else I share, remember this statement by Merton. Deep in a crisis you will want to muster up all the honest arguments you can make with God, not unlike Job several millennia ago. If you do, chances are you will see the face of God in ways you never have before, just as Job did. 

  • Share your journal only with your closest confidants. My thoughts and feelings were so tentative during these days, I found it best not to go public. I needed to understand—I did not need to get into a debate. As a result, I shared on an ongoing basis with our three children and with our mentor and friend Rev. Lacy Harwell. Later, I shared with Canon Jim Glennon, the Anglican minister I visited in Australia. And I shared with a few others on occasion where it seemed appropriate. I talk more about this here
  • You may need someone to validate what you’re going through. I did. And that person was Lacy. As our sharing with each other progressed, I told him: “I’m feeling the need for you to be my ‘witness’ to these experiences.”  In taking that on, Lacy helped keep me from derailing spiritually and emotionally as I found myself turning some sharp curves at pretty high speeds.  

As I reflect on my experience, my journal’s two primary purposes were these: 

  1. To help me unload and sort out a mass of confusing feelings and thoughts that verbalizing alone—either to myself or with another—could not do.
  2. To help connect what seemed to be separate, unrelated events. Over time my journal helped me see patterns that I otherwise would not have seen.

How have you coped with your crisis? Are you finding a journal helpful? Other tools? If you care to share, please do at #APathRevealedor privately, you may email me at  

If you haven’t realized it yet, I truly appreciate your interest and involvement in our family’s story. 

Sincerely, Carlen

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