Novel Hill Photography

How the F Word saved my life. And other effects of ugly journaling.

I’m gonna let you in on one of the most private parts of my life: I’m a cutter. And no, I’m not talking about arts and crafts. For the last fifteen years, I’ve struggled with garden-variety levels of depression and self-harm.

I’ve done counseling, group therapy, and mild medication—some of which included $6 Pinot Grigios long after bedtime. And after all that, I haven’t reached for the razor in nearly five years, a fact I’m pretty proud of.

But when it comes to destructive desires it’s not easy to just say, “shake it off.” In fact, this may be one of the few scenarios in which actions aren’t always louder than words. ’Cause for the women and men who struggle with self-harm—the words in your head are a mean bitch.

So what do I do with the words in my head? I write them down. And I write them down some more. And then I write them down all over again.

It may seem small, and albeit cliché—but nothing feels better to my emotionally-wrought inner-moppet than to grab a journal and go to town. In my experience, and in the professional opinion of my former college counselor, it’s one of the most effective and sustainable forms of recovery.

Some of my Moleskines—sans espresso.

But for me, journaling with benefits didn’t happen naturally. I didn’t grab a beautiful black Moleskine one day, sit down with my warm espresso, and let the words flow out of me a la Dickinson-incarnate. In fact, it took me years to find my journaling stride.

What was my biggest problem? Something I like to call “pretty journaling.”

I’d see movies in which a writer sat outside French-style café and looked off into the distance between scribbling sentences. I’d see window displays with $70 hipster journals at Urban Outfitters. I’d see Pinterest boards and Instagram posts of gorgeous paper goods with quotes copied down in mastered calligraphy. I saw other peoples’ journals and experiences with journals—and what I saw looked beautiful.

Via Instagram

What made matters worse? As an avid reader—and English major to boot—I didn’t just want my journal to be aesthetically pleasing. I wanted it to contain bursts of wisdom and brilliance. I wanted my diary to echo the soul-wrenching knowledge of Whitman and the ageless sketches of Michelangelo. I had fantasies that one day, long after I was gone, some distant relative would find one of my old forgotten journals and exclaim—“Eureka! That woman was a damn good poet!”

I was a hopeful. I was a dreamer. I was an idiot.

Because despite what I thought, a pretty journal with patched-together platitudes wasn’t going to help me grow. An overly-priced diary with the words “Be yourself, everyone else is taken” on the cover wasn’t going to help me comb through the ugly thoughts rumbling in my head.

Pretty isn’t synonymous with useful. And pretty journaling certainly wasn’t going to keep me off the path of self-harm.

After a while—with no lasting improvement to my mental health—I started believing that journaling had betrayed me. I wasn’t any better for it. And on some level, I knew it was only adding pressure to what should have been my private life. I wondered why my calligraphy didn’t look as skilled. I’d write down thoughts—then compare them to the thoughts of others. I’d buy a perfectly good notebook, see someone else’s I liked better, and hate myself for it.

Journaling wasn’t making me a better person. It was just a new destructive vehicle that scratched at the worst parts of myself.

Now, where the did I put that wine key…

Via Pinterest

Then one night, as I was in the middle of writing a poem—probably about heartache, probably about a boy—I stopped mid-line. I looked down at what I had just written. And I hated it. I scanned the scribbles of stale, self-indulgent sentiments, and let out a hearty: “Fuck.”

Now, I’m not a complete stranger to some good ‘ol cuss words, but I had never muttered a more satisfying “fuck” in my life. So I wrote it down: fuck. That felt even better. Then I wrote it over and over…fuck, fuck, fuck… Seconds passed, maybe minutes. But at some point, my pen went rogue. I abandoned the ruled lines. I quit any recognizable cursive. I turned pages with ripping force. I let my left hand smear the wet ink in directions it always wanted to go. I jammed and punched and stabbed the paper with my pen.

It wasn’t pretty.

I had released so much energy that I tired myself out. And what I saw in front of me wasn’t what I knew to be journaling. What I saw in front of me didn’t belong on Instagram. It was messy, violent—and ugly. It was me. I slept a full nine hours that night, exhausted with dissipated tension. I had just done some damn ugly journaling—and it felt good.

A great mess of papers and maybe some curse words inside.

For years now, I’ve been a committed ugly journaler. I write out my thoughts—no matter how un-pretty they are—with no consideration to form, function, or flattery. I may not be an artist of photogenic entries, but I’ve never felt healthier or freer. I may not be a Whitman or a Michelangelo, but I know how to get what I need out of a blank notebook.

Look—you’ve caught me—I still like making pretty journals every now and then. (They’re a load of creative scrapbook-esque fun.) And I solemnly swear I don’t sit around judging writers for how they choose to create. (I know how that feels.)

Because whether you journal as a hobby or a necessity, you’re in charge of how you express yourself.

But to the writer who is struggling, to the lonely hearted needing to tap into their mental roots, to the quarter-life-crisis-er battling with self-esteem: I’m officially giving you permission to write the ugliest journal you can. Get honest, get a little violent, and get really ugly.

And you know what? While we’re on the topic—go ahead and say it. Say “fuck” out loud right now. I know you want to.

de-Label Ourselves

Labels are internalized stereotypes. Every one of us is a holistic individual. We do not need self-help books or social media stereotypes to tell us who we are and who we need to be. We embrace and celebrate HUMAN stories, including our tears and laughters along our life battles.

Cait Emma Smith, M.A.

Written by

Writer, design lover, book devourer, after-hours poet, and expert parallel parker (she/her) | www.caitemmasmith.com

de-Label Ourselves

Labels are internalized stereotypes. Every one of us is a holistic individual. We do not need self-help books or social media stereotypes to tell us who we are and who we need to be. We embrace and celebrate HUMAN stories, including our tears and laughters along our life battles.

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