I Finally Read Those Pre-Sobriety Journals
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I Finally Read Those Pre-Sobriety Journals


Earlier this week, I went through the over 10 years’ worth of ephemera I’d been accumulating in an old trunk-turned-coffee table in my living room. “Shred old journals” had been on my list of things to do for at least three months—lists that I keep, ironically enough, in my journal.

Because I don’t actually have a shredder, I was just going to throw them out. Instead of just tossing them no mercy style into the garbage, I started reading them. The notebooks were in all shapes, sizes and conditions. Some of them were the spiral kind you get for school. Others were nice—bound in leather or decorated artistically. In some of these, I had really made an effort to express myself.

The journals start in 2002, when I graduated from college and moved to New York City from the Midwest. Initially, I wrote of loneliness, sometimes desperately so. This loneliness didn’t go away until I got sober. In 2004, I took my first writing class. Here is where I got the wild idea to become a writer. I wanted to be a writer before I knew what that meant, before I knew what I had to say—or, more accurately, when I was still afraid to say what I had to say. For years, in my journals, I was sometimes afraid to say the “bad” stuff even to myself. I’d covered up my true feelings with positive self-talk and by obsessing over my diet and exercise. In grad school for creative nonfiction, I allowed myself to explore my truth even further, which led me to feeling a lot of dark feelings I had previously stuffed down or pushed aside.

If you have support, truth-telling can be incredibly therapeutic. But the support I had at this time in my life was limited, and I didn’t know how to ask for help. When I started getting more honest in my writing, I didn’t know how to contain the dark feelings that came up. In 2005, I completely fell apart.

My journals turned to gibberish. We’re talking one long prose poem punctuated by suicidal ideations. Pretty scary stuff.  Soon after this started, I was diagnosed bipolar and put on medication. When I got sober in 2007, I went off that medication with no adverse affects. I saw a therapist for a long time who determined the initial diagnosis was incorrect. Bipolar or not, my mood swings are pretty dramatic. Even in sobriety, my mood seems to change with the season. I suffer from waves of depression in the winter followed by a period of cautious optimism in the spring followed by what some might describe as mania in the summer and fall.

Something else that is easily recognizable from looking over 12-plus years of journals is that I’m an alcoholic. From the beginning, I write about my problem with alcohol a lot. “Hung over.” “Shouldn’t have drank so much last night.” “Terrible night, why did I drink so much?!” “Goal: stop drinking after three drinks.” “Sick from drinking and with guilt.” Holy moly! I realize that alcohol was not my only problem but booze was definitely kerosene on my emotional flames. Not surprisingly, grad school—when I went completely nuts—is also when my drinking took off.

It’s weird to write about writing, knowing that in 10 years I might read these words. It’s weird to notice my preoccupations and know that these are still my obsessions. Regardless of whatever my mood is at any particular moment, over the past decade or so I’ve had three major preoccupations: my book/being a writer, my body/going to the gym, and whomever I’m dating. Basically, I’m obsessed with myself. When I find myself obsessed with someone else, I call it love.

This hasn’t really changed. If you read my journals from today, you’ll see that I’m still preoccupied by my body. I still pepper my journal with “go to the gym” (although I end up actually going a lot less and I’m not nearly as in shape as I was at 22 or even 26). I’m still obsessed with my romantic relationships. I recognize that I am—and have always been—insecure and avoidant at the same time in those relationships. Basically, I’m still the same person that I always was. Thanks to recovery, I have more words to describe who that is. It’s a difference that’s both subtle and monumental. I’m still an alcoholic, for example, although in 2002 I wouldn’t have known to call it that. Instead, I called myself a lush. I was a lush and my outrageous behavior and outsized feelings were inexplicable. Today, I’m still an alcoholic. I just don’t drink.

David Sedaris once famously said that if you go through someone else’s diary, you get what you deserve. Perhaps the same can be said if one goes through one’s own. Although I did end up throwing a lot of stuff out—photo albums, letters, random stuff—in the end, I kept the journals. I wasn’t as embarrassed by them as I’d feared.

There’s a promise in 12-step meetings that you will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it and, apparently for me, this is coming true. Even the most regrettable encounters—situations that brought me or others pain—were not so terrible in context. I don’t regret the woman I once was, because I’m pretty fucking proud of the woman I’ve become. She looks a lot like the woman that, at 22, I fantasized about becoming. I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be healthy. I didn’t know how to accomplish those goals.

Twelve years and a stack of journals later, I found the right words.

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.