By Jaime Collins, Journaling Workshop Presenter and Southwest Health Director of Marketing and Communications
“I have a fight going on inside me,” begins a Cherokee grandfather offering his grandchild a life lesson. “Inside my heart, there’s a terrible fight going on between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is my anger, envy, sorrow regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is goodness. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and compassion. The same fight is going on in you and in every person.”
The child thought for a moment and asked, “Which wolf will win?”
“The one you feed,” replied the grandfather.
Telling stories is a tradition as old as human communication. It’s also the most powerful way to communicate ideas. Stories stick with us. They form our attitudes. They change our minds. They compel us to act. Some of them even change lives.
Inside our own minds, we all tell ourselves stories. In fact, we do this very day of our lives. Often, we retell the same stories over and over again. As you can imagine, how we feed our internal stories has great power over our emotions and our lives.
Journaling is one scientifically-proven effective way of dealing with the stories we tell ourselves… our memories… in a healthy manner.
Understand, I am not a health care professional, and I have no formal training in psychology or medicine. I, therefore, am not here to share a clinical take on journaling or mental health. But as a 54 year old transgender woman who has been through more than her fair share of life changes, raised two daughters to adulthood, lived and worked on three continents, owned her own business, succeeded and failed in ways big and small, practiced journaling for more than a year, not to mention performed a vast array of communications (and story-telling) as part of my profession over a period of more than three decades, I feel I have a perspective of some value on this topic.
That professional interest in writing got the better of me one day about a year ago when it nudged me enough to spend a Saturday morning in Madison at a journaling workshop. I thought I might discover some use for journaling skills. Or at least find the class interesting. What I expected was a lecture. What I experienced was anything but.
The first surprising thing is the other participants and I did all the work. After being given a journal, a pen, a folder of materials, and a brief introduction, our “presenter” asked the 15 of us in attendance to write. She timed us for five minutes on one topic and 3 minutes on the next topic and so on and so on for a full two hours, minus the bathroom break.
Most of our writing tasks seemed simple enough. And largely harmless. Yet in taking pen to paper I discovered a whole lot more. On every one of the seemingly mild mannered topics we were writing, I found I was loaded with emotion. And as the writing continued, my fellow journaling pals and I – all complete strangers – passed a box of tissues back and forth and continued writing in silence. Silence but for the continual sniffling and scribbling interrupted at regular intervals by the tiny bell our presenter would ring when it was time to put our pens down momentarily to hear about the next topic.
“This is surprisingly potent,” I told myself. It was an experience I’ll never forget, because by the time we were packing up our things to leave, I was feeling remarkably light. And free. And positive. So much so, I was eager to chat with our presenter, Nora Miller, who I learned is the program manager at the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (WWHF), the organization (Founded by former Wisconsin First Lady Sue Ann Thompson) that created, manages, and sponsors similar workshops across the State.
EveryWoman’s Journal, Nora informed me, was regularly brought this same way to women in locations throughout most of our 72 Wisconsin counties, though it had never been offered in either Grant, Iowa, or Lafayette Counties. Our southwest Wisconsin women were missing out!
I also learned that bringing EveryWoman’s Journal to the good people of our beautiful rolling hills and valleys required a volunteer. And that my being that volunteer would be as simple as 1) attending an official event and 2) pursuing basic training on the fundamentals of organizing, promoting, and managing a class, and 3) making it happen. And good grief, that kind of free health outreach is not only something my employer regularly does on behalf of creating a healthier southwest Wisconsin but also one of the duties I am personally responsible for. I knew straight away what I had to do. My heart could simply not wait to lead others through the same journaling exercises that had so lightened my spirit!
EveryWoman’s Journal was developed by WWHF as a proactive health program based on the results from research on journaling for good health. The specific techniques taught in the workshop give women tools for self-care, reflection, and self-awareness. The two-hour workshop offers a safe and private time to connect with one’s inner self.
“Women truly are the heart of the health care system within the family. In fact, we make over 85 percent of health care decisions,” says WWHF Founder Sue Ann Thompson. “With that level of care-giving responsibility, it is easy for women to neglect their own health. These workshops allow women to take time for themselves.”
We so often think of our lives being determined by the events that happen to us. Yet, the way we remember those events (the stories we tell) is so often what matters most. The human mind — my human mind, for sure — is a bird’s nest of tangled memories and emotions, and it benefits from some regular care and attention. I discovered through journaling that simply telling the same old stories to ourselves over and over again is at best unhelpful. On the other hand, I also learned a handful of focused journaling techniques that enable me to regularly gain new or broader perspectives on my life.
Using these simple techniques, we can heal old wounds, and we can lighten our hearts. I know because I’ve felt it. And well, I’ve also since read some of the science behind it. For me, journaling has become one of the ways I release tired old patterns of thinking with healthier new thoughts. Like cleaning the garage, journaling helps me move out piles of junk and rid myself of their burden. It helps re-arrange other things and find ways to make good use of what I hold onto.
I periodically host an EveryWoman’s Journal class through Southwest Health’s My Health Life seminars, but classes tend to fill up quickly. Keep an eye out for future class dates, but also remember, you can journal at almost anytime, anywhere.
To the Woman Who Lives with Beavers
Poetry by Ellen Kort, Wisconsin Poet Laureate (2000-2004)
Keeper of water and earth
Keeper of mud and twigs
entrances and exits
that take you downward
into the slick swallow
of your heart
underwater of silence
To you who walks
studiously on land
who works when the moon
is full teach me to breathe
to bless the watery air
teach me how to enter the door
that takes me from light
into darkness and back again.