Keeping a Journal in Tumultuous Times

By Barbara Stahura

Memory is a tricky thing even in the best of times. But in times of great stress and chaos, you might as well kiss it goodbye, for all the good it will do you in accurately recalling events. When your world explodes, memory, too, falls into fragments around your feet — disjointed pieces that later shape-shift, ooze into old recollections or couple with imagination to create new patterns, or disappear altogether. So when I entered the most agonizing, confusing time of my life, I took my journal along and wrote pages in it nearly every day. As a wife and an individual in the midst of turmoil, and also as a writer, I’m grateful that I did.

At the end of 2003, my husband, Ken, sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as the result of a hit-and-run. For a short time, the accident shattered my life into chaos. Later, I settled into a weird rhythm so disconnected from my familiar life that it often left me breathless (and once sent me to the ER with chest pains). I had to maintain any stability I could for Ken’s sake, and for mine. Beginning the morning after the accident, I wrote in my journal nearly every day. At the time my reasons for journaling weren’t necessarily defined. I simply felt a driving need to record my thoughts. Now, though, I’ve had time to sort out and reflect on those reasons.

First, in the exhausting, agonizing weeks that followed the accident, I felt as if I had been cast into the deepest ocean without a life jacket. Visible land — the life to which I hoped to return with my recovered husband — was only a hazy strip in the far distance. Journaling provided a way to ground myself, at least for little snatches of time. It was a safe, private haven where I poured out my confusion, anger, and sorrow.

This had a positive result since I was less likely to express these emotions in the wrong place, as in the ICU, for instance, when Ken’s neurologist saw no need to speak with me. Furthermore, though any medical emergency is confusing, the addition of a TBI complicates the situation even more. The brain controls everything we do, directing not only our mental functions like memory and cognition, but also our personality, emotions, and all the other functions that blend together to create a self. And when the self of someone you love more than your own heart is diminished and damaged the way Ken’s was, you clutch whatever you can to keep yourself afloat. I clutched my journal as if our lives depended on it.

Second, Ken’s memory was damaged by the TBI (fortunately, it has returned, with only slight deficits). He remembers nothing of the earliest weeks after the accident and not much of his time in the rehab facility and the second acute care hospital where he was taken after developing a pulmonary embolism. Early on, I figured he might one day like to know what happened to him, to me, and to us during this lost time. I wrote in my journal for him, too. After he came home and was well enough to comprehend it (and, I’ll admit, decipher my handwriting), he read the entire journal and was grateful I had written so extensively.

Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries.

And, finally, I kept the journal because I am a writer. I knew I would eventually want to write my truth about this watershed event in our lives, and how could I do that without a record? To be enveloped by crisis and wanting to record it so I could later write about it, and even profit from it, can sound self-serving. Perhaps it is. But other writers understand. Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries. In the past eight months, I’ve read half a dozen memoirs from TBI survivors and their families, all of which used journal entries as memory aids and even as direct sources of narrative. And all of them have given me a clearer understanding of the devastation, struggle, and hope that surround this injury that is unlike any other a human being can sustain.

Like prehistoric pollen captured in cores of ancient ice, little nuggets of information glisten in a journal long after an event. Just as scientists use that pollen to infer a great deal about climate and plant life in centuries past, we writers can use our journal nuggets to illuminate much larger portions of our stories. Until I re-read my journal after Ken came home, I’d forgotten a bizarre, significant dream from two weeks after the accident. Now incorporated into the memoir I’m writing, this dream reminds me that I occasionally felt hopeful during the days when my husband sometimes couldn’t remember my name and when exhaustion and despair whitewashed my other emotions. I’ve also referred to my journal when writing several personal essays about Ken and brain injury. Each time, I’ve unearthed something vanished from my conscious memory that allowed me to present a clearer picture.

It can be wrenching to read my journal entries and relive those horrible, frantic weeks after Ken’s accident. But my journal now provides me something precious that was not available then: the luxury of remembering, at a distance and in great detail. Instead of feeling frustrated because that time has evaporated from my memory, I can turn to my journal. I didn’t record everything, of course, but I preserved enough to allow me to reconstruct events, feelings, and situations that otherwise would have been lost forever. As Ken’s wife, I’m gratified he also found value in my journal. And as a writer, I hope that what I scribbled all those months ago may someday have value to others who love TBI survivors.

Barbara Stahura is a freelance writer in Tucson, Arizona, who has written for a number of print and online publications, including Science & SpiritThe ProgressiveSpirituality & Health, and MSNBC.com. Barbara Stahura has a website.