Like most writers, I keep a journal. And like most people who keep journals, I’m not sure why.
My earliest journals are from my seventh-grade religion class. Our teacher, Brother Tom, had us keep them. For most of my friends it was a chore, but the promise of performance and praise touched me. Brother Tom was my captive audience, and my journals were his favorite. I knew this because he would often say so in his comments, which I looked forward to like nothing else every week.
I haven’t gotten rid of many of my journals, though I have gotten rid of some. I remember cutting pages and pages of them up into thin strips in high school. Then mixing up the strips and putting them in separate trash cans. Too embarrassing, I guess, though I’m not sure what could have been so embarrassing at that age. Or how it could be more embarrassing than anything I’ve done or thought since.
But I’ve kept more than I’ve destroyed, and it’s a fairly unbroken record from 1978 to . . . well, to last week, I guess. And again, I’m not sure why I do this. I’m not sure why I carefully note not only the date but also the time of day. I’m not sure who, if anyone, will ever read them. I rarely do.
Sometimes I go back and look in specific journals if I’m trying to reconstruct a fading memory. Remembering who that girl was I did that thing with that time by that place, stuff like that. But usually they just sit in a filing cabinet.
The other day, out of curiosity, I randomly picked one out and started reading it. And it may be the beginning of understanding why I keep a journal.
ome excerpts from the fall of 2013:
9-30-13, 1:41 p.m. How I am feeling: icky. I feel violated by the carpet guy & his mystery 100 ft2. I feel stupid because I said “Nutmeg” instead of “Gingerbread.” I am tired. I am always tired; I could always sleep. What is wrong with me?
10-3-13, 5ish. Starbucks, Webster Groves, ballet night. I did go to work & get Law Daily out but then went home to sleep. I was so tired. Woke up around 11:30 or so, feeling guilty for not being at work—so I started doing laundry & did laundry all day.
10-8-13, 10:39 a.m. Why am I so tired every day. Depression? I sleep fine, go to bed around 10:30, up at 5:30, drink coffee. Today I also splurged on a cup @ McDonald’s so I’ve had 3 & still barely holding my pen up as my mind starts to drift again. So tired.
11-10-13, 8:53 p.m. A quiet Sunday night. Kate & El are watching a movie in our bed; I will sleep in Kate’s room. I am so lonely. I was alone tonight. Kate had her end of year soccer party. I didn’t go.
11-14-13, 4:02 p.m. Why does she stay with me? I’m not just worthless, I’m a strain, an expense. I should be written off like a bad debt. WORTHLESS.
12-4-13, 3:44 p.m. I need validation. I need to feel good. I need to stop doubting myself.
These entries could have been written three years ago. Or last year. Or this afternoon. Yet even in 2013, amidst all the fatigue and loneliness, I was doing a lot. I had a full-time job. I had a family. I was editing a book. I was learning just enough about Carl Jung to allow me to review a book called Art and the Relic Cult of St. Antoninus in Renaissance Florence for the Jung Journal. I was thinking through my own book project, a memoir of growing up in St. Joseph, Missouri. And I was apparently making a second full-time job of beating myself up for not doing any of this fast enough, well enough, consistently enough.
The value of these journals may be that they illustrate the workings of the productive depressive’s mind. The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists nine types of depression. The one that comes closest to mine is persistent depressive disorder, or dysthymia. However, it doesn’t quite fit.
One article states, “People with dysthymia often find it difficult to be ‘upbeat,’ even during good times. They might be perceived as gloomy, pessimistic, or a complainer.” This is not how anyone would describe me, except maybe my closest family members—and anyone who might ever read my journals.
I imagine that someone will read my journals, someday, and they will look at everything I have done, and they will think of how I presented to them, and they will wonder, “How can this be the same person?”
It’s a good question. Even today, I am a hyper achiever. Again, on top of a full-time job, I am writing two books, editing a magazine, editing a book, consulting for a bank, editing for training company, reading Proust, and fantasizing about things I may never do—the Jungian analysis of John Lydon/Johnny Rotten, the memoir project, the lines of poetry lying around . . .
And yet, most days . . . life? Yeah, OK, if I must. Whatever. Then I go about filling my day with lists and activities and presenting myself positively, always ready to cheer someone else or make a joke, often at my own expense—and I work, work, work.
My solace now is that I have the journals to contrast how I feel to what I have done—a physical counter to the ongoing weight of worthlessness and failure. It’s the mystery of me, and of the 3.8 million dysthymiacs in the U.S. I am better than I was in 2013, or 2007, or 1983, and yes, I am in therapy, and I have been since I turned 18. Therapy helps. Exercise helps. Getting older helps. Perspective helps.
Passages like this from the 2013 journal also help. It is one of a handful, scattered here and there, in which I finally break away from the day-to-day recitation of fatigue and loneliness and caffeine—places where the sky cracks open before the clouds roll back in:
10-12-13, 11:35 p.m. OK, so forget all that other shit I’ve written over the past 35 years. Seeing Judy Collins in concert has made me want to dedicate my life & writing to finding the truth—that magical hole that can open in time & space, the perfect moment captured like a fly in amber. The pain, the cold, dark pain,. . . . Transcendence, the fog of your breath shading Orion’s belt on a freezing Christmas Eve night in Ellsworth KS ca. 1970 something. “Everything dies, that’s a fact but maybe everything that dies one day comes back.”
 Katie Hurley, LCSW, “Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia),” https://www.psycom.net/depression.central.dysthymia.html