Personal Trash: The Journal as Catharsis

When I stopped on the scale at the Rapid City landfill last July, the attendant suspiciously eyed the garbage bags piled in the back of my pick up. “Personal trash?” he questioned.

I wanted to ask him how he had guessed, but I chickened out. At the drop-off point the stench of rotting refuse nearly overpowered me as I discarded my accumulation of orange rinds, toilet paper rolls, empty cereal boxes – and the half a dozen journals into which I’d poured out my broken-hearted angst two summers ago. I’d let go of a romantic relationship gone wrong and now, after moving those battered composition books from bookshelf to file cabinet to closet shelf, it was time to let go of the garbage.

Throughout my adult life, journal writing has been a way to clarify my thoughts, set my priorities, and express feelings that I suspect, if made public, might qualify me for a stay in the state hospital or an appearance on Jerry Springer. I’ve recorded my daily life, dreams and spiritual insights between the pages of my journals. The tattered, coffee-stained notebooks serve both as record of and catalyst for my healing.

It didn’t start out that way. The pink leatherette journal I received for Christmas when I was ten, seemed more of a chore to keep than a pleasure. Although I liked the way it felt in my hands and loved the tiny lock on the cover that kept it secure from my little brother’s prying eyes, my entries were far from inspired. “Went to school. Saw Grandma. Got new shoes. Snowed today.” Within three weeks I’d lost the key along with the desire to keep a journal.

Years later desperation drove me to grab a spiral notebook in my first days of sobriety and write my heart out, then back in again. Since that time, I’ve saved more of my journals than I’ve discarded. Some have served as compost heaps, filled with ideas, memories and insights that continue to fertilize my life and my writing years later. Other volumes were emotional land-fill, a place to snivel and whine, a place to dump my resentments and self-pity, the sentiments A.A. terms “stinking thinking.”

Driving away from the dump that day minus six volumes of personal trash, I felt unburdened. My decision to sacrifice the journals to the lumbering yellow bulldozer was an act of liberation, as had been filling their pages with sharp-edged truths about the relationship and myself that I could no longer deny once they were in black and white.

On the way home I stopped at the store to buy yet another composition book, eager to begin a new chapter.

Kay Marie Porterfield