The Diary Art: To Journal Or Not To Journal, When You Can’t Write By Hand

When I was younger I kept a diary pretty much my entire middle school and high school existence. Starting at the age of five, I kept sporadic written recollections but it wasn’t until I was 12 that I actually put it down into a book that I considered a friend. From the ages of 12 to 18, I went through and kept these friends, filling their pages with hopes, dreams, feelings, insecurities, fears, daily dramas, song lyrics, and poetry. Then college kind of took over my life, as did graduate school, and I was back to the sporadic thing, but I didn’t quit completely.


The Last Journal I Ever Wrote In (2003-2008)

I haven’t journaled or kept any kind of diary since 2008. And lately, more and more, I miss it – terribly. I have considered starting again, but there has been one thing that has held me back every time I get that urge. I can’t write anymore. At least not with my hand.

In April 2010, I had surgery on my left arm, and it went terribly wrong. It wasn’t something my surgeons did, it was something they found when they opened me up, a true “Oh shit!” moment. At the time my mother wanted me to sue (not out of regard to me, as much as smelling money) but I defended my surgeon from the get-go. Whenever I give it much thought, I think if anything, I owe my arm to him. Anyway, when I came out of that surgery the question of whether I would be able to keep my arm or not loomed over me, for longer than I care to admit. It wasn’t a clear case either way – my arm was getting oxygen, but barely any/not enough. Meaning cells and nerves started to die off, shut down.

When I first woke up, I looked over I thought my arm was covered by some heavy warped cloth. That ‘cloth’ was actually my arm itself, and I couldn’t feel it at all. When the doctors looked to see if there was sensation, there wasn’t. It took me a few hours to realize the fact that I didn’t feel any pain was one of the things that had everyone so concerned. My arm was this black bluish purple color and the skin was weathered like that of a burn survivor’s. My arm was also locked/paralyzed in the strangest position. I am not sure what the right term for it would be, because I could not move my arm (paralyzed) but it was also locked in the funky position that it was when I woke up. My arm was bent at the elbow, not quite at a right angle, the inner part of my arm was facing outward, exposing the vulnerable parts of my arm and wrist. Then my wrist was also locked, forcing my hand to be twisted and facing away from me.

My arm was useless, and incredibly heavy. At times I thought it would be easier to function without it there, and I am sure this was another reason amputation was considered for a time. My arm was in the way, it hurt like hell, and it wasn’t going anywhere.

I had so many nurses and doctors in my ears about so many things. Some were surprised that after several weeks my arm was just as stubborn (except for the pain, after a few days there was a world of hurt). Others told me that this was as good as it would get. “Nerve damage” and “permanent impairment” were a part of every conversation. But I never could accept that – I’m not the accepting kind. So, I fought, begged, and pleaded to be sent to physical therapy. I had to have my arm, I was a writer, I was left-handed – I saw this as a dancer’s connections with their legs. Yes, I would survive it, but how could I live with myself if I didn’t exhaust every possible alternative to have my arm back. I would have nagged myself to death.

Physical therapy was… painful. That is the one word I would describe it as. I couldn’t do the positive visualization thing because I was busy silently singing a string of obscenities while biting my tongue and making sure I kept a straight face the entire time the therapist tried to force my arm straight. I never knew what it was to feel every single cell out of hundreds of thousands scream. They felt like rubber bands, snapped only they would be righted again and the snapping wouldn’t stop. In between each snap was like a rush of battery acid flowing through every vein, every artery, every vessel. I hated physical therapy – it was my least favorite thing. But I did all the exercises, never missed a session, and never said the word, “Stop.”

It took so many months, and every small victory I should have celebrated, I couldn’t. I wasn’t at 100% yet. A few people told me I was pushing too hard, but I always felt like I wasn’t pushing hard enough. My physical therapist cut me loose when my elbow was at about 80%, my wrist maybe 60%. I remember being so angry, because I wasn’t ready to be finished. So I set out to do what I do best, proving other people wrong. I had to. I had to get my arm back. I had to get my arm back…

And I did, at least more than anyone expected. My elbow is probably at 95%, my wrist probably 90%. I did it. I did what everyone else told me from the beginning wasn’t an option. I didn’t settle. But I had to learn that there is a difference between what you can do, and what is worth doing. I can hold a utensil. I can write using my hand, but every few sentences take about ten minutes. And the pain from physical therapy returns. Writing with my hand is so incredibly painful. And after about a paragraph I have to stop anyway, my hand locks up and I need to give it a break of about half an hour. So, journaling like I used to, is something I long to do, but I know it is something I am not able to do.

Writing with my hand is extremely limited. If I am at an appointment, my husband always offers to fill out my forms, and I let him. I let him write for me in most instances. The exception is cards and notes. When it is someone’s birthday we get their card well in advance, because it will take me awhile to do it, but I didn’t work my ass off to have my arm back, to never use it. I know the people (other than my husband) have no idea how difficult or painful it is for me to write whatever message or note I have for them wishing them well, saying happy birthday or offering condolences, but doing these things are important to me.

Keeping a diary, journal whatever you want to call it, is also important to me, or at least it was. I felt it made me saner, happier, clearer, but it wasn’t just the writing, it was the hand to paper motions – a mind and body connection. It was sharing my innermost thoughts with a close friend. Every journal I had was a friend. I spent so much time looking for the right one, and when I found it, I always just knew “This is the one.” I named them, every single diary had a name in the very first entry. Buying those books were one of the most exciting things I did (which may sound incredibly lame now) growing up – it was incredibly personal. And looking at that book, that beautiful, physical thing that I could touch, smell, pick up… it always gave me what I needed. Whether it was reassurance, or an outlet.


The Journal I Never Had A Chance To Finish

I can still write on the computer, it’s what I do with messages, my own writing, blogging, etc. but it isn’t the same. There is a connection that is missing, a feeling and a certain joy that can’t be replicated or replaced. I made due when it came to writing the stories that I wanted to tell and share. I went the computer route, but journaling the way I crave, how I remember… I don’t know how to make that work with a computer. Journaling via a computer seems so clean, cold, detached and sanitary. For me journaling was like life: messy, full of scribbles, doodles, pictures, and mistakes, and those things made it beautiful. I could tell how I felt when I wrote something without actually reading it, just based on my handwriting…


The Last Paragraph Of My Last Entry, The Only Entry I Wrote After 2008: This entry was from January 2010, and writing was difficult because I struggled to hold my hand steady, courtesy of a combination of the chemo drugs (they gave me serious shakes) and recovering from two strokes back in July 2009.

I am so lucky I am able to write when I absolutely need to. Hell, I am lucky I kept my arm at all. And I am grateful about these things, every single day. But being grateful doesn’t mean you stop wanting things the way they were before. Now, whenever I pass journals at a store I feel pangs of longing and sadness. I will never feel the thrill of buying another journal or writing that first entry… naming the book that would become my lifelong friend. It’s such a silly thing to be upset about, and yet it doesn’t seem silly at all to me.

So, I guess this is where I have to decide. Do I just keep blogging and writing and accept that journaling, keeping a diary, is in the past for me. Or do I try to see what I can salvage by doing it on the computer, knowing that it will just be this pale version of what I remember. Either way feels like settling, and I’m just not the settling kind.


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