Several years ago, I stood on the tattered shore of my life, surveying the destruction left by a tsunami divorce. That great wave of change not only ended my life as I knew it, it carried in the seeds of what was to come. Within days of the sudden text message that ended my marriage, I felt the urge to write. The need to write. It was primal, unavoidable. The desire to lay pen to paper usurped the need for food and rest.

I started by purchasing a journal, a simple spiral affair divided into three sections. I remember staring at the notebook on my lap, with its crisp empty pages hidden within, and wondering what it would contain within a year. It seemed like some sort of portal to the future, like maybe it knew the secrets of how my life would unfold and how (or even if) I would make it through my current trauma.

My overwhelming need at the time was to purge the anger. The anger at the betrayal, the lies, the sheer cruelty that the man I loved (and that I though loved back) had displayed. I needed a safe place to scream. To question. A place for my keening soul to release.

I needed to purge but I wanted more. Even in those early moments, I was determined that I would not be a survivor; I would be a thriver. I had no idea how I was going to get from my current state, crumpled and broken in a friend’s guest room, to the rich and full life I desired, but I held onto that vision nonetheless. I realized that if I was going to have a regular relationship with my journal, it made sense to make it a guide to the other side of pain.

Inspired by the divisions within the notebook, I decided to delineate three sections within my journal: past, present and future.

  • The first section, labeled “past,” was the place to unload the vitriol, uncensored and almost automatic. My writing on those pages is large and my hand was so heavy that the words echo through dozens of pages, the pen even cutting through the paper at times. This is the dark stuff, the anger so strong that I feared allowing its release. These are the questions so difficult that the reality of them is hard to bear. But in order to heal, you have to release the poison, purify the wound. Those pages are soaked in venom so that my heart doesn’t have to be.
  • The middle section was dedicated to writing about the present, the “now” in my life. At the time, I didn’t want to accept where I was; my mind would easily mire in the past or drift to the future because the present seemed so daunting and unworkable. The first section was all about emotion; this one was more about reason. I used this section for two purposes: to problem solve through situations and to express gratitude for what I had. I celebrated little victories on those pages, some almost reading like a firstborn child’s baby book – my first full night of sleep, my first real meal, my first day without tears. That section gave me confidence and perspective, invaluable companions through divorce.
  • The final section was my place to dream. This is where I let my mind explore the distant possibilities that felt almost unreachable. I wrote about wanting to kiss a man. I wrote about the friendships I wanted and the trips I would take. I explored a life beyond the classroom and entertained the idea of writing a book. I detailed them all, even those that seemed too far-fetched to ever happen. After all, if I didn’t censor my negative thoughts, why should I limit my dreams? This part of the journal was a reminder that I would not always be where I was. That someday the pain would fade. That even though I could not control what happened to me, I could control how I responded and I could chose to hold onto hope.

My intention was to always write beginning in the past and ending in the future, releasing the emotions but not setting down the journal until I found hope. If I was in a latter section and began to feel the anger welling up, I would turn back to the beginning and start the process again. That journal was my closest companion, absorbing the pain and, by the time I finished in the final section, reminding me that I would be okay. I would pick it up in anger and release it in peace.

I believe I trained my brain in the months I kept the journal. I learned to face the negative thoughts and then release them. I was encouraged to move forward rather than ruminate. I became adept at seeing the possibilities and feeling gratitude even when faced with adversity. I became comfortable with the process, knowing that all of those emotions could coexist and that I could make the choice to turn the page.

I no longer keep a journal; it has been replaced by a blog about the end of one marriage, the middle of healing and the beginning of a new life. Even though I do not have the structured sections anymore, I still write in a way that acknowledges the past, accepts and rejoices in the present and dreams about the future. Now when I stand on the shore of my life, I see the opportunity rather than the destruction.

Lisa Arends works as a math teacher and a wellness coach. After using her own sudden divorce four years ago as a catalyst for positive change, she now helps people navigate their own divorces and transform stress into wellness. She loves to lift heavy weights and run long distances, and she is still learning how to meditate. Visit her online at Lessons From the End of Marriage and on her Facebook page.