How a journal saved my life

Up until two weeks ago, I was waiting to die.

It’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds, I promise. I merely believed that life was absurd (in a Camusian way) and I wasn’t convinced I wanted any part of it. Of course, I’m not morbid enough to actually take my own life, so I was passively waiting, for the most part.

Before getting to the meat of this post, I’m going to have to go back in time a little so you can better appreciate the impact of the life-changing experience I’m about to share. I apologise if the upcoming reveal makes you uncomfortable or shatters all your illusions about me. I don’t really have anything to say to that.

[Warning: Super long texty entry coming up; you might want to bookmark this and read it in parts. Or not at all. :>]

 

2012

I had a major meltdown in the middle of a year-long Montessori course in the UK. I was doing well academically but I felt I had fallen short of my own high standards in both social and professional capacities. Certain events during the year wounded me so deeply that one day I snapped and took to bed crying for weeks, even going as far as to research ways of dying.

I’d already had a long history of depression so it wasn’t the first time I’d fallen apart like that.

Subsequently, my course director made me see a counsellor, who suspected that my depression was a symptom of autism and sent me off to a psychologist.

Six months and many tests later, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

My diagnosis and the aftermath are a whole other post, so I’m just going to summarise by saying it messed me up quite a bit. After the intitial excitement of having the impossible struggles in my life explained, I went right back to being depressed, this time more than before.

 

2013 to 2017

Life went on being an endless series of doubt, fear, anger, stress and ennui, interspersed with bouts of short-lived positivity as I made countless attempts to dig myself out of a monstrous proverbial hole.

On the surface, I appeared largely normal because it’s not socially acceptable to brood openly.

Deep inside, I was a raging vortex of hatred and despair.

I was capable of enjoying experiences, to be clear, such as having an ice cream on a hot day, appreciating a good joke, buying the latest iThing, watching a puppy eat, or going on nice holidays with people I love.

But these happy feelings were tenuous. Fleeting. Despair was always just a thin membrane away, constantly trying to break through to tell me that my life was shit and that I was a piece of crap.

 

I tried things. I did CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for six months. I did volunteer work for a year. I tried to get busy pursuing different interests to find purpose. I tried yoga. I signed up for a fitness boot camp and went paleo. I tried bullet journaling. I tried time blocking. I tried to philosophise my way out of depression and ennui.

Nothing worked. I ran out of steam very quickly for each thing I tried. I wasn’t sleeping well and was tired all the time. Fatigue and depression fed off each other, trapping me in a prison of my own making. I was in a chicken-and-egg conundrum where my ill health was worsening my depression and my depression was making it difficult for me to improve my health.

And, stupidly, as much as I wanted to die, I constantly felt panicked about time running out. Every day, I felt that I didn’t have enough hours to play all my games and watch all my TV and read all my books and do all the 101 nonsense things I felt I had to do.

I was just so overwhelmed all the time.

 

I visited the doctor a lot for a myriad of physical ailments that plagued me incessantly. But I couldn’t bring myself to seek help for my depression, even though I sometimes wanted to. I was scared I would prove to be a hopeless case (since CBT didn’t help). I was scared to have to change. I also felt I didn’t deserve help since my life really was good on the surface.

So I kept it all to myself and put on a mask and went through the motions of life. I felt like a zombie most days, an animated being devoid of a soul.

 

Then something quite ordinary happened which produced a most extraordinary result. My whole life got turned around almost overnight.

 

17 March 2017

One day, I picked up my phone and made a doctor’s appointment. I was going to get help for my depression. I can’t remember how or why I did it. It was as if strength and courage rushed into me for a split-second and made me call the number without giving me any time to think about it.

 

28 March 2017

The day before my appointment, I was scrolling through Facebook listlessly, trying to fill the void in my life with funny content.

A sponsored post in my feed jumped out at me. It was an ad for something called the SELF Journal. I’ve always loved notebooks and journals so I clicked on it.

I was intrigued.

This journal helps the user set short-term goals (3 months) and work towards them by using techniques that successful, high-achieving people swear by. A continuous series of carefully planned short-term goals eventually takes you to your big-time goal, if you have one.

Even though I wanted nothing more than to be dead, the journal appealed to me. I liked how it had different sections with blanks to fill in and questions to answer every day. I LOVE filling in blanks and answering questions. In fact, it’s almost a compulsion.

And here’s something ironic about me. Life may be absurd and I may be depressed, but I’m always excited to try new, fun things. It’s just that I can never sustain an interest for long because depression is my permanent roommate. Some days, she goes out and leaves me alone but she always comes home at the end of the day.

 

29 March 2017

The day after discovering the journal, I saw my doctor. She sent me off to get a blood test and gave me an appointment to see a self-management coach (someone who helps people with physical health conditions that are affecting their mental health).

 

30 March to 2 April

The next few days, waiting for my coaching appointment, I started doing the prep work for the journal.

I spent half a week figuring out my goals and creating a roadmap. After much thought, I decided to do a trial run first, so I made some stupid small goals, one of which was to clean my home thoroughly and make it nice so we can sell it and move out to a bigger, better home. I planned to complete it within a three weeks.

I decided to start using the journal the day after the session.

 

3 April

I attended my session and gave my coach a three-page document listing all the reasons why I hated myself and the world, and why I wished I didn’t exist.

She asked questions, listened very non-judgementally, then gave me some authors to check out for homework.

 

4 April

I started the journal by planning healthy habits around my goals because it’s common knowledge that physical health is important for mental health. In order to achieve the life I wanted, I had to make a very drastic cold-turkey change:

 

I went from this:

12:00 mn – Get into bed, stare at iPad/Kindle.
02:00 am – Fall asleep.
04:00 am – Wake up, can’t get back to sleep. Stare at iPad/Kindle.
09:00 am – Fall asleep.
12:00 pm – Wake up because Piers comes home for lunch.
(Or wake up at 2 pm if Piers doesn’t come home.)
02:00 pm – Play iPad games, watch Korean dramas or do some chores till Piers gets home at 5 pm.

 

To this:

12:00 mn – Sleep.
07:00 am – Wake up properly.
07:15 am – Physiotherapy, then yoga.
08:00 am – Morning beauty routine.
08:30 am – Breakfast and journaling.
09:30 am – Start on my planned tasks for the day.

 

That was a really tall order I’d set myself. I had tried so many times in the past to change, made strict daily schedules, experimented with different waking up times, tried different activities to start the day off to see what worked better. No routine I tried lasted more than two weeks. Many lasted only days. Sometimes, I gave up before I even started.

Perhaps my one saving grace is that I don’t give up. I mean, I’ve been a giant giver-upper and defeatist all my life, but I always eventually pick myself up to try again, even while wallowing in the dark waters of death contemplation.

 

SELF Journal Day 1 Report

The first day of my new life was really tough. I managed to wake up at 7 am but felt completely shitty because I’d only had a few hours of sleep. Then I had a meltdown because unforeseen things needed to be taken care of, ruining my schedule. Yoga made me feel hypoglycaemic. I was exhausted and grumpy and stressed.

I spent two hours that morning falling apart over Skype to Piers while he tried his best to encourage me and keep me calm.

I felt a lot better after talking to him but I was so tired, and I felt drugged and jet-lagged. I decided to write off my first day and start over the next day. I did manage to do one task I’d planned and also filled in the journal sections for gratitude, areas for improvement and wins of the day, which are supposedly important to keep you in a positive frame of mind.

Because the journal made me think of ways I could improve after the day’s mistakes, I planned my next day better. I reworked my daily schedule to allow for contingencies. It meant my “goals” would take slightly longer to achieve but better done late than undone. I allocated two hours to breakfast and journaling because I discovered that doing that made me feel good and calm. Before going to bed, I tidied my breakfast and yoga areas so my environment would look more inviting in the morning.

I was all set for day 2.

 

SELF Journal Day 2

You will not believe this. I can hardly, myself.

Day 2 was a miracle! It was a day worthy of being framed up and pinned on the wall with a gold ribbon and applause all around while I give a tearful thank-you speech.

I woke up at 7 am . Actually . Feeling . Excited .

I don’t know about you, but the last time I felt excited waking up at an unearthly hour was never.

I unrolled my yoga mat like I was unwrapping a Christmas present, all eager to get into it. Doing yoga helped gently pull me out of sleep. I felt refreshed and energetic afterwards.

During the day, I encountered two mini crises that would normally have sent me running back to bed, but I dealt with them and remained calm.

I completed all the tasks I’d set myself and felt like time had become a rubber band I could stretch to fit all the tasks I wanted to complete, and still had enough for fun and relaxation.

Piers was thrilled for me and his enthusiasm encouraged me.

 

SELF Journal Day 3

I woke up with the same excitement and pounded through the day with the same enthusiasm, except with more exhaustion because I was still struggling with insomnia.

 

SELF Journal Day 4

I managed to complete my first intimidating task of decluttering my study, a room spilling over with the forgotten remnants of countless hobbies, collecting dust and guilt. It took me three days to clean it. But it was a room very important for me to get right because it’s where I am to spend my days working on my life purpose (when I can figure out what that is).

The moment I put the very last bit of rubbish into the bin and looked around at the sparkly cleanliness, the tidiness and the spaciousness, I experienced a moment of clarity. This simple truth flashed in my mind: “If you do it, it gets done.”

I know, it sounds stupid and obvious but my brain never had room for such truisms, being permanently mired in the fog of procrastination and stress.

It was a truly profound moment. I felt the power of get your ass off the sofa and do it, almost like a spiritual awakening.

 

Eat That Frog

There was another epiphany I experienced on the same day. That is, if you schedule the day’s tasks from worst to easiest, the day gets easier instead of worse.

This is another simple truth I had never considered until I read “Eat that Frog!” By Brian Tracy. He teaches a success strategy based on a quote by Mark Twain:

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.

I had read an article recently saying that willpower is a resource that gets used up or wears out gradually each day, so you should do your worst task first or it will only get harder the longer you leave it. This explains why “eating that frog” first thing is so important.

Practising that principle, I found my days getting better and better even as I got more and more tired. I also realised that doing this made my days end on a positive and triumphant note, eliciting enthusiasm for the next day.

 

Fast Forward

I’ve been doing the journal for over two weeks now and have consistently woken up at 7 am, done my daily physiotherapy, then yoga and meditation, followed by breakfast and journaling, then single-mindedly ticking off my task list one by one, every day.

It has been tough, mostly because of my sleep problems. I feel sleep deprived and jet lagged every single day to varying degrees. But being productive and having healthy habits seem to be giving me a different kind of energy to help sustain me.

In the first week, I was reeling with so much excitement every day, I even wanted to wake up at 6 am. Even 5 am. It was unreal.

I became slightly more mellow in the second week. Sleep Deprivation – 1, Crazy Mysterious Energy – 0.

Now at the start of my third week, I’ve lost the trippy mania but I’m still keeping it going.

Whereas I was literally stressed and unhappy every day of my life before this, and angering easily, I now feel calm and positive most of the time. Things that used to bother me don’t seem to as much, anymore.

 

Serendipity

I like to think that the life-saving journal came to me because I had signalled that I was ready to be helped (with the phone call to my doctor). Like a law of attraction thing. Or not, if you don’t believe in that sort of thing. I don’t know what I believe. I just know my life has changed because of that one serendipitous moment a Facebook ad caught my attention at just the right moment.

 

My Magic Recipe

Of course, it’s not all the journal. I think the journal helped me focus my effort in the right way and forced me to dwell on the positive rather than the negative, all while making it seem like a fun game to me.

But other elements had to be there as well to help make it all happen.

For example, I think I made a great decision scheduling yoga after waking up. It helps create calm, happy feelings and boosts energy. I added meditation to my routine when I discovered how I really love the two minutes at the end of a session when they make you lie still and breathe and think of nothing. I still don’t really know how to meditate, but using the app Headspace is now the most enjoyable part of my day.

More importantly, I have a partner-in-crime.

Workaholic Wen (my new nickname for Nanny Wen) started doing this journaling together with me. We share screenshots of our journal pages with each other to keep each other accountable. It’s fun and it keeps us in frequent contact, which is really uplifting because I hated having to leave my best friend behind years ago for life in a new country.

Having a supportive husband helps. Learning how to eat the frog helps. And I devote some time each day to reading self-help books. They give me strategies to overcome different challenges in my life.

I believe now that every lost person (like me), or maybe even not-lost people, have their own magic recipe to bring them to life, because everyone responds to different things. I think, after decades of floundering, I’ve found mine. I was never going to heal until I was ready, and then my recipe came to me.

 

The Miracle Morning

Halfway through working on the journal, I started reading this book called The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. The author advocates doing a simple six-step routine first thing every day to achieve a successful and happy life. He promises you will go from hating mornings to loving mornings and, consequently, loving life.

As I read on, I realised that I had been unwittingly doing his routine (roughly) and been experiencing the miraculous benefits that many of his followers have already been experiencing for years. It confirmed in my mind that the miracle I was experiencing was a real thing and that made me quite excited.

 

Moving Forward

Of course, I cannot guarantee that I’ll be able to keep this up. I mean, it totally doesn’t make sense to me that I could be depressed and suicidal all my life and just suddenly I’m not. Where did it go? It could just as soon come back, couldn’t it?

Maybe it’s a kind of self-inflicted brainwashing, like if you go to a Tony Robbins seminar, you get brainwashed into becoming a manic happy yelling person who is capable of growing wings and flying to the moon if you want to.

And perhaps the effects will wear off eventually. Or they may not. As far as I can tell, I’m experiencing changes in me I’ve never felt before. Not even that time (more than a decade ago) when I attended this super expensive Tony-Robbins-like course and got brainwashed into doing crazy things like chatting up unsuspecting strangers in public and feeling great about it. That was kind of different.

 

Right now, I see myself becoming this amazing healthy-lifestyle wonder girl (albeit a tad sleep-deprived) whose positivity will annoy some people to bits, but I promise I will not be loud about it.

To be fair, I still have the same pain and insecurities and fears and weaknesses, and health conditions, and, if I’m being very honest, I still believe life is absurd.

But I’m having success in keeping negativity at bay at the moment. I think my self-management coach can probably help me sustain that. (My second session is next week.) I had initially thought that I didn’t need her anymore since my journal and new magic routine were fixing me, but now I think everyone needs all the help and support they can get from as many different sources as possible.

 

Blogging

I want to keep this positive change going, at the risk of alienating all my readers (lol), who are no doubt totally freaked by this crazy new person who is not Sheylara. I’m anticipating my blog turning serious for a while as I investigate this not-Sheylara.

Well, I probably don’t have readers anymore, anyway, after having stopped blogging for I don’t know.

But never mind. It doesn’t matter this time, whether I have readers or not. It really doesn’t.

This time, I’m blogging for myself. Because I’m not waiting to die anymore.

 

 

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16 thoughts on “How a journal saved my life

  1. Welcome back! Life is so complicated and yet it’s really simple when you boil it down. Do the best you can and try not to be ass. I’m happy to hear that you are taking positive steps to improve your life.

  2. Hi!!! So happy to have read this blog post! I’m STUMPBO and kudos to you for sharing what you’ve been going through. When is dark enough you will see the light. Keep on trying a little bit by bit and you will get better. One thing can I suggest? Cut down or stop the games. It may help. Take care!!

  3. I love you! And I think you are incredibly brave, smart and you practically coached me through the entire BSJ journey. You may be figuring this out on your own, but you definitely saved me from jumping all around the place with my own goals.

    Perhaps the effects will or will not wear off, but I think it’s incredible that you’ve made this difference already, and we should all continue to strive to make more differences in our lives. You are right, every one deserves the support they can get and I’m here for you, with you while you fine tune your magic recipe :)

  4. I popped over here from the BS Alliance, figured a longer comment here might be more appropriate :)
    First off, thank you for sharing a tough subject, it is never easy to share something like this. And despite the fact that I ‘know’ this, it still amazes me the different ways depression manifests itself.
    You’ve seen my graduate challenge pages at some point im sure :) I am using the journal to combat my own mental and physical health demons. I also started to open doors for counselling recently, for me it is the second time, but it’s been 8-9 years since my last session. We all reach that point where we decide enough is enough :)
    reading that you make yourself to get up and do the morning miracle thing, makes me want to try it, as mornings before 9-10am are right now feeling impossible, so thank you for sharing that ^_^

    I’ve had depression for a long time, and it’s always nice to find reminders that I’m not alone :D
    As with you talking about the morning miracle, never know who might be going through the same daily struggles, and who you might inspire! (count me inspired) but I think I’ll start with getting up at 830 :D

  5. @Minyee: Thank you so much! Your comments are always appreciated. :)

    @Wilson: Thank you, friend. :)

    @STUMPBO: Thank you for reading my super long post and for your encouraging words. As a matter of fact, I haven’t touch a single game since I started the journal. :)

    @Workaholic Wen: I love you more! :) I’m really touched by your words and I’m so glad you’re on this journey with me. In that way, you’ve already played a major part in lifting the clouds of depression off me. I couldn’t ask for more. <3

    @Ashley: Thank you for commenting. It means a lot to me! :) I hope your current counselling will prove beneficial to you. And definitely try miracle mornings! You might have to tweak the steps around to find the best way for yourself, but yeah, start easy.

    I only decided to be drastic and start at 7 am because that’s when my husband gets up and I just wanted to get up together with him, thinking that might be a motivation in itself. :P

    I don’t know if you’ve read the book and the resources on the website, but Hal talks about bedtime affirmations, telling yourself every night just before sleeping that you can wake up at the time you’ve decided and you will feel completely rested and happy, etc. I’ve been trying that and I think it might be helping a bit but it’s something you have to keep doing until your brain gives up and believes you. :P

  6. You have been missed Sheylara!!! Everyone goes thru ups and down but yours happen to be steeper than some of us.
    Can’t wait for you to come out of it completely and back to the rollarblading girl!

  7. So happy to see you back and happy Sheylara. I remember a time almost a decade ago when your funny cute happy blog posts were the first thing i looked forward to after work every day. Wish you all the happiness laughter and joy that you’ve brought to so many of us readers. Oh and i wish for lots more Sheylara blog posts :)

  8. @Uglyfatchick: Thanks! I’m always thankful to have your support! :)

    @Chesterwan: Thank you. :) I will do my best!

    @Lex: That’s really nice to hear! Thank you always for your encouragement! :D

  9. I just found out about you after reading an academic article talking about bloggers in Singapore, and your blog was mentioned as one of the other popular bloggers among Singaporeans at that time (probably five to six years back). I love this post so much. Thank you for sharing it and your incredible journey. I would love to hear more about your journey with Asperger’s, how it affects the things you do, your relationships? It just helps knowing that no person is alone. Of course, whenever you are ready to, and if you think it helps you positively. I am guessing that any ‘negative’ person or hater for the sake of hating would no longer be around by this point.

    Again, thank you.

  10. Hey QY!:) I am so happy to read something from you once again. Notwithstanding the serious and personal subject matter, always know that your long-time readers / friends will be here for you. You just gotta reach out sometimes, yeah?

  11. Hi.
    Hope all is well.
    Dunno if you still remember me. The wookie Himura from SWG.
    Somehow this blog entry popped up in my fb.

    Stay cheerful. Darkness is there to highlight the warmth of light. Pain and sadness teaches us to treasure every happy moment. Never knew that you were undergoing so much turmoil. Thankfully u have great support from ur fren n partner.

    Cheers

  12. @Angela: I’m amused that I’m mentioned in an academic article. :) Yeah, 5-6 years ago is about right. That was the time I quit my blogging career there and moved to the UK. Was that article about the negative effects of being a blogger? Because you mentioned haters. :P And thank you for taking the time to read my post and write a comment. I will share more about my Asperger’s one day. It’s just there’s so much to write about it and I don’t even know where to begin, lol.

    @RN!209: Hey, old friend. Always happy to hear from you. Thanks for still being there! :)

    @Linkang Cheng: Sure, I remember Himura the lovable rookie. :) Weird things always pop up in my FB. Can’t ever predict it! :P Thanks for dropping by with your kind words! :)

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. You are brave. It will get better just take it one day at a time. I’m new to journaling and it has helped my anxiety so much!

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