Journaling Through the Rough Patches

By Gillian Burgess

For the last 15 years, I have kept a journal through my hardest and happiest times. The journals have looked different over the years, from crumpled spiral notebooks to sleek black sketchbooks, but they have always served the same purpose: to give me a safe place to vent, gloat, rage and muse about everything important phase of my life. My first journal helped me survive the dramatic ups and downs of middle school, and my latest has chronicled several cross-country moves and my first year of marriage. 

I’ve often said my journal is my personal therapist, and I’m not exaggerating. During happy periods of my life, I check in occasionally, writing brief, scattered posts about trips I’ve taken or goals for the future. During challenging times, however, I write a lot and I write often. It is the only place I allow myself to be completely honest about how I’m feeling, and it is indispensable.

One example of these difficult periods is the year of 2005 to 2006. I graduated from college in New Orleans in May 2005, and everything was going perfectly. I was in a great relationship, I had a fantastic group of supportive friends and I had been accepted into a program teaching English in France for the upcoming school year. I was nervous about moving far away from my loved ones for so long, but I was excited for the new adventure.

On August 29, two weeks before I was supposed to fly from New Orleans to Paris, Hurricane Katrina hit and everything changed. All of a sudden, instead of attending farewell parties, I was scrambling to evacuate the city with my passport, camera and a couple days’ worth of clothes. A few weeks later, my friends were scattered across the US and I was alone in a foreign country to cope with the sadness, anger and guilt I felt as one of the lucky survivors of the storm. I was terribly lonely and homesick, but for the first time ever, I knew it wasn’t possible to go home.

I started writing in my journal every day as a necessary form of therapy. Each night, I scrawled page after page, trying to identify and sift through all of my conflicting emotions. I desperately missed my boyfriend, my friends and my city, and I was clumsily trying to move past the culture shock and make a home for myself in a new place. It felt incredibly cathartic to tell my journal everything I couldn’t even tell my closest friends. It was the perfect confidante; I could let it all out without fear of being judged for appearing weak or ungrateful or self-indulgent.

My posts ranged from the frustrated…

I just really miss my people and I feel so isolated without a phone or Internet. During the good moments, I think, “I can do this. My French will eventually catch up to my brain. I’ll be glad I stuck with this.” During the bad moments, I think, “Why am I here? I’m bored, I’m lonely, I’m far from everyone I love and I sound like an idiot when I speak French.”

… to the downright hysterical…

I hate France. I hate Istres. I don’t know why I’m here. I just want to go home. I’ve been sobbing uncontrollably all day and I can’t stop. I just want a freaking phone—is that so much to ask? I hate France Telecom with every fiber in my body. They screwed up and now it will be almost three weeks before I get a phone installed. Kill me. I’m in small town hell, and I hate everything French.

I shed a lot of tears over that journal for the first few months, but I also started using it to record my small victories. I wrote about the wonderful new friends I was making, the successful lessons I taught my students, the colorful French slang I was learning and the amazing food I was discovering. I now had stories to tell about my six-year-old students delightedly learning the words and motions to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and the day I spent harvesting olives and eating a two-hour mid-day feast at a local farm. I pasted train ticket stubs and postcards and photos in the pages and started keeping lists of new words and phrases I wanted to remember (favorites that are appropriate to repeat are “C’est marrant!” – “How funny!” – and “Pas de soucis” – “No worries”). I even began writing half of my posts in French, which became easier and easier as the weeks progressed. Very gradually, my enthusiastic entries began to outnumber the tearful ones, and I was surprised to find that I was actually happy. 

Even though it was a difficult year for me, I look back on that journal fondly. It was a good friend to me when I needed one the most, and it helped me turn a painful time into a character-building experience. This is an excerpt from my final journal entry before I came back home:

In the end, I can honestly say that I don’t regret this experience. At times, it was almost unbearable because I was so frustrated or isolated or sad. But it’s all part of living abroad, and I’m proud of what I’ve done. There are people and things I will miss, but I am ready and happy to go home. Et voila, it’s the end of this adventure—till the next!

Gillian Burgess is a freelance writer based on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. She blogs about personal development, relationships and food at

Picture by Kim White of