Privacy Has Been the Best Gift I Gave Myself

I haven’t written anything here in years, and that’s both by design and by coincidence. The past few years, especially 2020, have been a complete shitshow for the world at large and for me personally. I’ve gone through a lot of changes with my work and with who I am as a person, and it’s been a huge adjustment.

I’m a freelancer now and have been for almost a year. I’ve considered suicide multiple times despite the fact that I wrote a piece on how I got through it. In 2020 I finally started trusting that my friends won’t betray my friendship, mostly overcoming the fear that I can’t truly be vulnerable with anyone. And all this has happened without telling anyone a thing. I didn’t write about it; I didn’t tweet about it; I didn’t make a podcast about it (though I did consider doing an audio diary.) And I’m so glad I didn’t.

When I started blogging on Medium, I used it as an outlet to express my opinions, to try to help people, and to feel like I was a writer — even though the writing I prefer doing is fiction. It’s the place I felt I could be honest and tell the truth about what I was going through and how dark my feelings can be. I still feel that way, but of course, a consequence is anyone can find these writings. Anyone, including people I don’t want to be clued into my life, can see what’s going on and keep tabs on me. And that was something that became too much to bear. The thought that I didn’t truly have any privacy hindered me in so many ways.

Because of it, I stopped opening my laptop and putting fingertips to keyboard. Every time I tried I thought “I just want to keep things to myself.” But I felt a strange kind of guilt for not writing anything. I thought about it all the time, at least once a month, but I just couldn’t do it. It didn’t feel right to expose my bleeding heart to my followers or to anyone even though I felt a push to. I felt like I owed it to the people who commented on my posts, who started following me despite me not writing in so long, to anyone who has ever been remotely helped by what I’ve written that I should tell them what I’ve learned and what I was going through. But I didn’t want to.

I didn’t have the words and I didn’t have the strength. I just wanted my privacy.

I never truly felt like I had any safe space for myself.

As I grappled with why I couldn’t seem to blog my feelings, I noticed writing in my journal was a struggle as well. There were multiple days when I would open it up to the most recent page, have my pen in hand, and…just couldn’t do it. I’d stare at the page, my chest roiling with the emotions stirring up in there and know I had so many things to say, but I just couldn’t write them down. There were moments I desperately needed to write something and couldn’t. I’d get a sudden headache or feel nauseous, and that would be the end of it.

I had no idea what was going on. Journals are supposed to be the place where you can write whatever you want. It’s meant for intimate thoughts and details, but they wouldn’t come to me no matter how badly I wanted them to.

During one of my therapy sessions, I mentioned my trouble in passing, not really expecting anything to come out of it, but my therapist caught on and asked me some questions. He asked me about my history with journalling.

How long have you had one? Were there any moments in the past where you didn’t feel secure?

At first, I wanted to say no, but then I remembered there were quite a few instances of my mom finding my diary pages, reading them, and having “a talk” with me about what they said. I won’t tell you what was in them, but I remember being mortified and frustrated. They were my thoughts and I just wanted to have them in peace.

Then it happened again. And then years later my brother found a private story I wrote that was meant for just me. Then when I was in college one of my roommates read my diary when I accidentally left it on the bathroom counter. And on and on and on.

Going further, I realized that my thoughts weren’t just being exposed in words. My mother is very perceptive when it comes to other people’s feelings; she knows how to read someone and she knows what to say to get people to admit what they’re feeling. This was something I admired about her because I thought it was a pretty cool skill. But she didn’t always use it for good. If I had a dissenting opinion from hers, didn’t like something she was doing, or didn’t follow along with what she wanted, she would berate me. She would often say she could read what I was thinking without me having to say anything, and sometimes she would imply I would get punished for it. She didn’t have to say anything for me to understand what she meant.

Nowhere was safe for me. I couldn’t write anything down in fear someone would read it. I couldn’t have any negative feelings without them being used against me. I had nothing that was just for me. I got the message that whatever private thought or feeling I had eventually would get exposed, and I’d have to deal with the consequences.

Where do you go when you feel as though you have nowhere else to turn?

Coming to this conclusion felt like a ton of bricks just dropped on me. Like I suddenly realized I had been carrying this weight for so long and I just realized how heavy it was. Unconsciously, I told myself I couldn’t trust anyone or anything to keep my secrets for me. And if you can’t do that, where do you go? For me, I kept my feelings on me, like heavy coins that I couldn’t deposit anywhere they’d be undisturbed. Talking to my husband and my friends always helped, but in order to tell someone else, you gotta have your feelings straight, you already need to know the words. But how was I supposed to figure that out if I had nowhere to lay them down?

So I carried them and carried them and tried to censor myself so that I wouldn’t offend anyone or have my feelings used against me. I can talk to my friends but not too much. I can talk to my husband, but I’m always worried I’ll hurt his feelings. I can blog, but I know others are going to read it, so I still have to watch what I say. It’s a cycle that’s extremely difficult to be aware of and also afraid to break.

Dealing with the aftermath of this realization was tough. I talked out as much as I could, but then I started mourning the absence of privacy. I couldn’t help but think of all the journal entries I wrote knowing I couldn’t write everything just in case someone was going to read it. All the consequential moments in my life that are now lost to time. I had missed out on so much personal growth that could have happened if I could have been able to ponder things alone. All that time is gone.

I cried about this for a few days, still, even in this, I couldn’t write down how I felt. I told my husband how angry I was that I couldn’t do the most basic task: write. The ability I once prided myself on. The thing that makes me feel the most fulfilled, and I couldn’t do it. I confessed that I’ve always been afraid he would read my diary as well and I’ve written accordingly. But then he said something that I’ll never forget.

“I’m never gonna read your diary, and no one else will either.”

Something so simple, but something so powerful. He told me no one is going to come into our space, take my diary, or be able to read it. We won’t let them because they’re my thoughts and I’m entitled to them. Honestly, that blew my fucking mind. The notion never occurred to me that I have the power to decide who gets to know what about me. Up until that point, I had been functioning under only saying so much to avoid a consequence. It was an action done out of fear and not one out of control or power. I felt as though everyone had a right to my thoughts because they would get them eventually either by coercion or cajolement. But the simple truth is I’m entitled to my own feelings. I can have them publicly or privately, and it’s nobody’s damn business.

Once I discovered I can control who has access to my feelings, I was free.

After that conversation, I wrote my first journal entry completely free of fear and it was the most wonderful thing I could have done. I laid everything out for myself and ended up writing for almost two hours straight. Cramping hand and all, I was so happy and empowered. Nobody could stop me. I could write whatever I wanted and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It felt like a gate had opened and all of a sudden a new space appeared for me. I could write everything down, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and no one needed to see it. No one needed to know about it. It was all for me.

I started writing fiction again and I started to use it as a healing tool. I wrote out scenarios that I couldn’t fully express in order to work through some trauma, find the words for something I wanted but didn’t know how to ask for, to give myself permission to think of whatever ugly thing I had going on, and I loved it.

I stopped feeling guilty that I hadn’t written anything in a while because I was having too much fun writing alone. I could do whatever I wanted, and I didn’t need anyone’s permission. But even so, I did long to blog. There wasn’t a week that went by where I didn’t think about blogging again, but my privacy meant more to me, so I kept it.

Now, I’m finally ready to come back and I finally feel in control of my inner life and what I do and don’t want to say. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever experienced and I needed to go through it to get here. I may or may not write as much as I used to, and my feelings about that are still mixed, but now when I do decide to write, it’s because I want to and I don’t feel coerced to do so.

©J.M.Cools/01.21

Life lessons as they come and other things. Email me johanie.cools@gmail.com or tip me on Venmo @Jojo-MC

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