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How Bullet Journaling Helps Me Feel Less Overwhelmed by Life With Chronic Illness

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It was two years ago, and I was drowning.

I felt like I could barely keep my head above water.

I had been on medical leave and housebound for over a year. And I was only getting worse.

My body was weak, my pain raged, my mind was in a continual fog, my energy levels were low. Bedtime was my favorite part of the day, and waking up in the morning was my most dreaded. I wouldn’t acknowledge it then, but emotionally I was in a rough place.

When my medical leave started, I had all these goals like reading all the books on my shelf, setting a good morning routine and pacing all my activities. I had just joined a church, looking for support, community and good relationships. I thought that medical leave meant time. The time I would be able to use to do all the things I hadn’t been able to while I was at school.

Little did I know that time passes more quickly when you aren’t doing much of anything. The days pass by in a haze and quickly fade until it seems almost impossible to distinguish one from another.

It didn’t take long to learn that medical leave actually meant lots of rest, lots of sleep and lots of doing “nothing.” Needless to say, because of my own expectations and the pressures I put on myself, I was feeling discouraged. This doing nothing was so difficult for me to accept. I have a type-A personality that sets the bar high. It took too long to learn that nothing actually was something. It was recovery time. It was time for my body to heal. It was time for my mind to learn how to cope. It was time for me to learn to accept that I really was sick and that was my foreseeable future.

Life was busy. I had church on Sundays, doctor appointments, weekly low-level light therapy appointments and the occasional coffee date with a friend. Doesn’t sound like that much, but it was not an insignificant activity level either. At least for someone who’s sick. And it was all too much.

One cold winter night, I was out for dinner, and a friend asked me how I was doing.

“I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed right now,” I honestly answered.

“I’ve asked you how you were doing several times over the past few months and each time you say you are overwhelmed,” they replied.

That simple observation was the moment I realized how broken I was.

It was like the dam broke and the levees burst open. Tears began to fall fast down my face. Reality crashed into me, and I bowed over with the weight I didn’t know I was carrying. It wasn’t until I got into my car that I let loose the sob that had been welling up inside. I cried, and I cried, and I cried that night.

And then I took out my pen and poured out my heart onto the page before me.

It was that night I knew something had to change, and I was going to make sure it did. I had to take charge of my health instead of letting it have control over me. Several years prior, I had found health tracking to be so vital for me to actually know how I was doing. And I knew journaling was very cathartic for me. This was was the main way I could express my emotions. Providentially I came across an article on Buzzfeed about bullet journaling. My inner keener came out, and I spent hours researching different spreads and all the ways people were adapting it for their needs. I even found one video about a girl using it in her chronic illness journey.

I spent some time making some mock spreads for myself before buying a beautiful moleskin notebook and starting my first entry on March 13, 2016.

Looking back at this first notebook, it was pretty elementary compared to how I use it now. But it was exactly what I needed.

I committed, and followed through, bullet journaling every day and writing a big entry four times a week. Almost every day, because I learned to give myself grace when I wasn’t feeling up to it, and depending on how I felt and what I needed I would write something or a lot of things in my bullet journal. I knew that if I didn’t continue using it with regularity, I would very easily slip back into old habits. I needed to really commit.

I created a health tracker, habit tracker, time tracker, daily gratitude and month in review. I’ll follow this post up with another one on how I actually use my bullet journal, but the biggest thing that helped me was seeing my life on paper through these charts. It was seeing how I spent my time, the impact it had on my pain and energy levels, that was revolutionary. Finally, I could see my reality. Which led to understanding and accepting my reality. And then adapting my habits and activities to ensure I did everything I could to use my time and energy wisely to live a sustainable life with the limited resources I did have.

A huge thing was also forcing myself to think about my emotional and mental wellbeing – every day. I had to think about my mood, things that were bothering me, weighing me down, or making me depressed or happy or sad or anxious or whatever the emotion. No longer was I allowing myself to escape to the enticing, yet dangerous, land of denial.

Some days it was very challenging to think of something that I was grateful for, let alone three amazing things that had happened. When I would write my daily recaps, what I had done seemed so small when I compared it to my friends. But when I started ignoring the beast of comparison I began to see all the beautiful things in my life, though they may be insignificant to others, the small things are so precious and treasured and valuable. And the big stuff, when they happen, are even better. An attitude of gratitude has been one of the most significant gifts in my life, causing life to look different and change for the better.

There are so many other benefits of bullet journaling I haven’t even gotten around to, but I hope this taste has encouraged you to start your own! There is so much hope and joy available to you even when you live life with a chronic illness, or have any kind of health problems, or are overwhelmed for whatever reason. For me, bullet journaling helped lighten my load and enabled me to start living a more sustainable life. And I can’t recommend bullet journaling highly enough!

I’m happy to answer any questions you might have or point you to the countless resources created by people who know so much more than I do! And keep your eyes open for a follow-up post for more specifics on how I go about bullet journaling.

Image provided by the author. 

Originally published: November 15, 2018
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