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Using the Intensive Journal® Method to Cope With Bipolar Disorder

by Gerald C. Johnson

Mood disorders can be very devastating conditions even when ample treatment is provided. Many people who suffer from these conditions only receive treatment in the forms of medications and psychotherapy. Progoff's Intensive Journal method offered me an additional way to privately work with difficult periods of my life, allowing me to rediscover who I truly am.

I had been using Progoff's Intensive Journal method for 15 years prior to my late onset episode of bipolar disorder. I have attended and hosted several of these workshops in my career as a teaching chaplain in community hospitals and as a psychotherapist in a holistic health center. Since my diagnosis, the Journal has guided me in working through feelings regarding my condition and in understanding my mood changes. It has become a true ally.

At 58, I began to have difficulty with concentration and keeping appointments. I was plagued by tiredness on the job, irritability, and marital conflict. I also participated in grandiose behaviors, including poor financial accountability and careless social conduct. Most of these symptoms were faithfully logged in several sections of the journal prior to an actual diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

I began speaking of these problems with my wife, therapist, and physician, trying to sort through the difficulties I was having within my own mind. The Journal enabled me to express my feelings in an uninhibited manner. My entries became protests to the advice and concerns of my family and associates. My own resistance towards my feelings regarding the condition slowly broke away. I was able to move towards an honesty within myself. Finally, the denial I had been clinging to as my only defense diminished.

While working with my dream entries, I focused on the spiritual themes of my calling and researched the origin of my family and roots. With my daydreaming came anger and sadness about these roots and relationships. Exploring these earlier phases of my development, along with the interactions, brought no definite explanation to my moods. It did, however, rule out a psycho-social basis for the manic directions my moods and behaviors had taken. By working within the reflective level of meditation, I was able to hold on to a sense of my actual self, separate from my manic states.

With the loss of my job, my marriage, and clarity in 1993, I was finally diagnosed as a Bipolar II, Manic-Depressive. This is an organic condition caused by certain deficiencies of brain chemistry. It is primarily treated through psycho-pharmacology as well as cognitive-emotional group and individual therapy.

The Journal became a constant companion throughout the ongoing treatment of my disorder. After my admission to a psychiatric unit, I was held for several weeks in search of the best medical response for my individual diagnosis. The Journal helped me work through different health care issues which I was forced to confront. I began a quest for a conscious self- awareness, which I have recently found useful in the treatment of my disorder.

During the five years since I began treatment, the Journal has been the most honest ally in offering me feedback, with regards to my attitudes, conduct, and decisions. While in manic stages I lied not only to other people, but also to myself. Previously, my ex-wife questioned and contradicted my manic thoughts and behaviors. Without her, I was left to express those ideas in my journal. The Journal has an integrity to it that people do not. Because my entries were private, I did not lie to them as I did other people. My feedback, in turn, became more honest and I could see where I had gone astray in my thoughts.

By reading previous and current entries, the web of self-understanding wove itself ever finer. I am always challenged, and frequently surprised at the connections I can make between past and present. Entries written two hours, two weeks, as well as two years ago alert me to things that were missed at the time, but now appear "as in neon" with their brilliance to my condition.

The Journal helped me see my life as normal, even when it felt as though it is out of control. I realized I was dealing with the same problems in raising two daughters as many parents face. My daughters constantly challenged the rules I had set. I assumed this disregard of my authority was their response to my condition. As I continued to work in the Journal, I realized that it was not the illness that caused these problems, but simply the fact that my daughters were teenagers at the time. In spite of my illness, I was capable of handling these issues and succeeding at being a good father to both of them.

In the Journal, I had a place to act out fantasies and grandiosities safely and without social or financial risk. During manic episodes, I had many delusions of power, control and truth, which caused me to make careless decisions. I had delusions that I was almighty, even god-like, and that my knowledge was unsurpassable. As I re-read entries written during those times, I realized my fantasies were simply that: fantasies caused by manic episodes.

I watched myself deteriorate before and after hospitalization. I would later trace patterns for future warnings or triggers of another manic and/or depressive episode. My prior entries explained what thoughts and behaviors occurred previously to the ups and downs. Many times I stopped taking my medications because I would "forget" to bring them on vacation or I would "forget" to take all three doses each day. By re-reading entries surrounding these "forgetful" episodes, I was able to see what thoughts and ideas led me to stop taking my medications in the first place. The symptoms that had preceded a mood change were the same symptoms that were present when I stopped taking my medications. I became aware of these warning signs of my mood changes and could attend to taking my medications as prescribed.

Because I could conceptualize this illness in my writing on a daily basis, I was able to give myself a better cognitive prescription. I realize that by being conscious of my disease, I could work through it and try to prevent relapses.

Through this personal account, hopefully I have shown the benefits of the synergistic effects of the Intensive Journal method and the treatments for mood disorder. It may generate an application for at least some sufferers of this disorder to write about, and understand, their life stories. Once they come to terms with their past, it can lead to securing a more profound grasp of their true selves. However, any ultimate therapeutic value is dependent upon the person's own use of the Intensive Journal method.

"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House. © Copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.