How to Extract a Cactus Needle from Your Skin, Or On the Mental Health Benefits of Keeping a Diary.

When the world shut down in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to start keeping a diary. I wanted to chronicle what was happening because it felt as if we were living through a historic moment.

As a historian, I am hesitant to declare anything happening in the now to be of historic importance. After all, history is what we decide it to be, and that decision isn’t made until decades after the fact when we can tell how the repercussions of an event played out (or didn’t play out, which means that the event will not be part of history).

Moleskin diary with a Ballograf mechanical pencil 0.5 and an eraser. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

Well aware of the fact that I am not a person whose diary will be read and written about generations from now, I still felt a need to document my view of events for posterity, and also for myself. Little did I know that not only would I go on to chronicle events that took the entire world on a roller coaster ride seldom experienced, but keeping a diary has proved beneficial to my mental health.

I titled my diary “Corona Journal” (Coronadagbok) because my original intention was to chronicle the COVID-19 pandemic. The first couple of months are focused almost entirely on that.

The first entry of the diary is on March 13, 2020. It reads:

“On March 10, Broward County issued a state of emergency. On March 13, the city of Deerfield Beach and President Trump did the same. Lectures at FIU cancelled from March 12 to April 4. I am now teaching the online content available on Canvas. Spent the afternoon at Publix, Target, and Latinos to bunker for at least ten days of social distancing. New cases and deaths are reported every day. At least 15 known cases in Broward. The spread is increasing quickly. Reliable public information is hard to find.”

I started the diary on the blank pages at the back of my Passion Planner. The first few weeks are written spaciously. The writing is large, the spacing between the lines generous. On May 27 I ran out of pages, and I moved on to the large-size Moleskine notebooks I have used ever since. On the last page of the Passion Planner, the writing is small, cramped. I can tell that the pressure on the pen is heavier here than in March. When I finished for that day, I had spilled over onto the fly leaf.

From the first day of keeping my diary, I made it into a nightly routine to sit down and write before I go to bed. I still maintain that routine, and it has changed my life.

Whenever writers get together, sooner or later we end up asking each other, why do we write? Why do we do what we do? More writers than you can imagine answer with a simple sentence: Because we have to.

What that sentence means is that we have no choice in the matter. There are words and thoughts inside us that need to come out. If someone will ever read what we write is beside the point; we write anyway.

Photo by Z Crowe on Pexels.com

If I don’t write I feel a physical discomfort. Until very recently, I thought I was alone in feeling this way. Then I read Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera where she says that not writing makes her physically ill and compares it to a cactus needle getting caught in her skin: It bothers you until you poke at it enough to make it come out. Then you feel relief. Until the next needle gets caught.

Sitting down with my diary every night is me plucking the cactus needle of the day from my skin. Because not only do I write because I have to, I am also one of those people whose self-esteem is connected to my achievements. When I write down what happened during the day, I see on the page that even on a day when it feels as if I achieved nothing, I always achieved something.

Writing a diary every night for the past two years has decreased my stress, my anxiety, and the physical discomfort I get from not writing. And, it has decreased my need to express myself on social media, which in turns leads to even less stress and anxiety. Instead of searching for a release on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, I make sense of my thoughts and the world in my diary.

I started my diary with the intention of chronicling the pandemic. My original idea was to stop writing when the pandemic ended. Last night, my diary entry began as it always does nowadays, with recording the daily deaths and cases of COVID-19 as reported by Johns Hopkins, and then I went on to talk about my day.

Contrary to what we are told, the pandemic is not over, but I already know that once it subsides, I will continue writing in my diary every night. Because I have to.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.