Unlike many boys, I was a regular journal keeper from the time I was in my early teens. I wanted a place to document what I was thinking, feeling and doing.

Even when I started using, I kept writing. Those journal entries from my drinking days make for painful reading—not so much because they contain recitations of all my “acting out” behaviors, but because they’re so drenched in self-pity and self-regard. I was my favorite subject to write about, and my only subject to write about.

I wrote a lot about how I was miserable.

In early sobriety, the only writing I did was the directed step work I was given in rehab. I tried to keep up my daily or weekly journaling, but as soon as I would read what I’d written in my drinking and using days, I was embarrassed and put down the pen.

It was through a relationship I had with a friend that convinced me to start writing anyway. Yes, I needed to do my step work and my daily inventory first. But it would be helpful to do more: “Write what it’s like to be you, right now, trying to do this one day at a time.”

I like numbers, so I gave myself a word count: I needed to write at least 250 words a day to describe how I was doing. I didn’t always live up to my goal. Some days, I only wrote 50 words. One frustrating day, I wrote out—in longhand—“I’m so sick of this shit” 100 times.

Other times, I wrote and wrote until my hand cramped.

Did the writing always make me feel better? No. Did the writing always lead to profound and helpful insights? No.

The greatest and most enduring benefit of journaling in sobriety came in hindsight. The greatest and most enduring benefit was seeing my own progress and using that to keep me motivated in my recovery.

It wasn’t just the contrast between my drinking days and my sober ones. Rereading my journals weeks and months and years later, I could see how far I’d come. It was like watching a documentary of a human being learning to care about others, learning that he was more than the sum of his cravings and his fears.

Every time I felt as if I wasn’t making progress, or as if things weren’t changing, I looked back at what I’d written, and I could see I was not the same man I’d been before.

I wouldn’t have had any of that without journaling.