A friend said to me, “I really look forward to reading your emails. Methinks you missed your calling as a writer.” Validation overwhelmed me, as this is not someone likely to fluff my ego. I had been told the same many times before.
In fact, I wrote my own personal memoir under a pseudonym ten years ago, and the few people I shared it with had similar sentiments. Not all appreciated the content, but even my father (who was far from a hero in the story) reached out to compliment me on the quality of the writing. The memory of that moment brings tears to my eyes – that the man in my life whose approval was in shortest supply could muster positive feedback about my talent despite the relative villainy under which he’d been described.
Remember what it was to be me:
that is always the point.
Writing is a passion to some; terrifying to others. To me it has been a tool for healing, understanding my own belief systems, and examining experiences through the wisdom of time. Joan Didion wrote about the importance of keeping a notebook: “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” Through writing and later reading it back, we can review ourselves and come to terms with all the victories and defeats, the patterns and aberrations, and our place in this often-strange existence.
I start each day with morning pages, a meditative practice adopted after reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It is a sort of brain dump following the mind’s processing of the previous day’s events. Three pages of stream-of-thought, non-edited handwriting. That’s right… actual pen-to-paper transfer of words that forces me to slow down enough for clarity and thoughtfulness. Most of the product is garbage. It’s not meant to be shared with anyone, but journaling is a highly beneficial practice.
Writing for an audience is more intimidating simply because I know it will be read. My memoir began with a single essay about my eccentric Irish grandmother. After her passing, it bothered me that no one else would get to know how truly interesting she was. I allowed my description of her to be as whimsical as she was. The rest just poured out of me through floodgates of trapped emotion, raw and without regard to public perception. Despite the barrage of encouragement to publish, I could only bring myself to release it under a false identity.
I wish I could claim immunity from the fear that readers might hate my story or my writing or both. Even now I cringe that ‘what others might think’ prevented me from being completely transparent about the shape my life has taken. Isn’t this what I am preaching to our clients of this nonprofit? Isn’t it precisely my message? ‘Be proud of your experiences… your scars are souvenirs,’ I claim. Have I been asking these women to do what I could not? Or am I trying to get through to myself?
Starting a charity was about many things. It was about overcoming a personal health crisis. It was about identifying my strengths in the midst of weakness. It was about integrating my seemingly random endeavors that individually could not accomplish any real purpose. It was about getting outside myself. It was about creating the type of world I wished for. It was about making my life mean something more than the eat-sleep-paycheck-entertainment cycle.
Most importantly, it has been about discovery. I had gone to such great lengths to change my destiny. To become someone else, unrelated to the drugs and alcohol that shaped my upbringing. The developmental years for me were confusing, often unsettling, influenced by caretakers under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I searched for answers. But when you are running away from instead of toward something, a simple twist of fate can alter your course abruptly. Anywhere But Here is not a destination. As the great Seneca put it, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Understanding this should be half the battle, but I could not take ownership of my memoir. My autopilot of pretending was stuck on. The need to disguise myself was contradictory, a denial of precisely what I hoped to gain: acceptance.
If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.
Eventually, my body began to signal the turmoil invisible to those around me. Confronting my own mortality was a lottery ticket in disguise. I had to stop and regroup. I had to take a personal inventory, and it wasn’t as disappointing as I thought. In many respects, I’d been a rock star in ways unmeasurable by dollars. And not all my bouncing around was bad. I took risks many couldn’t stomach. I removed myself from countless toxic situations. I remain committed to becoming wiser than the day before.
Whether it was motherhood, academics, marriage, or professional life, my modus operandi had been: Just try to look like you know what you’re doing. The reality is that no one ever really does. Some are more confident than others, but most of us are just winging it. My mistakes highlighted a truth I wasn’t ready to confront: that I didn’t know how to do life. And I wasn’t prepared to blow my cover.
So why is this relevant to the charity? Because people ask me all the time, “Why?” Why this cause? Why now? And everything in my life has brought me to this point. My history with addiction and substance has shaped my personality, choices, and wellbeing. Without intention, I have gravitated toward the familiarity of chaos and somehow always seem to find my way back to center. Sometimes I wish these weren’t my people, but these are my people. I speak the language. I feel the pain. I know the drill. My story is relevant, and though I may have to remind myself daily, there is a reason the universe has led me here. At this present time, I am exactly where I need to be, using my past to impact the future.
It is my goal to write a thousand words a day. It will not all be shareable content, but I will refrain from judgement about whether my writing relates specifically to the nonprofit. Genuine human connection lies at the core of my life’s work, and I hope my words land on the people who need them.
Johannah Warren, Founder
About the Author
Johannah Warren is a San Diego-based writer, speaker, and nonprofit founder. Areas of interest include narrative nonfiction, human potential, and addiction recovery.