Why I Write

A quiet moment, child readingWhen I was young, books were an escape from an often difficult reality. Actually, no. “escape” is the wrong word.
It implies I wanted to run away, and as a child, I wasn’t aware things could be different, so the desire to escape didn’t figure. Books were a way of travelling – going somewhere else and being someone else for a while. I remember lying stretched out on my stomach, reading, in the rented house we moved to when we left Ireland. On my bed, surrounded by furniture that wasn’t ours – knees bent, heels pointing skyward, warmed by the sun streaming in through the large, low window – my physical body was just a shell. The real me was a world away, in a land populated by fictional creatures and characters that led unusual lives and faced difficult choices. I learned many concepts and ideas through books rather than experience, fundamental things like the difference between right and wrong; not the obvious differences, but the grey areas – the parts that force you to stop and put yourself in the situation, to find a way to decide and be able to justify your position. Books helped shape me, they gave me the tools to form opinions and expand my views.

ophelia, John MillaisIn school, writing became a way to extend what reading already gave me. When I wrote I stepped out of reality and into another dimension. Everyone knows taking a break from the ordinary is refreshing. When I returned to the here and now I felt replenished, energised somehow. It was something I was naturally good at. I felt valued for my skill. I always had a good rapport with my English teachers and truly felt they could see past my face to the real me inside in a way no-one else did. I remember one of them saying to me once when I was happy about a good mark, “You should smile more often.” How I wished I could tell her what lay behind the smile; instead I studied the print of John Millais’ “Ophelia” on the wall, while I waited for the tears pricking the back of my eyes to recede. The only way I could be real was in my writing.

Funnily enough, I was never any good at keeping a diary. I couldn’t write in it without self-consciousness, couldn’t escape the urge to “write for an audience,” as though my life were a story to be polished and crafted for someone else’s entertainment. I loved the idea of a book of deepest secret thoughts secured from curious eyes by a little gold padlock, but, in practice, I never got further than documenting the mundane: “Went to Tesco’s with Mummy. Walked the dog. It was sunny.” And even then, these dull, pointless entries were interrupted by long periods of blank pages. A month or four could pass before I’d re-attempt my Pepysian records. My sister and I referred to these gaps as “coma’s”. Reading the contents to one another, we would pause, exclaim “Oops, fell into a coma there!” and gracelessly sweep through the blank pages until we arrived at the point of our next re-awakening

locked diary, why i writeIn my teenage years, as the deadweight of mental illness bore down on me, I moved from purpose-made diaries to notebooks. For one thing it saved paper, but they also served my sporadic style better. I wasn’t constrained by space and time. The focus shifted from daily events to emotional swells and troughs. The feelings that consumed me, threatening to shatter me as the pressure reached a point too great to contain, I attempted to empty onto the page. But the result was usually a scrawled, tear-stained incoherent mess. Reading them now just tears my heart when I glimpse the personality struggling to emerge in the face of parental humiliation and disdain. Poor, pathetic child. I feel sadness and compassion for her, but from my lofty position as “Grown-up Me”, when I read her impotent words, I also feel a bully’s contempt for the snivelling weakness. The lack of self-assurance just makes me want to kick her. Perhaps that’s because a part of me, buried deep inside, still hasn’t learned to love myself. I wonder if my parents felt it too.

As time went by and I fell deeper into the clutches of my dark parallel reality I wrote less. Things might have been different if I’d been encouraged to talk about or explore my feelings, but ours wasn’t that kind of family. We didn’t do affection and we didn’t do feelings, certainly not the inconsiderate, inconvenient negative ones – those were something you shut down, kept to yourself. The dog listened and gave me comfort but she couldn’t give me advice. In time, anorexic and cripplingly anxious, I couldn’t even be honest with myself, so couldn’t see the point in committing my untruths to paper. They always seemed at the aspirational stage, “I will stop being fat, I will find a way to communicate meaningfully” and to write them down seemed arrogant and somehow negligent; by declaring my aims, I was leaving them open to ridicule and destruction by others. Better to keep them secret and protected within me. No-one could be trusted. No-one could know how many times I failed.

Phoenix, rebirthAnd so the writer in me died. Writing is driven by truth and my life was built on a facsimile of it – “Yes, I’m fine”, “No, nothing’s wrong”, how could I write a sincere sentence when I’d disconnected from my source? The flame of creativity was snuffed out.

But no! That can’t be true – I’m here aren’t I? Older, wiser, filled with the old fire, experiencing that buzz from long ago. It seems it was just my longest coma yet! Or perhaps, like a phoenix, I’ve emerged from the ashes of what I once was, reborn and ready to walk the path I started out on all those years ago, before I was mugged and left for dead by that heartless assassin Circumstance.




Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. I enjoyed reading this, very honest, bare to the essence, I think that’s why I liked it. It reminds me a little bit of me, I guess. Good job and good luck.

  2. It’s very interesting but much of this resonates with me. I was called a “bookworm” when I was growing up…and I too stopped writing, simply because my teen years became more and more tumultuous. Now, decades later, I have turned full circle. Life’s like that…

  3. First let me say, you write beautifully!
    I know the pain of growing up in a family where anything unpleasant is quickly swept under the carpet.
    But I am a different mother and I felt an overwhelming urge to comfort this struggling girl. I’m glad you have emerged from the ashes and are able to write and share your wisdom again… Be proud!
    PS… your baby picture is adorable!

    1. Thanks Maggie, for the compliment and for being candid about your experience. You’ll understand that feeling of how you want things to be so different for your children.
      Oh, and in lieu of a suitable picture of me, that’s a picture of my youngest, who, I am told, has a personality just like me – she’s certainly got the curls!

  4. Not only are you writing again (and beautifully, I might add), but you are a good mother of three, happily married and showing your children a different way. There are no words that can convey how important that is: you have battled indifference, humiliation and neglect, as well as mental illness. To survive, thrive and rise above is everything. Like Maggie, I want to comfort the young, struggling you. That you have arrived where you are, writing and nurturing your family is nothing short of amazing. Well done, Aisha!

  5. I feel your pain. Every last drop of it. This is through my own experiences (similar to yours) and your beautifully undead writing. I’m so happy to have found your blog XXX

  6. I already knew your writing story but I also knew I’d like reading it again. Our journeys are different yet I appreciate that we both find ourselves in a good place – and I hope that this remains so. Your first couple of sentences mirror my own reasons for adoring books (and writing) growing up. Even now, I find great comfort in both. And that is no bad thing. Thanks, older you 🙂

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