When 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.
In 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
In 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.
And 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.