“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself.” ― Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive
Whether it be reading or writing, I self medicate with words. I’ve done it all of my life. It’s a coping mechanism I taught myself as a child growing up in an abusive household. When I opened the cover of a book it became the only world in existence. Inside the pages a safe place awaited, an escape.
I still have the box of journals I wrote during my teenage years. Pages filled with angst, confusion, catastrophizing and thought spirals. The same box houses treasure. The books my great grandparents gave me while I was growing up. The Giving Tree, Where the Wild Things Are, Fish is Fish and The Housekeeper Who Wore Scarves.
I remember my great grandmother pulling me up onto her lap. Her dinosaur fingers shuffled the pages. She’d point at a picture while speaking in Yiddish. She was an immigrant from Romania and I was a child. I didn’t understand what she was saying.
Once I was finally out of my parent’s house I nourished healing from the ordeal I now refer to as “my childhood” with Anton Chekhov, Martha Gellhorn, John Fante and George Orwell. This was back in the day when I refused to acknowledge the constant state of depression I barely lived in.
I was unable to sit with myself. There are folks who would cure this with meditation, counseling, yoga or a transformational emotional breakdown. I cured it with Six Months in Mexico, written by Nellie Bly.
Bly was my hero. I wanted to walk in every footstep she wrote.
College is where I discovered nonfiction and its power and life altering abilities. It wasn’t long before I caught onto the idea reading nonfiction made me smarter. Inside the pages of textbooks held the key to becoming anyone I wanted to be, and who I didn’t.
Books were the reason I remained in school and earned a PhD. Once I were prepared to take on the world with the knowledge I’d gained I would no longer have time to read books and it scared me. I’d lose all sense of safety and security. Books saved me from myself, and to let go of my ability to flee meant potential self destruction.
The connection I made with Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning was chilling for a mere required reading. I was studying domestic terrorism and may have otherwise never come across it.
His personal story acted as a sanctuary to the hell I’d been afflicted by growing up. The psychology of his story awakened me to the possibility that books were the channel into my own depersonalization. In a sense, reading ensured my survival. As long as I could break away, I’d take any journey I could get my hands on.
During my late twenties mania and rage kicked in. After anger management classes failed me, Charles Bukowski became the best medicine. I sedated emotional explosions with his words. It was a savior to focus on the fucked up dysfunctional lives of his characters rather than acknowledge the real life dysfunction living within me.
I own his complete library of novels and poetry. They’re always there when I need them and admittedly, I do need them. Bukowski’s intentions may have been to capture ambience in Los Angles but he guided me through real life experiences with his made up tales.
I grew up, became a mother, nourished a career and lived a lifestyle of exhaustion where one day blended into the next. I traded books for reoccurring summer vacations at Lego Land. My home library collected dust as I grew stale.
I found myself shut down and in auto mode. This is when the panic attacks began. At first I had no idea what was happening. Convinced I was dying from a heart attack, I called for paramedics.
After a series of blood tests, an EKG and Echocardiogram I was discharged from the emergency room with a referral for a therapist, who recommended I read the book, When Things Fall Apart, written by Pena Chodron. The basis of the book teaches how to live in the difficult moments opposed to focusing our energy on running away from it.
Last year I went through a period of adjusting my psychiatric medications. My prescriber weaned me off the mood stabilizer and increased the dosage of the antidepressant. It proved a challenge. I had no idea which person I would be when I woke each morning. Would I be the one suffocating in misery or the one sped with rage?
In a quest to keep my shit together while the meds stabilized, I read Michael Finkel’s book, Stranger in the Woods. I found myself hiding inside pages, again. This time, I escaped my reality as I devoured the true story of a man who escaped his, and it was exhilarating.
In the book, Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig writes, “There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself.” I believe it’s both. As a child, I began reading to escape because of what my life wasn’t, and through each book, learned the lessons of what it, and I would become.