Updated: Apr 28, 2021
It has been a tough year, hasn’t it? We won’t talk about that. I’m sure that, for all of us, it feels like trying to climb a sheer cliff face when the top is obscured by mist and you’ve no idea how far you have left to struggle. I know it has for me.
And more of us are delving into the worlds inside our heads for solace, escapism and comfort.
More of us are reading, and more of us are writing!
I’ll tell you a secret. (It’s not really a secret, I’m quite open about it.) I’ve suffered with anxiety all my life, and it got particularly bad in my 20s, when I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. I had Depression at the time too. Not a whole heap of fun. But in a way, the diagnosis was really helpful, because it made me realise that the struggles I’d been through all my life were things I could learn to manage. They didn’t have to hold me back.
Lots of us have developed mental health issues for the first time this year, and it’s hard when you might never have had to navigate that terrain before. I’ve been climbing a sheer cliff face, one way or another, most of my life. I’m used to feeling like I’m hanging off the edge of the world, only clinging on by my fingernails sometimes (even when there’s nothing, really, to worry about.)
But whether you’re an old hand at clinging to the psychological cliff face of poor mental health, or you’ve arrived here recently without a harness and rope and have no idea how to move up or down, I hope stories have been of some comfort for you.
Writing has always been how I manage my mental health. Perhaps reading might be a good way to manage yours.
Perhaps this blog post will encourage you to have a go at writing your own stories, who knows? But if you’re feeling low, as a writer, or simply as a human being, I hope these words will bring you some comfort and encourage you to find solace in words.
Order Out of Chaos
There is an artist I have admired for a long time, called Gabriel Orozco. He’s the sort of artist whose work, in my opinion, belongs in galleries rather than living rooms. It isn’t particularly pretty, but it is meaningful and powerful when you understand the stories behind it.
The piece I like most is a piece called Black Kites. In 1997, Orozco was confined to his home to recover from a collapsed lung. Unable to travel widely, as he usually did, he took a graphite pencil and a human skull (I have no idea where he got it from) ...
... and he painstakingly drew a checkerboard pattern all over the skull, inside the eye sockets, inside the mouth. Everywhere.
I will never truly know what this work means to Orozco, but I can tell you what it means to me. Orozco took a representation of chaos: the skull, and on it, he applied something ordered: the chequerboard. In putting the chequerboard pattern onto the skull, the pattern had to warp and stretch and contract and change to fit properly onto this chaotic shape.
Order out of chaos.
Anxious people are good friends with chaos. We are often hyper-aware of how little control we have over the world, and this scares us. A lot of people have been similarly scared this year.
But this is what writing does for me: it gives me a blank space over which I have control.
What I write is my world. When my characters struggle, I know I can save them.
It is only a very minute level of control, but it often helps me make sense of the world. I think readers need the same thing. We love it when we can guess the twist in a book, or when we work out who committed the crime, or when we solve the mystery. It gives us a sense of order to the world. We thought something, and we were right! It’s a powerful thing, and it helps us stay sane. I think you can probably say the same for most creative or artistic things. They help us to make sense of the world and all its uncertainty. Especially at the moment!
If you want some more information on Orozco’s piece, Black Kites, you can find it here.
We all need it, don’t we? Especially now! That ability to delve into another world, another mind, and experience a story that isn’t our own. There’s an element of much-needed release to that, regardless of the genre you read in. For a few blissful hours, the problems you are focused on are not your own and you have respite from the chaos of the world (see above!)
But it’s about more than that, I think, and escapism isn’t wholly about being removed from our own world for a while.
Escapism also allows us time to process our own challenges, failures, achievements, worries, concerns, joys and obstacles by channeling them through the eyes of another person: the protagonist about whom we are reading.
Inevitably, a reader is going to bring their own experience to a story. No two readers will ever read the same words and get the exact same meaning, because we see things as we are, not as they are.
Incidentally, that idea is from an old Talmudic text and attributed to Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani:
We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.
So escapism, both as a reader and a writer, is a fundamental part of allowing our own traumas to heal. We might read a character’s feelings and think to ourselves, ‘I completely understand how this character feels. No wonder she feels like this after what has happened!’
But what is really happening there is we are finally giving ourselves permission to feel the things we feel. We are validating ourselves by reading the valid experiences of others. Escapism isn’t just hiding from the world, it’s the process by which we learn to accept it.
You Are Not Alone
I think this is a huge drive for both readers and writers. Sometimes, we feel like we’re the only people in the world who aren’t coping. We feel like everyone else is just getting on with it, having a lovely time, a great big party, and we can’t even get out of bed.
I know I’ve felt this way before, but it’s amazing how, when I finally pluck up the courage to say to someone, ‘I feel vulnerable, I feel weak, I feel sad, I feel helpless,’ almost always, the answer is, ‘You know what? So do I …’
We are not alone. Not in our triumphs, nor in our fears. Every terror we have experienced has been experienced by someone else. Every joy we have felt has been felt all over the world. No one is an island, even though modern life—and this year in particular—has often convinced us we are. In the absence of being able to see our friends and hug our families recently, the written word has given me a great deal of solace. Some of the stories I’ve experienced have been like a hand reaching out of the dark to hold mine, like a voice from the silence saying, ‘See? We feel it, too.’
Reading has always done this for me. And I hope that my writing can provide the same solace—the same hand holding yours, the same voice breaking the silence—for my readers.
Sharing with others is also a good way to manage that cliff face.
The more hands holding yours, the more hands you are holding, the less likely you are to fall.
Managing mental health is always going to be an individual thing, because our mental health is unique to us. Some people will respond better to certain treatments or activities than others. Many of my friends, for example, manage their mental health through sports, or music, or spending time with animals, or gardening.
But I do feel that the written word is a powerful universal healer.
Words have been the way human beings have navigated the space between souls for millennia. Languages have sprung up and died and new ones have sprouted to replace them. Stories have been drawn on cave walls, passed down by word of mouth and, finally, recorded on paper for posterity.
When we read, especially when we read fiction, we’re not just reading symbols on a page. We’re reading the soul of another human; another member of your own species, shouting into the abyss, ‘I’m here! Can you hear me? Do you see me? I see you! Take my hand!’
And suddenly, that cliff edge doesn’t feel so sheer, that mist at the top doesn’t seem so thick, the climb doesn’t seem so impossible, because someone else is here with us, understanding us, keeping us moving.
That’s what books have always done for me. That’s what writing has always done for me. I hope it does the same for you.
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