Books are a spark in the darkness
Depression rots you from the inside out. First, it’s a little voice telling you that you’re not good enough. Next, you start to wonder if people are laughing or talking about you behind your back. Are you good enough? Do you matter? While we all go through these issues, someone with chronic depression, like me, hears those voices on a loop for eternity.
I have been depressed as long as I can remember. Even as a child, there was a part of me that felt different, older, sadder than my peers. I smiled and laughed with the rest of them, but that small voice in my brain told me I wasn’t smart, pretty, or fun enough. Frustration found an outlet in perfectionism. If I only got it just right, I might prove myself worthy. No one understood why I so desperately felt the need to prove myself, why I cried in bed at night. I lived two lives – one as a wide-eyed and precocious child, who took on each challenge with enthusiasm. The other was my internal life, the endless monologue that ran through my head day-in and day-out. Every day was a struggle to maintain my upbeat façade, but it was exhausting. Emotionally, mentally, physically—I wore myself out. The harder I tried to keep all the balls in the air, the worse it got. I needed an outlet, a way to shut my mind down and relax. At the time, meditation wasn’t readily accessible in my community, and prayer just wasn’t right for me. I tried everything until, one day, I picked up a book I hadn’t read in a few years.
I climbed into bed after a long day and opened the book to the first few pages. I read through a couple chapters lazily and knew I should have stopped, but for the first time I could remember my brain was completely focused. The words on the page became pictures, the scenes enchanting mini-movies that were playing just for me. I saw another life, far away from my small and cramped surroundings, where anything was possible.
The voices were silent.
They weren’t nagging me about not being good enough, or telling me that everyone hated me. Books liked me. Books only wanted to be read, and they loved me because I wanted to be devoured by their stories.
As I passed through the teenage and college years, I clung to my stories like a lifeline. I took so many literature classes that I accidentally ended up with a second major. I worked in the school library just to cradle the worn and cracked spines and to smell the musty old pages. I crammed for exams in the study room, giggled in whispered tones with friends, and found new literary loves all in the same place. Books sustained that inner life of mine, allowing me that quiet and sense of peace I normally lacked.
That’s when I dropped the balls.
Rather, they fell on me and knocked me on my rear end. I have a complicated medical history, and in the beginning of that year, a new medication caused me to get critically ill in a matter of days. The next few months were a blur of hospital stays, new treatment plans, failed recovery, and unimaginable pain. I’ll spare you the details. When I was finally released from the hospital, I couldn’t walk on my own. I didn’t speak. I didn’t move for hours at a time and needed to be reminded to take care of basic needs. I was spoon-fed for a week. It wasn’t a mental break, not exactly. I wanted to talk and engage with the world, I just couldn’t. Some days it felt like being trapped in my body. While I could communicate, I still wasn’t fully present. We tried binge watching my favorite television shows and listened to favorite bands. Nothing woke that spark in me. I hadn’t found the thing that would connect me to the world.
Then came my old friend, the book.
In hindsight, I don’t know how my husband and I didn’t think of it earlier. Out of the blue one afternoon, I noticed a book at my side. I picked it up, and since it didn’t require movements that induced pain, I flipped through the pages idly. It was a light-hearted Latinx romance, nothing that would tax my brain. The dialog was light and snappy, just the way I like it, and I laughed at a solid one-liner. It wasn’t a loud laugh, barely more than a puff of air, but it was the closest to an emotion I’d shown since my return from the hospital. From then on, new books filled my bedside. I devoured them, connecting to the characters in a way I couldn’t connect to people. Dragons rekindled my adventurous spirit. Shapeshifters made me want to venture out into the night. Sweet romances invoked the feelings of falling in love all over again. I began to feel. And once I could feel, I tentatively expressed myself. Day by day, the more I read, the easier words flowed from my lips. One night, over a game of Uno, I laughed for the first time in a month. Then I smiled. I read before I got out of bed, in the park, and in waiting rooms. I chatted about what I was reading with my physical therapist as she patiently taught me how to walk on my own again. The depression was ever present, probably at its strongest, but the time I was reading was the only time when I experienced true relief.
Those hours I spent reading were as vital to my recovery as anything else I did. I spent a lot of time in fantasy worlds, living through the Dragonlance series and their many off-shoots. I feasted upon Harry Potter and came to love the deep, dark recesses of the minds of supernatural assassins and thieves. Just as I filled my outer life with activities that reconnected me to friends and family, I filled my soul with those words.
Something curious happened. Stories formed in my head. Characters sprung to life and demanded to be set into action. I tried to ignore the urge. I’d never written fiction. I had just stopped working. Writing stories was for other people, not me. Feeling more foolish than I’d ever felt, I opened up a blank document and started typing. Words flowed from the wee hours of the morning through the evening hours. Within a year, I’d written two exceedingly bad novels with no real plot. They rambled. The characters swore too much. My world-building was terrible. As one of my earliest readers told me, it was like the dialog happened in a vacuum. I was so proud of myself and, although I’m glad I never published either, felt so alive. After months of scribbling and butchering the English language, I’d created worlds in which someone could lose themselves in, the same way I’d always lost, then found, myself in books. That was magic.
Five years since the days that changed my life and three years since I felt that magic, and here I am. Reading and writing have become everything to me. Not a night goes by that I don’t fall asleep with a book in my hand, and not a day passes when I don’t write. My depression isn’t gone – it’s something I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life, but I now have a way to beat the system. I write for fun, and now professionally. I’ve published three urban fantasy books for the same reason I keep picking up my favorites time and time again – I want fun, exciting, sometimes scary worlds to lose myself in. Now, I get to take people along for the ride, and hopefully give them a minute of respite from the stresses of their lives.