The first book I ever recall reading and loving was Gratefully Yours by an author whose name I now cannot remember. But I remember how that book made me feel and what the rough yellowing pages were like between my fingertips as I turned the page.
The last book I ever recall reading and loving I was nearly nine years older, and life had finally taken its toll on me.
There's a common misconception that the young cannot suffer because they haven't experienced much of the world yet. And while I do believe some of that to be true, that some pain can only come with age and experience, I have to say that for being so young, I've seen my fair share.
There was no mistaking that ever since I was young, I was different from the other kids. And not in a way that made me an outcast but in a way that drew people's attention and often left me feeling confused. I was smart and beloved by all my teachers but when it came to being on the playground I was a wanderer. I didn't have a group of friends to sit down with and talk to. Yet in class, I got along with everyone. Being older, I now identify that feeling of being alone on the playground as sadness.
Middle school was a completely different experience. I'd blossomed into the social butterfly I was destined to be but there was always something else. A whisper in the back of my mind that something was wrong.
I had read many books before. The Percy Jackson series, A Series Unfortunate Events, The Hunger Games, Matched. But the book that shaped me into the woman I am today was City of Bones. I'd come across that book during a particularly difficult summer at a turning point in my life.
I was 13 years old and had ordered the original trilogy. I practically devoured them as I sat by the windowsill on my favorite beige couch--quite literally one of the only pieces of furniture in my apartment. If you opened up that book, you'd see a long silver thread woven through pages where all of my memories from that summer have been stitched in. And if you reached into my chest to pull out my heart, it'd probably be in the shape of that book.
My mother had just lost her job that March and the month before, my father had threatened to take her to court for custody of me. A threat that came to fruition one summer evening as I was scrolling through Cassandra Clare's Tumblr and she came into my room sobbing to break the news.
Things began to deteriorate from there.
I threw myself into my reading. Whatever I could get my hands on. I brought a new book to school every day and not because I'd gotten bored of it but because I had finished it the night before. Reading was a way for me to escape my problems. My mother's growing drinking problem, the bills that were piling high on the kitchen counter, the lack of food in the fridge, the calls to the office at school when I was behind on tuition. These are all things I've kept to myself for so long but never dared to voice aloud or even put into writing. I'm not sure why.
It isn't anything I'd share with the adults in my life either because I know they'll say I'm lying. And not because they think that what I'm saying is fabricated but because deep down, they know I'm telling the truth. And they're probably ashamed that a child as young as myself had to grow up at such a young age.
I feel like that sometimes. Like I grew up before my time.
We ended up losing our apartment and we moved back into my grandparents' house--my childhood home. She remained unemployed for years to come, the court battle was stressful and scarring, and I was living in such a toxic environment I felt myself drowning over and over again but didn't even know it.
I threw myself into the literary world. I wrote my own novels and from then on was sure that I'd found my calling. Bookstagram and Booktube were just starting and so I occupied myself with those things. I started going to book signings and formed a book squad when--
When for the first time in my life, I decided that I wanted to die.
It was perhaps a month or so before my 15th birthday and the first time I whispered the words aloud I felt shocked. Terrified. I took those thoughts, shoved them to the back of my mind and tried to ignore them but I couldn't. I started scouring the internet for answers. I took every one of those "Do You Suffer From Anxiety and/or Depression?" quizzes I could find. I think that in the end, I took around 50 in total. I realized that I needed help-- to tell someone. So I told my mother.
And it was a mistake.
I told her that I felt depressed and that something was wrong. I even showed her my test results and she ignored them. She told me that I was self-diagnosing myself. That there was nothing wrong with me and that maybe if I did something with myself like left my room once in a while, I might feel better. "Fresh air," she's said,"Is good for you." At the time I didn't know how to speak to her. At the time I was too young and uninformed to know that what I should've said was, "Isolation is not a cause of depression. It's a side effect."
I finally told my doctor and she sent me to a therapist. I only went for around two months before I couldn't go anymore. My mother had no job and one day she forgot to call and cancel the appointment and the cancellation fee was too much for her to pay and nothing else in the area was covered by our insurance. If we even had insurance.
I can't remember much of those details.
At 16, I tried to cut myself for the first time. At 17, I wrote a last will and testament because that I planned on going home and killing myself. She laughed it off and put the paper in her folder. I didn't think she believed me so I kept putting it off.
Every once in a while I'd tell her, in specific detail, what I wanted in the event that I died. I'm sure she wrote it off as nothing more than my twisted sense of humor but I made her promise. And she did, even though she wasn't fully aware of what she was promising me.
I got my first job at a bookstore. It gave me purpose. I could escape from a toxic home environment and it gave me something to look forward to while I was miserable in school in yet another toxic environment. That job was my escape. I had so many ideas I would share with my manager because originally I was brought on to help appeal to the YA audience in NYC but that fell through after a wrongful termination that at 16 years old, I didn't know how to deal with. But that's okay.
Because one day when I'm an internationally best selling author, they're going to wish they had treated me better.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I could open up to people. I'd met great friends through all of my bookish shenanigans and I didn't feel like an anomaly anymore. I was able to accept my therapist's diagnosis of severe depression without telling myself that other people had it worse and that I had no right to be sad. I could tell them about my growing anxiety and how I'd self-sabotaged in school, and distance myself from my other friends and my church. Just all the things I couldn't tell the adults in my life, I told them. And we shared our stories and I didn't feel so alone.
That has been my greatest problem in life. Always feeling alone.
I was on top of the world. I concealed my depression and anxiety like an expert. I no longer wanted to take my life because I finally had something to live for. Every story in every book that I had ever read, played a part in saving my life. One way or the other.
But then, I crashed again.
I lost my friends. I was expelled from school because I didn't want to go anymore. I stopped reading and writing and doing all of the things that me Lilly, Lilly. That vibrant butterfly, that bookish NYC socialite, the girl with the flower crowns and the eyeliner just vanished. Somewhere along the road, she died and I let her.
And I don't know why.
But, I'll let you in on a little secret. After many (failed) attempts at writing this story, a very good friend of mine came to NYC for a visit. We spoke and went to church together and he told me about this passion project that we've been talking about for months--Saved By the Page. He asked me why I never wrote my story and I said, "I've written it a thousand times and I hate it. It never comes out right."
After we parted ways, he left me with a lot to think about. The day after, I cleaned up my bookshelf for the first time in months. I went through my old bookstagram account and my old photos from little miss socialite days. I realized that I lost myself somewhere along the way and so now I'm sitting down to write my story. Because I know that there are many more of you out there that are like me.
I wish I could fit every detail of my journey into these few pages but there will be other times to share different stories. Today, I've tackled one. And there will always be tomorrow.
In the weeks following this visit, I picked up a book for the first time this year. I didn't finish it of course (I didn't have the time). But I felt that spark in my chest. The kind 14-year-old me used to get only this time it was different--older.
I wrote something down for the first time in a year. I bought books at Barnes and Noble for this first time in the year. And I started to do it again. Pick up the pieces of my life but only this time, they'll be arranged differently. It's okay to reinvent yourself so long as you're able to find out who you are in the end. No matter where this goes, wherever the path of life is going to take me, I'll walk that road with a book in hand. Because it's my life saver.
And I'm sure that if you're reading this right now, it's your lifesaver too.