I’ve always been an anxious person, but it was only in 2020 that I learned about Anxiety with a capital “A”. I’d lost the dog of my heart after a long illness at the end of 2019, and had a hysterectomy in January 2020. None of which put me in a good position to deal with the anxiety-provoking events we’ve all experienced, the coming of the pandemic.
Here in South Africa we went abruptly into a hard lockdown. We were not allowed outside for anything but getting food and medical help. Not even exercise. Normally, reading would have been my refuge but I found myself in a peculiar situation.
For some reason, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to reread old favourite books. Maybe it was the enforced sameness and isolation of lockdown, but I wanted to read new books. None of the many, many books on my bookshelf would do because I’ve read all of them multiple times. Libraries were closed, and bookshops as well. But that was not the problem.
The problem I faced was that I was scared to read.
I wanted to read new stories, but I didn’t want to read anything that might spark my anxiety.
I was doing my best to deal with my mental health. Meditating. Getting exercise. Eating well. Seeing a therapist. But the struggle with anxiety had knocked my confidence badly and I was scared of being exposed to anything that might upset me.
Up till then, I’d been aware of the idea of trigger and content warnings, and felt ambivalent about them. I understood, theoretically, why some people would want to know up front if a story was about a certain topic. Sexual violence, for example, or the death of a child. But surely readers could do what I did, read the book description, or reviews? Why the need for specific warnings?
As a writer I did not like the idea of including trigger warnings in my book description. It would be difficult to do this without spoiling the story, I felt, and also it foregrounded those topics in a way that distorted what the story was actually about.
More and more, in the online spaces I frequented, I saw requests for “light” and “happy” books, movies, and TV shows. So I was not alone in my need for a comforting read. But inevitably, these requests would be met with at least one person who felt the need to explain the therapeutic value of catharsis. Fiction could help you heal and face your fear, and you should not pack yourself in cotton wool. Avoiding your fear only made you weaker. Scary stories were good for you!
A glance at the most popular shows on Netflix revealed a list of pandemics, zombies, and serial killers. Clearly many people were finding release in exploring the dark side. But I could not.
In the beginning, when I was still struggling badly, my imagination supplied all the darkness I could possibly need. I had no skin, no protection, and I needed stories to be a refuge, a safe place where I could escape and find healing.
I was not ready for the bracing build up of fictional fear, and the release of fictional catharsis.
I did endless google searches for “feel good books” and “heart warming books”, only to discover that for most people, apparently, books that make you cry are considered both feel good, and heartwarming?
I did not want stories that made me cry! So many books were closed after the first chapter, when a character was revealed to have an incurable disease, or to lose their mother or their child in a car accident. Feel good indeed! I certainly would have appreciated a way to filter out those stories.
In the end, I posted requests for recommendations on an online forum, and searched other similar posts.
Here are some of the books I enjoyed when I was still very fragile:
“The Enchanted April” by Elizabeth von Arnim (a romantic story about three very different women who win a holiday in Italy that changes their lives. “Simon vs the Homosapien Agenda”, “What if it’s Us” and “The Upside of Unrequited” by Becky Albertalli, all young adult books about teenagers at different parts of the queer spectrum, finding ways to fit into the world. “Excellent Women” by Barbara Pym, a sort of slice-of-life look at a small British village, devastatingly witty and insightful.
Things changed. Gradually I began to find my courage.
With anxiety, the contradictory thing is that avoiding the source of my fear often made that fear worse. Some part of me experiences that avoidance of what I fear, as confirmation that the danger is real, rather than just a possibility.
I applied this knowledge in daily life. Soon I could go outside the house, which for a while, was a challenge. I could walk down to the beach and back, among strangers. I could go grocery shopping (that was a big step!). I could read the news (an even bigger one). And gradually, I began reading books that I didn’t feel ready for before.
A significant moment was reading “Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell. A friend had told me that it was about a girl who struggles with anxiety, and that she’d found it difficult to read. That book lay on my shelf for a while, looking at me while I gathered courage.
It helped that I’d already read “Carry On”, which is actually the sequel, and was very curious how the two books linked up.
I read “Fangirl”, and it was fine. In fact, I loved it. And that gave me the confidence to branch out a bit more.
By now, I’d say I’m pretty much back to normal, when it comes to what I can read. I’ve even read books that I put aside before, like “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer, which is a lovely book but very much on the sad side of bitter sweet a lot of the time. It’s about a writer who decides to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding by travelling around the world and getting into all kinds of ridiculous scrapes. Highly recommended.
My writing has adjusted too.
In Lockdown, frustrated by my inability to find happy stories, I’d decided to write one myself. Writing “Ray and the Cat Thing” became my escapist indulgence, full of everything that I craved and could not have.
Going away on a camping trip to an exciting, unknown location. Getting to know new, kind, generous people. Learning new skills. Having a haircut! Having new, stylish clothing picked out for me by my new, kind, generous friends. Freshly baked bread. Pancakes. Kittens. Talking cats. Mysterious old houses in the middle of the forest. Rain on the roof in the middle of the night. Reading in front of the fire with friends. This story had it all, and I revelled in writing it.
Of course, as my anxiety receded, I realised that there were some things missing from the story. Like, an actual story! It is very difficult to write a compelling story that has no conflict or shadow at all.
The story I’d written during lockdown suited who I’d been then, but the person I’d changed into was a little bit tougher, and I had to honour that as well. The first draft of “Ray and the Cat Thing” is completed, and being read by my first beta reader. We’ll see what they make of it when I get their feedback!
I’m still not sure what I think about trigger warnings. Part of me feels that this is something best left to readers. To sites like Does the Dog Die, which crowdsources what they call “emotional spoilers” for movies, books and series.
But part of me also wishes that people were more open to the idea that people are different, and have different needs, when it comes to reading. Some people read to challenge themselves, to learn something new, or to change their ideas of what a book can be. Some people read to experience the thrill of fear, or to shudder in horror, happy in the knowledge that they can close the book whenever they like. Some people need stories to be a place they can escape to, sure in the knowledge that the writer will respect their vulnerability and keep them safe. All of these are completely legitimate. And I hope that now that I’m looking for them, I will find many more happy, warm, good-hearted, kind stories.