In June of this year, I wrote a blog post here at Skolion on how anxiety affects me as a reader. But the fact that I’m a writer is what has shaped how I respond to all the Stuff That’s Been Going On.
The best thing about growing older is that I get to know myself better. Like most of the other writers I know, I live in my head. I have a vivid inner life. My thoughts never stop whirring. This can be an entertaining. For example, playing the “what if” game. “What if our sewage system was powered by teleportation instead of water?” or “what if I change into somebody else when I’m asleep?”
It can be very useful too. In January 2020 I had a hysterectomy. Surgery was delayed. I was already in the theatre, waiting to be sedated. I was undrugged and worried. I knew that if I gave it a chance, fear would take root. The longer I waited, the more it would grow.
So I escaped.
I went for a walk through the forests behind Rivendell.
I didn’t feel the draft from the air-conditioner, or smell the acrid hospital disinfectant. A breeze rustled the tall trees all around me. I waded through a stream, cool water on my bare feet. Lying in that hospital bed, waiting for surgery, I transported myself to another place using nothing but my imagination. No drugs. No books or movies. I was relaxed and unafraid.
It was a profound experience. I hadn’t realised, till that moment, just how powerful my imagination was.
Shortly afterwards, in March of 2020, just like the hero of many a Fantasy adventure, I discovered the dark side of my power. As Covid closed in, like everyone else I knew, I was abruptly locked into my house without anything to distract me.
I retreated into an internal landscape of fear and despair. I played a new version of the “what if” game, conjuring up all my deepest fears with terrifying clarity. It was– or seemed to be– a way to keep myself safe. This was the lesson I’d learned from every fantasy novel and every fairy tale:
Face your fears.
To conquer the monster, I had to look it in the face, see what it truly was. Stuck in my house in the hard lockdown, I thought that the monsters I had to face down were all the worst things that might happen in the future. In order to face them, I used the tools that had worked for me so well in the past.
But now the stories I told myself took me deep into a very dark place.
My husband is a school teacher. He had to go to work even while Covid was surging. Many of his students came from Covid hot-spots. At his school, social distancing and the other Covid protocols are given lip-service, but don’t happen in practice.
I was terrified he would get sick, and my imagination supplied every single worse-case scenario. This quickly took its toll. It showed in my body. I’ve always been skinny, and I lost about 12 kg in a week or two. My stomach ached constantly. I had permanent adrenaline rushes. Everything seemed risky. Doing the shopping. Venturing outside my house. Interacting with anyone except for my immediate family.
My fear was not entirely irrational, especially in the early days. All of these things were legitimately risky during a pandemic! But the fear was out of proportion to the actual risk. I could not function. What I did not realise was that, just like any proper horror movie, the frightening phone calls were coming from inside the house.
The true monster wasn’t the virus. In this frightening and uncertain time, the thing that was harming me most, was my own mind. I had learned the wrong lessons from the stories I loved.
To conquer the monster, you have to face it.
I’d been hunting the wrong monster. I had turned my most powerful weapon, my mind, against myself. The monster I had to face was not the uncertain future. It was my fear.
The only way to vanquish it was to do the things I had been avoiding. To dismantle the clumsy wall of sandbags I’d constructed against the rising tide.
The first step was telling people. Letting my family and friends know what was going on. Getting out on my bicycle. Meditating. Seeing a therapist. Identifying, one by one, the things I was terrified to do, and doing them as safely as I could in Covid-times.
I started going into a grocery stores to do my shopping. Walking down to the beach, surrounded by strangers. Walking with friends.
The book I was working on during the early part of the lockdown was We Broke the Moon. I’d written most of it pre-pandemic, but in some ways it could be seen to be a metaphor of my life in the hard lockdown, cut off from the world as it used to be. The story is set aboard generation space-ship drifting in deep space, hundreds of years of travel from the nearest human outpost.
I had to finish this book, but I was scared of writing it.
Scared of projecting myself into that story, to feel the fear and desperation of the characters. But I had to, to be a good writer. One scene worried me in particular. In it, the characters are trapped in a submarine, stuck under a sheet of ice, unable to surface while the oxygen supplies slowly running low. (If you are wondering how they could do that and still be on a spaceship, you need to read the book!)
There was no way around it. I had to write that scene. No way out but through. So I just did it. And just as with going to a supermarket, or walking outside among strangers, it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Slowly, step by step, I found myself gaining strength again, gaining confidence in my writing, and in the story.
My characters and I endured the danger together. We felt the dread as the submarine nosed up against the impossibly thick ice that barred our exit, and breathed in relief as the oxygen was replenished in a way we could never have predicted. In retrospect, it was a rather on-the-nose metaphor for trusting that your future self will be competent enough to solve a problem without preparation or planning.
The next scene I wrote was unplanned, and came from somewhere deep inside my psyche. My young hero faced a wall of dragons. He could only pass them by accepting the reality of his fear. He had to move through them despite his fear. Another overly-apt metaphor, sure, but one I clearly needed to work through.
The weapon I’d been using to hurt myself was my imagination. But the challenge was not to blunt it or disable it, but to channel it in a different direction, and draw its power from a different source. Not from fear of the future, but from the joy of small, everyday things. The things that really shape my life.
The chameleon that crossed my path one morning. The clouds I could see from my bedroom window.
Instead of spending my long nights frustrated at not being able to sleep, I began conjuring up stories. The sights and sounds of where I wanted to be. A campfire under a starry sky. The sound of rain on the roof. Cycling at night next to the ocean.
I started writing a new book, about all the things I craved most.
A story about friendship, being outside, and discovering new things.
I wrote Ray and the Cat Thing, a self-indulgent, escapist light fantasy about talking kittens and friendly ghosts. It was glorious, to spend time in that story world, writing about people who care about one another, and a world that made sense. My imagination helped me in therapy as well. My therapist used EMDR, a process that requires the ability to conjure up memories as vividly as possible. As a writer, I’ve had a lot of practice doing that!
I recently started taking an SSRI to manage my anxiety and depression. It has taken a long struggle to accept that I needed medication. Another example of how telling myself the wrong story had been holding me back.
It’s early days yet, but taking the SSRI has been like opening a door in my mind. A month ago, a good day, for me, was two or three hours in which I didn’t feel like an alarm was constantly shrilling inside my head. On worse days I spent hours feeling as if somebody was holding my hands above a gas flame, and the slightest incautious movement would result in disaster. Day after day after day, relentlessly.
Since I started with the medication, the alarm has been reduced a dull buzz, and I’m on the far side of the room from that flame.
I’m writing the sequel to Ray and the Cat Thing. In the past, I’d spent months planning each book, another example of how I’d been trying to control the uncontrollable. Now I’ve resolved to trust my future self, and let the story flow.
So far, Ray has moved into a block of flats built right on the edge of the sea, and she’s getting to know her rather unusual neighbours, none of whom seem to be human in the usual sense of the word! I have a vague idea of what will happen next, but I try not to think about it too much while I’m not actually writing.
I’ve come a long way since those early lockdown days.
It’s tempting to be drawn into the popular therapy narrative. Of the single break-through or revelation that leads to healing. It doesn’t work like that. I’m still me, and I still struggle to make sense of things. But I’m like the adventurer who went out into the world, on a quest for the magical solution– the sacred deer, the jewelled crown that would save my world– only to return home to find that what I’d been searching for had been there all along.
Without the journey that transformed me, I would not be able to recognise the value of what I already have. All the stories that shaped who I am today, and all the stories I still have to tell.