Last night I went to a talk/interview thing with Jeanette Winterson at Newcastle University. It was fascinating stuff. She was largely talking about the memoir that she's writing and is due for publication in October, I think. Obviously as it hasn't been published yet then none of the audience had been able to read the memoir, but Jackie Kay who was interviewing had had the privilege of doing so, and Jeanette Winterson read out the first chapter to us. I hadn't known that she had been adopted, and this is largely what the memoir seems to be about, in a similar way to Jackie Kay's own memoir Red Dust Road. My younger brother, C, was adopted (originally born as my cousin), so it's a subject that interests me from the position of a sibling, and I think I'll be getting Jeanette Winterson's book when it comes out later in the year.
During the course of the interview JW spoke about the effect of some of her adoptive family's home-life and parenting, and the effect of learning more about her birth mother, and finally meeting her. She spoke also about working through the feeling of not belonging anywhere solidly in the world when you're an adopted person, which resonated in me with something that my brother once said to my mother. He was very young, perhaps six - I'm not sure - and he said, 'I don't want to be a dopted. I want to be a boy.' That says so much about identity, and a small child's perception of who they are and who they're seen to be.
So Jeanette Winterson was talking about this time in her life when she was working her way through all this, and she told how she got terribly depressed and had a breakdown. She spoke about how she lost all her words; not just her ability to write, which is terrible enough when you're an author, but more her all-round ability/inability to express herself. She told how awful that was for her, but then how it was poetry that helped her find her words again - not writing poetry, but reading it. As she said, poetry often isn't taken seriously as a form of literature and emotional expression, but rather as something soft and insincere, or conversely hard and academic. She then went on to say that reading poetry, and particular books of poetry saved her life; not the self-help books on depression and surviving nervous breakdowns, but books of poetry, other books - books saved her life. I found myself being distracted by this for a while during the talk, and through the rest of the night at home, and all through today, and I've been thinking about what books would I say have saved my life.
As I've spoken about a little in the past (and realise I've mentioned several times in recent posts for one reason or another), I had terrible, terrible depression for many years. It was debilitating. It had me in hospital on several occasions, usually for at least a few weeks, and once for eight months. In retrospect I would say that I was depressed to some extent from fairly early childhood, getting worse in my teenage years, and then reaching desperate levels in my twenties. I was actively suicidal. I self-harmed extensively. I started self-harming when I was in sixth form, but at that time it was very superficial, and it stayed superficial (though that doesn't make it insignificant) for a lot of years. As time progressed, the depression got worse, my lack of self-worth increased, and I lost the desire to live, the self-harming got worse. I'm not going to go into detail, but just to say that I was told on several occasions in A&E that it was the worst self-harm the doctor had seen, and I became very well acquainted with the internal anatomy of my arms. It was a terrible, terrible time, that I didn't believe would ever end without my killing myself. Thank God I was wrong, and thank God He got me through the suicidality so that I had the opportunity to find out that the terrible time could end another way.
In my late teens I read Richard Bach's book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I know it's kind of seen as a 'hippy' book, but it I loved it. I still love it. There's a hope in it; a hope that being different and alone doesn't make you worthless and hopeless or any less worthy than anyone else. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a kindred spirit to the outsider. It's a book that saved my life. When I was in the deepest depression I had no concentration to read, but my friend S read the book onto tape for me and I listened to it again and again and again. I still have the tape. I lost myself in the imagery it induced, and my time flying around the lonely skies above the seas, taking dives closer and closer to the surface of the water, gave me some calm. Jonathan Seagull was playing with death, I suppose, as he made those dives seawards, and I was playing with death with my ever-worsening self-harm ... although it wasn't a game ... it was the deepest unhappiness in the world and I was trying to escape...
After thinking about Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I wondered if there other books that had given me a spider's-breath of hope, or something else that had saved my life. Like JW I'm not talking about self-help guides, and I also mean something other than the Bible. There probably are other books that gave me something positive, or helped me see things in a different way, but nothing I can really, truly identify. No published books anyway. However, there was one other book (or series of other books) that was highly significant to me, I carried with me constantly when I was in hospital, and called upon often when at home. My diaries. My diaries probably saved my life too, and I have my diaries going back to about twenty years, although I hardly ever read them as they're full of that horrendous depression. But I want to share with you just a small part of two diary entries from 2003:
Monday 24th March 2003 - 10.32pm
I don't feel safe to myself. I don't know why but I am very urgy. At the moment I'd say that I'm maybe 90% certain to cut. Wish I knew why I'm so urgy. Maybe it's the habit of it. Maybe it's because inside I'm crying, but can't on the outside. Maybe it's something familiar ... a very weird kind of comfort. It shows me that I'm real, despite not feeling it. It shows me that I'm alive, despite not feeling it. When it hurts some of the internal hurt goes. While I'm doing it I'm calm and everything else goes for a while.
Thursday 27th March 2003 - 3.34am
I've been looking at my arms whilst moisturising them, and I've realised that my scars will only ever remind me of bad times. I've known that somewhere for a long time, but I've only just fully realised it. I want to be able to stop cutting. I don't always want to be reminded of all the bad times. I am going to try my hardest not to cut. I think it's three years that you have to be si free before you can have plastic surgery done on them so I figure that if I can do that then it'll be 2006. It'll almost be my 32nd birthday. I could aim for that ... I shall make that my aim. I will try to find a way, and ask other people for ideas of ways to stop. I shall need a lot of support and I don't know how I'm going to achieve it, but I want to try. I want to be able to free myself from the past - from all the pain - and I don't think I'll ever be truly able to do that while I bear constant reminders of how terrible things have been (and are at the moment).
I will see if it's possible to buy Tubifast so that I can write on my arms without immediately having to wash it off so others don't see it. I will write 'NO' in big, black letters. I will write '32/2006' or something similar.
Seems weird talking about becoming 32 and the year 2006 because they're in a time-scale that doesn't yet exist for me. I can hardly comprehend Monday [...] let alone 3 years time ... I'll still try to aim for it though.
Need to find other coping strategies quickly!
I have only self-harmed once since making that diary entry, and that was on 22nd April that year - 2003. It was one of the toughest things I ever did - giving up si (self injury) - but I did it, and it's been several years now since I've had kind of urge to si. I never did go for plastic surgery and I'll always have the scars, but they're a part of me. I don't like them, but I don't hate them - they're just the way my arms are, and I long ago decided that if other people don't like what they see then they don't have to look. I, on the other hand, have to live with them everyday so if I hide them away and refuse to accept them, then I'm hiding myself away and refusing to accept a part of me. I won't do that. Harbouring that attitude will harbour an underlying self-hatred that has potential to develop into depression again, and I'm not doing that if I can help it. Life is for living, and I'm going to live it! My diary taught me that. My diary saved my life.
Are there any books that have saved your life?