*Submitted by Alyssa Haskel
I learned how to fall asleep with a Harry Potter book under my pillow. For as long as I could remember, I had a constant stream of thoughts pouring through my mind and the faucet didn’t turn off come bed time. So my mom would tuck me into bed, J.K. Rowling’s words and a reading light hidden under the pillow or in that crack between the bed and the wall, and as soon as the coast was clear I’d get to reading. I’d be whisked away to the world of witches and wizards, of magic and love, of struggle and triumph. My mind seized hold of the wonder. My imagination immersed itself in that realm. But most importantly, my racing thoughts finally focused. This was my bedtime routine and knowing that when my eyes began to tire and unfocus on the ink was a signal for sleep, my nightly fear of being left to the incessant chaotic thoughts bouncing around was put to rest.
I didn’t know I had anxiety for most of my 26 years. I thought it was normal to want to bury myself in the printed word, to allow the pages to absorb and transport me. I didn’t think of it as escapism as much as it was an adventure to Somewhere Else. I remember seeing a therapist once as a preteen and, after a soliloquy on how much I loved to read, she asked, “Do you think you use reading as an escape from reality?” I was so angry at this, how could she say that? How could something so precious to me, something that brought me so much of life without having to leave my room, be construed as a negative thing? Reading was so integral a part of who I was, I felt like she was attacking my inner self. Needless to say, I didn’t keep seeing her.
You see, to me, my books weren’t just bound pages with words on them. In a mind that screamed so loudly, my stories were another plane of existence for me. It wasn’t even the physical book that I cared about. It was the stories that became my friends. My cities. My heartbreaks. I could open to a page and I was Arya, walking beside Eragon through the magnificent Tronjheim. I was Katniss as she floated through the fire, heart splintering with the death of her sister. I traveled farther, felt harder, and experienced more life than I could have by just being me. When I was younger, I didn’t really understand what this desire to get out of myself meant or how it only aided in the avoidance my anxiety so loved.
It still angers me to think of books in this negative light. How does one decide when it became a crutch rather than a symbol of my creativity, of my imagination? As I’ve grown older and have more fully recognized who I am, I’ve come to separate these notions. Having gone through treatment for anxiety, I can more easily make the distinctions. So what if that therapist was right, so what if my mind craves escape out of its anxiety-programed wires? But it isn’t just the anxiety and mental chaos that continue to propel me off to all these different realms. It’s the magic. The same magic that used to help me go to sleep. The wonder that’s held within a page of a book and the ink of its words is what beckons me to dwell in this world of stories. With every new book comes a new life, a new way to feel or think or love. And I’ll never stop exploring.