I’ve been a reader my whole life. I can speak with frightening clarity about my “friends” who exist only in a fictional world. Anne Shirley, for example, she gets me. When I felt misunderstood by the world, I would retreat into hers.
Over the years, I’ve developed deep, meaningful attachments to characters. There’s only one problem with this: they are completely one-sided. I can love Elizabeth Bennett, or Emma Woodhouse, I can “hang out” with Flavia de Luce or Nancy Drew. But if a miracle occurred and these people suddenly became real, they would say: “Cara who?”
I’ve joked about my book “addiction” over the years. But so many jokes hold a little bit of truth. As I delved into memoir, I’ve realized that reading Lauren Winner’s words gives me the illusion of having coffee with her. It’s a magical function of the written word, but it’s also dangerous if I’m avoiding real relationships, content to savor the safety of those who can’t hear my side of the conversation.
Many of you have probably seen Brené Brown’s TED talk about shame and vulnerability which launched her into the public eye. I was talking with a friend today, and we realized that neither of us can stop talking about the part where she suggests that it is impossible to selectively numb. You can choose to shut your heart and mind to pain and sorrow, but you’re closing your heart to joy and passion as well.
This past Lent, I reluctantly gave up clothes shopping and alcohol. I don’t find anything innately wrong with either of these things, but I realized that when I was having a bad day, I thought: “Maybe I’ll buy a new dress to cheer myself up” or “I really need a glass of wine tonight.”
The fast was harder than I thought it would be. I had no idea how often I try to mask my emotions, especially the ones that I don’t want to deal with, but even, surprisingly, my excitement and enthusiasm. In the absence of some of my coping mechanisms, I started to see others that I’d never considered. For example, I can get lost in photo editing, spending hours in Photoshop, tweaking settings and lighting and cropping.
Perhaps the most upsetting realization came in the form of my reliance on books.
When I was young, the library had all kinds of posters on the walls telling you that you could be where and who you wanted to be in books. You could go on adventures, meet new and lasting friends, explore behind curtains that would never open to you in the real world. No wonder I bought into the idea of reading as escape.
I’m certainly not going to stop reading, buying dresses, editing photos or drinking wine, but I am trying to be careful that I’m not using these things to escape from what I don’t want to feel: joy or pain.
I don’t want to be like Maria, from the Sound of Music, trying to hide in the Abbey when her real life was outside. I don’t want to numb how I feel, how I love, how I grieve.
It’s socially acceptable to spend hours alone with my nose in a book. When I call it an addiction, I am often met with laughter, with: “there are worse things.” But when my books get between me and my life, between me and my experiences, between me and my emotions, I’m not sure it’s any better than a drug. In fact, once I made the connection, I was surprised at how similar my coping mechanisms are to one another, and to other, more traditionally dangerous ones.
So I’m taking a step back, trying to stay honest with myself about my decisions, because I want to live wholeheartedly, even when it breaks my heart, because I might feel every crack, but I’ll also feel every ray of joy.