My sure solace: books, depression and me (#properjolly)

Last year, over the summer, I experienced a period of major depression. It hit me like a juggernaut, comprising of a familiar crash in confidence but also, less familiarly and far more worryingly, a crash in identity. I had no idea who I was anymore, and struggled to visualise myself as a meaningful human being, instead feeling like a nothing-person, as empty and nondescript as a discarded carrier bag on the wind, and not the tasteful Whole Foods recycled kind that carries overpriced yoghurt, but the flimsy black plastic kind that carries four cans of Red Stripe from the offie.  I alienated myself from family and friends, believing that only my beautiful two-year-old truly loved me, as he was as yet unacquainted with my discarded plastic bag status. Despite genuinely questioning the point of my existence on this earth, I obsessed about and carried on my shoulders the bad things that happened in the world, as if I were both their root and their solution, forgetting that discarded plastic bags do not wield such omnipotence.

During this deeply unpleasant time I read a lot, not always taking in what I was reading, but appreciating books for their companionship during sleepless nights, and as a distraction when my mind over-busied itself during the day; providing a modicum of excitement when newly begun, and a fleeting sense of achievement when concluded. Most of all, at a time when I had I lost all tenderness for myself and others, it was reassuring to feel a brief moment of empathy with a character, fictional or otherwise, even if my empathy often meandered into distress (it was perhaps the wrong time to tackle a modern rewrite of the West African legend of Queen Pokou, who sacrificed her infant son to save her Baoule people, and questioned ‘Why  is it that women must always send their children off? Why isn’t their love strong enough to stop wars and keep death at bay?’ Oh, how I feel ya Queenie). The Ex Libris sticker of the probably-never-to-be-identified-but-give-t’internet-a-challenge Sylvia White (a previous owner of my copy of Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë), that proclaims ‘my best friends, my books, books my sure solace’, never rang truer.

Weekly therapy sessions helped me work out how I had found myself in the emotional mire. There were many light-bulb moments, about very fundamental things, and it was as unsettling as it was exhausting. One of these epiphanies centred on how I had felt as a  ‘bright’ (I hate this term – all children are full of light, not just the academic ones – but will endure it as a convenient shorthand) working-class child propelled into uncomfortable middle-class territory at school and university. I had developed a protective strategy of  performing accordingly: tailoring my accent, references and even opinions to fit into each camp (and they are camps – class slices through this great isle, and if you can’t see the cuts, then you are clearly on their fortuitous side), all at the expense of working out, and accepting, who I really was. This non-existent sense of self meant that when wonderful but head-messing motherhood came along and ripped away the superficial sense of self I had built – all skinny jeans ‘n pale ale, dancing on tables/headbanging party gal, throwing in the occasional Philip Larkin reference just to keep tings fresh, yo – I had no core identity to fall back upon. Hence that discarded plastic bag on the wind.

And I began to see that my gargantuan, treasured library, collected from my teens when I was still gloriously unaware of how far believing in one’s entitlement to life’s best things steered one’s life chances, was part of that performance. I accumulated books to evidence the only thing I felt gave me any credit: my learning. In the absence of knowing my true self, when I couldn’t find the words to describe myself, and when I felt too shy to do so in the (if unpoliced) sloppy North London vowels that mispronounced words I had read but not heard, my books did the talking for me, displaying my passions and interests. Over the years, as I accumulated more books but lost track of who I was through my well-worn performance, my books therefore genuinely became ‘my self’: I was the book girl, buying more and more, in order to consolidate myself, to make myself meaningful and interesting. They had to be Clever Books and I had to read each to the very end, for fear of being declared fraudulent in my asserted knowledge – forgetting my right as a reader to abstain from an unenjoyable read (#fxckoffUlysses), never being as confident as the friend who swapped Dostoyevsky for  Jackie Collins in full view of a beach-holidaying public. Plus the stash of volumes climbing up the ceiling were a convenient mimic of the middle class homes I admired as a teenager, a source of pride that slightly bridged the gap I felt between myself and an unfamiliar world in which I felt perpetually gauche. That’s why I can’t get rid of any of my books and am genuinely terrified of anything happening to them: it would be like destroying myself. Suddenly, my library became distressing evidence of the fact I have never had a strong sense of self, and never felt I stood up to scrutiny without the buffer of academic achievement – overall, never quite felt good enough just as I am.

What a bloody sob story! But it’s my truth. So there we are.

I wondered if I should get rid of my books and try to stand alone on my merit – whatever that was – but I knew that would never happen, not least because our house would suddenly look very empty, but mainly because it is a nice legacy for my son if he is ever interested: a ready library at his disposal, compiled with anxiety, but also curiosity and thrift. And, moreover, as my depression began to lift, I began to feel some pride in those stuffed bookcases. I look at them and remember that all of our personal libraries are unique, and mine if anything is especially eclectic. In unknowing homage to that great working class autodidactic tradition, I forged that path myself, working my way through the tangled literary jungle of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘not good’ to read, and becoming confident enough to plough off-road away from those tiresome (and mostly male and white) 100-books-to-read-in-your-lifetime lists (#onceagainfxckoffUlysses) to identify some lesser known gems myself,  emerging ‘Well Read’ on my own terms. Each of my books reminds me of this journey of building my knowledge while travelling through my life, being inscribed with the date of purchase, and filled with the ephemera of the years its words filled: pub and restaurant cards, theatre and exhibition tickets, even my name scribbled in Ukrainian on the fly-leaf of a volume of Robert Bridges poetry (according to an Old Etonian on a date in mid-2000s Shoreditch, a peak class-crisis dating episode – mind you, Old Etonians have fibbed before, so it may just be Squiggles to Impress a Tight-Trousered Lady). My books have long been a reassuring backdrop to my life and indeed a sure solace, and will continue to spark joy in a way Marie Kondo will never understand as I work towards a Pork And Beans state of mind (see below). They deserve my care and love in return.

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Some of the books I read over a Very Peculiar Summer

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    Not sure whether I commented on your post or not because the internet was falling on and off my iPad.
    What I want to say is I’m very sorry to hear of your depression. I have been there myself, many times, including quite recently. Books have also been my solace, but, unlike you, lighter reading – escapism. I also write and lack of writing success was the cause of my previous bout of depression. However, I’m doing a bit better now, on 101 Words, CafeLit and (coming up) Fiction on the Web.
    Keep stuck in there, girl. You’re doing fine. You’ve got a wonderful blog, with a lot of readers,

    Like

    1. Rosemary, thank you so much for these kind words – writing this blog was massively cathartic but also made me feel quite vulnerable once I had posted it, so your words mean a lot to me. I am sorry to hear you have been through something similar but happy to hear you are doing a bit better and would love to hear more about your writing and those other platforms you are using. Yours in bookish friendship, Bronte

      Like

  2. Alison says:

    Hi Bronte, just read this ❤️❤️❤️
    It’s great writing. I would honestly like to read a book by you, maybe some essays about class in contemporary Britain or a memoir.

    I think you’d relate a lot to Lynsey Hanley if you haven’t read her. I also read a book called the class ceiling about how working class people are subtly excluded when they enter elite professions and have to put on a performance and split their identities. Good material about class in the acting profession and in tv production.

    It’s interesting to hear your view of book stuffed middle class homes as an “outsider” and books as an identity. I read some funny mumsnet threads recently about interiors, lots of competitive posturing about how many massive bookcases they had and someone wrote “bookshelves are middle class wallpaper” 😂

    From the flip side I’ve been talking in therapy about growing up with academic, middle class, emotionally repressed parents… when pressed I realised the unspoken message was High culture = Good, Popular culture = bad, and “people who read Difficult Books are better than people who don’t.” Pretty damaging in a different way and I think never listening to Radio one, not having anything Queen or Duran Duran in the house, just bloody boring classical music was actually a sad gap!!! We should all be able to feast from the full buffet of culture!

    Ps. I started my blog. I need WordPress lessons from you 😂
    It’s perfume reviews!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Alison, for your continued encouragement as I put pen to virtual paper! I am looking forward to reading your blog – I read the premise on your front page and I love it.

      Hearing your view from ‘the other side’ (If i can call it that) is super interesting – and reminds me (as I’ve found out through lots of therapy myself) that the messages we receive as kids are subtle at the time but have a long lasting impact. Something I am trying to remember with the little ‘un!

      PS. I will check out the Hanley book!

      Like

  3. Jan Hicks says:

    Well done on committing this to virtual paper, Brontë. As there are people who have commented to say they hear you, having experienced something similar (I count myself as one of them), there will be people who read this and realise they’re not alone. Openness about depression is brave and necessary. Thank you for not letting feelings of vulnerability hold you back. I’m glad that therapy has helped you, too. I’m sending encouragement from another ‘bright’ working class kid who, even at the age of 49, still sometimes feels like an imposter but thanks to therapy is also increasingly capable of holding onto a Pork and Beans state of mind.

    Like

    1. Thank you so much Jan – I really appreciate your words. I debated long and hard about being so honest in a public forum but am glad I did – we need the real talk on this stuff! I look forward to resuming our bookish dialogue Jan 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ruth says:

    Bronte your open reflections are are so honest and I hope others will realise they are not alone . Breaking the old taboos – go girl !!

    Like

    1. Thank you so much Ruth! We have a long way to go in society on this front (especially in getting the fellas to open up too) but we are going forwards with good intentions I think!

      Like

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