woolf

For Miriam Breslow, the words of Virginia Woolf “often felt like descriptions of the inside of [her] head.”

For two weeks, I woke into panic attacks. It was the December exam period of the third year of my undergraduate degree. I was afraid of evening and afraid of morning, afraid of failing and my brain and the piles of work in front of me. I was afraid of the weeks I still had to endure before I could hand in my final paper and go home. On the night that set it all off, I was at my desk writing a take-home exam when my anxiety hit a breaking point. My body went hot, I began shaking so hard I couldn’t type, and I landed on my bed in the throes of my first full-blown panic attack. I didn’t realize then how many would follow.

My housemates had already left the city for the holidays. Needing someone older, wiser, and parental, I moved in with my friend Sarah. She handed me the first Harry Potter book. “It’s easy reading,” she said, “Just to get your mind off of things a little bit.” At first, the thought of spending any of my precious time reading for recreation seemed nauseating. “I can’t. I have to work on this paper,” was my response. “Try just reading it before you fall asleep,” said Sarah. She and her partner were doing soothing things for me; following them to the farmers’ market and drinking hot milk with honey couldn’t bite very far into my panic, but it made little dents.

Harry Potter was like that. Reading it was a little like drinking warm milk. The book was so reassuringly pedestrian that I could dip my toes into it without feeling like it was going to drown me. I began to find a bit of relief in this easy, quick, immersive young adult fiction. Just little sips.

*

I wanted to study English because I loved reading. My childhood and teenage years were spent absorbed in books. I read so hard I missed my school bus stop and my mom calling my name. I got so sucked into fiction that I’d emerge from a chapter feeling breathless. Watership Down caused me to nearly suffocate. I read The Name of the Rose when I was 11 and all I remember is a smothering feeling of melting like a candle, and magic. After consuming The Magus and Fugitive Pieces I went around feeling like every pale colour I saw meant that I was in Greece. The words of Virginia Woolf, one of my favourite writers, often felt like descriptions of the inside of my head, and I would blush with recognition.

I wanted to spend my whole life reading, thinking about, and writing about books. I had good grades, especially in English, and I foresaw a life of permanent academia in which I’d get to read all the time. It was what was going to happen.

Then, in my first year of university, I became acquainted with the kind of stress that made me lose my appetite.

My body went hot, I began shaking so hard I couldn’t type, and I landed on my bed in the throes of my first full-blown panic attack.

A lot of my self-worth rested on doing well in school, and I put immense, painful pressure on myself. I was scared of coming anywhere close to failure. I overdid it. I never fell behind in the readings. I didn’t miss a single lecture or tutorial the entire year. I devoted myself to essays on philosophers, novelists, and playwrights, writing and editing and editing again. I did very well.

But I also began to look at page numbers when I read novels. Sitting late at night in the laundry room in my residence (clothes tumbling over each other in the corner of my vision), I held literature open on my lap, a pencil in one hand, and my eyes shifted to the top of the page: 71, 72, 73. How many until the end of the chapter?

I don’t remember what I was reading.

As I studied, breathed hard, checked page numbers, and splatted my brain into essays, something was draining from me. It was happening slowly, without me noticing, but I wasn’t becoming immersed anymore. I was losing the love of reading that had gotten me there in the first place.

Not that there weren’t books that I loved, but even they were a grind. As I waded into third year, something heavier began to envelop me, fanning the embers that eventually burst into flames of panic. While I whined inwardly over how much I had to read, what I was reading was unsettling me. The contemporary philosophy and abstract fiction I was studying had a frightening effect on my headspace; it stripped the ground away from my feet and left me feeling stranded and unsteady. In some of my books, there was nothing to grasp. It was the inverse of my old glorious immersion. Now, cloudy concepts invaded my mind and it was terrifying.

When I fell apart that December, this process robbed me of one of the authors I loved most. I could not read or write on Virginia Woolf. I had thought that Orlando was one of the best novels I’d ever read, but I was scared to go near Woolf while drowning in panic. I was afraid of her for the very reason I loved her: her descriptions of what happens inside the mind. I worried that I was identifying too much with her work. Was I going to lose my mind like Woolf did? I was scared of the eerie feeling she gave me, like something long-fingered was massaging my shoulders, gently squeezing my neck.

I had good grades, especially in English, and I foresaw a life of permanent academia in which I’d get to read all the time.

After my period of panic attacks, I dropped three courses. It took me an extra year to complete my degree, and to this day, I have nightmares that it’s not done. But with more time and less work, my anxiety began to retreat (and with it, my scholarly ambitions). I also continued to read Harry Potter, a pastime untethered to academic consequences. It always gave me the warm-milk feeling of a story told by a crackling fire, and among all the series’ magic and fear there was something reassuring about Hogwarts, with its friendships and rivalries. I loved Harry’s adolescent stumbling even while he carried the world on his shoulders. There was something both cozy and refreshing about Rowling’s prose. It was ground under my feet, or at worst, a gentle wading pool.

*

In 2007, I graduated, and, unknowingly, I began to read my way out of the flatness and fear of my academic years. One of the first books that sucked me in was The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. I remember sitting in a mildly uncomfortable chair at my parents’ home, the autumn after graduation, and the hours passed as the book thinned under my hands on one side and thickened on the other. I was inside the covers, hanging out with the neighbourhood kids, hearing the sounds of the subway and slang, growing up with the protagonist. When I surfaced for breath the sun had moved, my eyes were dry, and I didn’t know what time it was.

I hadn’t had that feeling in so long that it stung me. It had been years since I’d looked up from a book with the feeling that I’d been travelling. And I felt okay. I’d been immersed, but there was still ground under my feet.

For the last nine years, I’ve been coming back to reading, book by book. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle reached at the murky edges of my dreams, at things I have only just almost thought. Kate Beaton’s brilliant comics enter my consciousness several times a week. Matthew Dickman’s poetry is a spade that’s turned up things I didn’t know were in my mind. Reading The Golden Compass was like shining a flashlight into a cave of fireflies where nobody’d ever been before me.

There was something both cozy and refreshing about Rowling’s prose. It was ground under my feet, or at worst, a gentle wading pool.

In a way, it will never be like it was when I was a kid, when I could really disappear; my adult brain is too distracted and unquiet. But I have found something I’d lost, and it makes me feel just a little bit peaceful.

Recently I had an eight-hour airport layover. I called on Facebook for suggestions of something immersive I could read on flights, and between meals, coffee, and trying to sleep. One friend recommended Neil Gaiman. I’d never read his novels, so I borrowed The Ocean at the End of the Lane from the library, brought it along and opened it on the first flight.

I finished it on the second flight. It was the first time I could remember in I-don’t-know-how-long that I read a novel in one day. I would pause when an announcement came on over the plane’s PA system, or when the flight attendant brought me my free tomato juice, or when I thought I was getting sleepy. But when I closed my eyes to nap, they’d open again and go back to the text. I was the adult version of a kid under the covers with a flashlight.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is full of dark colours and a feeling of evil flapping in the wind. There are characters whose hands you need to hold to get you through it and others whose eyes you want to avoid. When good magic won out, I exhaled in relief. When the novel’s ocean opened up, I fell in.

After the last page, I sat holding the book in my hands, looking around at the other passengers, none of whom could understand where I’d just been. My thoughts were sparkling and crackling. I was thousands of feet off the ground, feeling the amazement of being swallowed up by fiction. I was taking, not sips now, but fearless gulps. Once again, I could dive into a book. And then I could let the words close over my head.

Miriam Breslow is from Kingston, Ontario. She completed a BAH at the University of King’s College and Dalhousie University, where she won the Clare Murray Fooshee Poetry Prize. Her poetry appears in Writing the Common: Being an Anthology Of Poetry Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Halifax Common. She lives in Halifax.

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