In 1990, when I was 23 and many years away from motherhood, I left college for my home state, where I spent one long winter at the Yale Psychiatric Institute in New Haven, Connecticut. When I checked in, suffering from severe clinical depression, I had just cut my hair off and hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours a night for months.
I remember the sound of the scissors, the way it felt to try to close the blades over my thick ponytail. It wasn’t the fast satisfying snip I’d imagined when I couldn’t sleep at night in my loft space in Chicago, the roof leaking a heartbeat of drips that echoed in the huge, empty space. I had to divide the ponytail into sections and then force the blades slowly through each one until my hand cramped.
The hospital stay felt much the same way. Instead of a quick cure as soon as I’d made the awful decision to sign myself in, I languished for weeks, still feeling too depressed to recognize myself or anything I’d ever once loved. The doctors wanted to question me about sleeping and eating, but what I really needed them to know was that I found myself unable to read. I could latch onto a word here and there, but whole paragraphs were indecipherable. They asked me repeatedly about suicidal ideation, but I kept thinking, Don’t you understand? I can no longer read.
The meds took time to work, so instead of lying awake all night in my own bed where I could chain smoke and watch reruns of America’s Most Wanted, I had to lie awake in my tiny twin hospital bed with a snoring roommate and nurses doing fifteen-minute bed checks throughout the night.
When spring finally pushed winter aside, I decided I was as good as I was going to get and I might as well say the things that would secure a discharge date. I was sent home with meds that would guarantee sleep, and I went back to my life in Chicago, renting a new basement apartment that felt like a cave. It’s difficult to measure wellness when it comes to mental health, especially from the inside of a long clinical depression, but I knew I still wasn’t myself.
I spent time in bookstores. It was summer by then, and bookstores offered air conditioning and ways to get lost. I was just starting to read again, the surest sign of hope for recovery that anyone could offer me. One day, I decided, out of nowhere, to read everything I could about the Vietnam War. I started with nonfiction. When that didn’t satisfy the need I couldn’t define, I asked a book store employee to recommend stories about the war. This was how I discovered Tim O’Brien, specifically his book The Things They Carried.
I fell into O’Brien’s Vietnam. I have no doubt that the book is the thing that cured me, that pushed me out of depression. It wasn’t sleeping again or the antidepressants; it was a collection of short stories. I can’t hear the title or Tim O’Brien’s name without seeing myself in bed, curled into the fetal position with that book in front of my face.
Alone in my basement apartment, I started to imagine feeling joy again: “Because it’s all relative. You’re pinned down in some filthy hellhole of a paddy, getting your ass delivered to kingdom come, but then for a few seconds everything goes quiet and you look up and see the sun and a few puffy white clouds, and the immense serenity flashes against your eyeballs—the whole world gets rearranged—and even though you’re pinned down by a war you never felt more at peace.” The words made me envision my own survival. I know how this sounds, and I certainly never talked about it to anyone back then. I was a privileged college girl from Connecticut who had no idea where the depression came from, and Tim O’Brien was talking about watching friends get blown up and seeing the very worst that this world has to show. But somehow, it saved me. I needed to fall into something worse than my own reality. I needed perspective. I needed to understand that humans had survived far worse than depression and had even gone on to write about it.
Tim O’Brien’s book made me feel less alone.
In a scene where O’Brien sits in a boat on a river between the United States and Canada, trying to force himself to run away, to evade the war, he writes: “Everywhere, it seemed, in the trees and water and sky, a great worldwide sadness came pressing down on me, a crushing sorrow, sorrow like I had never known it before.”
By the time I reached the end of the book, I’d started spending less time in bed, and I’d even begun to apply for waitressing jobs. I’d started to think about finishing my degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was as if a debilitating fever had flattened me for the better part of a year and now I was finally well, standing up and looking in the fridge, feeling hungry for the first time in months.
And I thought about writing again. The final piece in The Things They Carried opens with the line, “But this too is true: stories can save us.” Not only had I been saved, but like a born-again, newly devoted follower, I wanted to write stories that would save others. I wanted to worship at the house of words and study the wisdom of those who had come before me. I was ready to join the living and persevere.
This is what a book did for me all those years ago.
When I found myself feeling helpless as a mother more than twenty years later, paralyzed in the face of my five-year-old’s increasing anxiety, I hunted for books to console him, remembering that in my worst moments, stories pulled me through.
My son, Atlas, was showing signs of stress and anxiety. First there was my divorce; then, my ex-husband’s fast remarriage to someone who insisted on constantly critiquing me and disciplining my son; then, the high-conflict coparenting relationship that was the result.
When I remember my son’s worst suffering, I think of one particular day after school. He was attending a co-op that one of the parents liked to call “the little hippie school.” There were only six kids, and we parents pooled our money to rent the apartment where school was held and to pay the wonderful teacher who spent those days with our children. Things had been getting worse and worse for Atlas; he was more and more out of control, crying, screaming, accusing the other kids of leaving him out or picking on him. It was winter, and after school the kids would all play in the yard for a while as the parents stood around chatting. I didn’t see what sparked it, but Atlas was suddenly screaming at the other kids, who mostly stared at him, open-mouthed, or turned their backs on his noise to continue the game they were playing. I went to him and tried to get him to talk to me, tried to get him to walk away so he could calm down. He wouldn’t budge. I myself was frozen, ineffective and scared—and embarrassed, if I’m honest. Everyone could see that I could not reach my own child.
I’d been looking for ways to help him. I’d started him in therapy, and I read about exercises to work through the angry outbursts, like pushing against a wall when enraged. Remembering that advice, I abruptly went down in front of my screaming son, knees in the snow, and put my hands up.
“Show me how angry you are,” I said, looking into his face. “Push against my hands as hard as you can and show me how angry you are.”
My knees were already becoming numb inside my soaking-wet jeans. My son leaned into my hands, pushing with all his weight and grunting and growling with rage. It felt like a victory just to have him follow my directions.
“I see you,” I said. “I see how angry you are. My, you are so angry right now.”
His rage dissipated and melted into sobs. Heartbreaking, gut-wrenching sobs. I felt humbled, drained, shocked, terrified. Maybe he would never be okay, I thought.
I don’t remember if it was the same day or on another equally upsetting afternoon, but that was the winter I showed him how to turn to books for comfort and discovered it worked as well for him as it had for me.
I’d read chapter books to him like The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Charlotte's Web, and Frog and Toad, but he needed stories that could be true, real characters he could relate to, fictional kids who had struggles as big or bigger than his own.
I took him home on a weepy afternoon, and we got in bed, and I cracked open the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio, a novel about a boy who was born with a severe facial deformity and has to navigate school for the first time after being homeschooled all his life because of extensive medical treatment.
The main character, August, discovers that kids can be unkind when he overhears them saying awful things about the way he looks: “And I started crying. I couldn’t keep it from happening. The tears were so thick in my eyes I could barely see, but I couldn’t wipe them through the mask as I walked. I was looking for a little tiny spot to disappear into. I wanted a hole I could fall inside of: a little black hole that would eat me up.”
I looked at my sad son and saw that he was glued to my voice, listening with every part of his being.
As we read chapters of August Pullman’s story every night, Atlas became more and more invested and interested in Auggie’s world. One day, more than halfway through the book, we read, “I ran down the hallway to my room and slammed the door behind me so hard that I actually heard little pieces of the wall crumble inside the door frame.” Atlas looked at me and said, “I’ve been that mad before.” He could say it out loud because he wasn’t the only kid who had felt that kind of rage.
Later in the book, we read, “and that’s when I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Everything that had just happened kind of hit me and I couldn’t help it: I started to cry. Like big crying, what Mom would call ‘the waterworks.’ I was so embarrassed I hid my face in my arm, but I couldn’t stop the tears from coming.”
“Poor Auggie,” my son said.
When some of the boys in Auggie’s class decided to be mean to him and the kids called it “the war,” my son labeled my coparenting relationship with his father “the war.” The wars we fight can be navigated more effectively when we know that others have survived their own wars—like Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War or my battle with depression. I wanted to pass that on to Atlas, even if his particular war involved me as a combatant. Like it or not, I was part of the conflict that was hurting him. The least I could do was help him endure it.
At the end of Wonder, August Pullman makes it through the fifth grade with friends and new confidence. At his graduation ceremony, Auggie is presented with a school award that honors students who have been notable or exemplary. It takes Auggie by surprise because he says that he is just an ordinary kid.
From Auggie, my own ordinary kid learned new coping skills for his anxiety; he’s now on the other side of those dark days. He goes to a public school where his friends call his name and run to greet him at school events, where his teachers say that he is kind and a pleasure to have in class.
We all want to give our kids the benefit of lessons learned from our own lives. I could not tell my son how to navigate a divorce at his age because that was not my life experience. But I could show him that there is comfort in stories—both in listening to other people’s and in telling our own; that there is nothing wrong with taking to our beds with a book and staying there until the world feels more manageable; that sad stories, which have nothing to do with our own in the details, can still show us the way.