By Ellen Avigliano
When I first set out to write this essay, I wasn’t quite sure which angle I should choose. I felt that truthful and direct seemed the best option, so I started making notes about my life and its trials. After I filled the first page, I felt like I was making headway but didn’t know what to do next. So I did the most reasonable thing and I texted one of my best friends, who is always the most wise and all-knowing between the two of us (I know you’re going to read this, and yes you are, don’t fight me on this, I’ll win,) and she said something akin to: “Write it all out, baby. Shake it loose. This is important because it’s for you. Get it all out, and then write something else for others to read, if you want to. But get it all out and put it down on the page.” She reminded me that sometimes it is okay to write something that’s just for you, that never sees the light of day. So, I did just that.
I grabbed a bowl of potato chips, hydrated with some water, and set to work. I allowed myself the full freedom via stream of consciousness writing. I poured my heart out on this page, summarizing the anxieties, trials and tribulations of my youth. I wrote and wrote and wrote. A few hours later I was finished. It was all laid bare on the page in a flat out clusterfuck of chaos, anxiety, depression, stress, and heartbreak. I chronicled my life’s trauma from elementary school, to middle school, to high school, and early adulthood. I left no stone unturned. I looked at my three full pages of text and was completely overwhelmed, didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t comfortable, seeing all those truths out in the open, but I kept going until I had finished. And then I highlighted all of it, pressed delete, erasing every shred of its existence, and sat staring at the blinking cursor.
It was cathartic, but what the hell was I going to do now? I’d come up with the idea for us to participate in “Mental Health Week” and highlight how reading, writing, and immersing ourselves in the genres we cover really meant so much to us for mental health support. Here I was with a blank page once again, deadline fast approaching. I started to beat myself up, but then I realized I had actually accidentally given myself the perfect essay inspiration. I had written it all down, got it all out, let it all go, and started with a clean slate. And in that process something wonderful happened: I fully realized how much I had gone through, how much I had truly grown up (even if I do feel eternally youthful haha), and I understood how much I had learned, how far I had come. It’s helpful to get it all out, sit there naked in your feelings, and work it out on the page. It’s okay to explore what’s in your mind, word vomit anything and everything your brain churns up, and give yourself the space to read it, process it, and digest what you’ve just poured out. I had very clearly tied up those parts of my life in a nice neat bow, and that first installment of my life had a big ol’ “THE END” slapped on there.
The phrase “The End” isn’t as finite as it sounds. Savoring the moment where we notice our flaws, acknowledge our mistakes, and we see where we can improve. Understanding that while we have experienced an immeasurable amount of trauma, pain that aches so strongly we feel it in our bones, we also have survived it, and we know more now than we did in the beginning. We realize that little mistakes are not the end of the world, but a stepping stone of improvement.
There doesn’t have to be an end to everything, but an end to things that don’t serve us anymore: relationships, worries, jobs, experiences, and all manner of things that vary from person to person. There’s beauty in creation, of course, but sometimes there’s an equal measure of beauty in total and utter destruction, in tearing it all down, in relishing the decimation of things which no longer serve us. The end of one thing can be the beginning of another. I realized all of this from writing something straight from my heart, and then burning it all to the ground. And I also learned all of that from the heroes and heroines I found in the pages of books, in the flickering screens of the movies, in the artwork panels in graphic novels and comics.
Through every single stumbling block and hurdle I faced in life I have always felt safe in the company of my faithful companions: Books, Movies and The Arts. These things have always provided me a safe space where I could be myself. A space with no judgement, no rules, no limitations. I ate it up. I loved tales of adventure on the high seas, where I could pretend to be High King of the Castle, or perhaps Queen of the Faeries! I enjoyed imagining myself in the vastness of space, floating amongst the stars and admiring the endless possibilities of life Out There! I fought crime in The Big City after taking up the Aging Hero’s mantle and becoming the hero the city always wanted me to be, delivering fair, and just desserts where they were due! Of course I loved anything with rainbows, magic, or super powers. Who wouldn’t? Where I really found the most grounding power, though, was in the darkness.
I was morbidly fascinated with the stuff that tugged at your fears, things yanked from the recesses of the mind of their creators snarling and screeching, things that would make me want to cry out, hide under the blankets, or run for my mom. If you knew me then, you’d know I had enough anxieties in childhood and horrible experiences in my teenage years, and you’d assume I would want to avoid any and all fictional darkness to get a reprieve. Well, I did exactly the opposite. I leaned into it. Hard. Because I had discovered something incredible about feeding the terror, giving into that darkness. I realized they were so much more than something scary, they were useful! I could live a multitude of lives, but always come back home to myself.
Drowning myself in the darkness of other people’s pain, fears, trauma, and woes gave me a safe space to experience my own strong, terrifying feelings. I learned that I could lean into my fear, my panic, and my worries, and actually harness that power for something fierce, and transform it into something supportive, and use what once paralyzed me to make me even stronger. Immersing myself in frightening, dismal, sad, or spooky stories was my practice round. I could scare myself of my own volition, send myself spiraling down in a controlled method by exposing myself to terrible thoughts and situations, and then pulling myself back out of that darkness, reminding myself to breathe, take a moment to regroup, utilize grounding exercises to remind me where i was, who i was with, what i was doing, what i could feel or naming things in my environment. I didn’t know it at the time but this is a very valid technique one can learn in psychotherapy!
This self-imposed practice was adding to my own toolkit for mindfulness and grounding techniques. I was able to remind myself if I could face my biggest fictional fears, I could most certainly do it in reality, especially since those situations and people were way more familiar than anyone else’s fictionalized villains! I knew them inside and out and could tailor my technique even further fine tuned. I had learned to weaponize my fear and conquer it at the same time! I could fight the good fight, stand up to the bad shit, and throw it over and make it my bitch! I learned to embrace the fact that sometimes my imagination could craft things that were 10x scarier than the real world could ever manufacture.
The things that go bump in the night, scratch within the walls, or which whisper from the dark, dingy corners in the recesses of our minds can hold little power over me anymore. Happily, I can say the same of many of my personal demons and traumas. They’re much smaller now, less intimidating, and I can cage them up and set them aside when they become too intense. I can look at them and say “I see you. You’re scary. But I’m sorry, nobody puts Baby in a corner!” Now I know that things might be scary, or dark, or dreary but I can dance my cares away, and save my worries for another day (down in Fraggle Rock, you’re welcome.)
Through all of these explorations I’ve learned a lot about myself, and that some things have to end so others can begin. When one book cover closes, another one opens! (Unless you’re my TBR pile which is just open new ones and never closing…)
I also realized that I can share this power with others by coming together as part of a community of creators, authors, musicians, and makers, and do my best by sharing my love for what got me through. I’ve found a community of weirdos who have embraced the darker sides of literature, art, movies, and music, and welcomed me with open arms. This weird little community has been a boon to my creative spirit and my mental health! I don’t know where I’d be without my love of the whimsical and macabre, and the strangers who have become friends who have become family.
I’ve spent some time going down memory lane, reminiscing on the books that really spoke to me during the worst of it all, and gave me hope that even at the most miserable it was going to get better eventually. Feel free to check them out and see what you think!
Trigger Warning: Some of these books do deal with heavy trauma and mental health issues. Some of them are Non-fiction or Dark Fiction, and others are Horror, Fantasy, or Sci-Fi. Each and every one of them, though, has left an indelible mark on my mind and contributed to my growth and understanding of my own mental health.
Speak By Laurie Halse Anderson
Go Ask Alice by “Anonymous”
Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman
Never Let Me Go
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkein
Dark Scfi/Cosmic Horror:
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
First Person Plural by Cameron West
His Dark Materials Series by Philip Pullman
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Coraline by Neil Gaiman