Writing my way back into the world

Balance. At this stage, I’d been all but housebound for six months. After a while I started to feel lost again. I made a character to live there, someone I could share my brain-quirks with but someone different and separate from myself. I read everything I could get my hands on and found myself gravitating towards stories about people tackling mental health issues or stories about people who identify somewhere on the lgbtqia+ rainbow. What if I go to the shop and something happens and I panic and I embarrass myself and I can’t get out and I can’t get home and everyone stares at me and the walls move in and the roof falls down and I die? Queer women died, gay couples had sad endings, people with mental health problems were miraculously healed by love or died of sadness. Afterwards, when I’d come back to reality I read through what I’d written and I felt a new understanding of myself. I stopped taking so many safety stops when I left the house and I wrote on my phone instead. I started to build myself a house, a small house with a big garden, tall bookshelves and lots of blankets. I felt like I was in a movie or a dream, like I wasn’t really there or that nothing around me actually existed. I wrote her a dog, I wrote her a friend, I wrote her love and I felt everything piece together. I was in pyjamas, it was raining, my puppy was asleep on my chest and I felt like the worst person in the world. Books weren’t keeping me company the way they had and I still couldn’t go outside, I was lonely and I’d started to disassociate. I understand: books with mental health representation are tough, it’s a delicate balance. Every day I woke up with a new purpose: I had to write. I love bookshops. Beth wasn’t fixed and neither was I, but we were OK. When I disassociated I wrote through it, I visited the little world I’d made. You want to create something relatable but you don’t want to generalise. I survived being hours from home, meeting strangers, crowds and noise and nerves. I felt safe. The book was finished. It was always just quiet enough, it smelled of new books and you could spend as much time as you needed wandering the shelves – it was expected! I’d better stay home. Balance! I’ve always been a bookworm but I started taking it to a whole new level. The more I read these stories the less comfort I found between pages. Beth and I figured it out slowly and sometimes it was hard and sometimes it hurt but then suddenly it was done. I could just about manage leaving my house once a week and it was quite the operation. I hunted them down and read for hours on end, but eventually the supply started running out and tropes started showing up again and again. I made what I needed and right now I’m writing this on the way to Dublin, where The Space Between is being launched. It’s like those dramatic, blurry, slow-motion scenes in movies minus the cool music. I wrote and wrote until I had pages full of panic and worry and my head felt a little lighter. Everything should have been so good, I should’ve been so happy but I wasn’t and the guilt kept me glued in place. I sent The Space Between out and Little Island said yes and I cried and danced and screamed and then I did something massive. Disassociation is typically defined as a feeling of being disconnected from reality. I’m anxious and it’s still difficult to be away from home, but I’ve learned how to find safety in other places and I’m so happy that The Space Between is one of them. I tried to be OK with it but it felt a little like being lost at sea, I was still there but I was stranded and alone. At the top of the hill there are two bookshops and I always went to both. Everything had to be intricately planned out: I leave home at 10am, take the slightly longer way with less traffic because traffic is too loud, stop at the shop and take a breathing break in the bathroom and text my girlfriend so if something happens she knows where I am, back out and carry on halfway up the hill to the theatre where we stop for another breathing break and text update, make it to the top of the hill and we’re set because at the top of the hill we find safety. Avoid romanticising, avoid shaming, avoid glamorising. I wrote. There are exceptions, of course, but based on the books I read my options were to suddenly be healed or die in an especially tragic way. I felt OK in a bookshop. I named her Beth. Show how hard it can be without dramatising. Seeing my feelings separate from myself helped them make sense to me, it made them seem manageable. It’s a fear of places or situations that you feel trapped in, a fear of humiliation; for me it’s a fear of panic. Bookshops are sanctuaries. Books didn’t feel as inviting and I couldn’t change my surroundings so I did the only thing I could think of. Every day I woke up with a new purpose: I had to write. I’ve always been a bookworm but I started taking it to a whole new level. And I survived. Now it’s a book. I could have been a competitive reader if such a thing existed and didn’t require leaving my house

At home I started reading more and more. You don’t want to erase anyone’s experience but you don’t want to trigger anyone with a similar experience. I could have been a competitive reader if such a thing existed and didn’t require leaving my house. I got on a bus from Donegal to Dublin. I had to see Beth through all of this, I had to build her life up and fill her world

This happened pretty regularly; my tired little brain would just check out. The bookshops weren’t for breathing breaks or text updates because in there I didn’t need either of those. Almost exactly a year ago I started writing The Space Between. And OK was enough, OK was a step in the right direction. I thought of writing as self care. I had to see Beth through all of this, I had to build her life up and fill her world. A book about mental health, a book with queer characters who help and love but don’t carry each other, a book that is honest about how hard it is but a book about hope. Agoraphobia is sometimes defined as a fear of wide-open spaces, but it’s much bigger than that.