The skill that saved me? It started with the love of books.
The anticipation each week of going to the library, knowing I’d be allowed to check out four new books. The excited thrill running through my body as I walked up and down the aisles, looking at all the choices. Needing only the plain vanilla colored card with my name on it as payment.
How can I narrow it down to only four? What if someone checks out another book that I may want for next week? What world do I want to explore this week? What dream do I want to dream? Who else do I want to be this week? I remember Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, read over and over as I found comfort in the story of a loving, close knit family.
Even knowing it was fiction still brought me comfort. I would lose myself in the story. Sometimes I’d imagine being Meg, the oldest, sometimes the fragile, gentle Beth. Never Jo, although I admired her in so many ways. But it seemed inconceivable that a girl like me, living the life I was living, could be as big and bold and outside of the box as Jo.
I also loved Charlotte’s Web. Little Wilbur’s guardian angel, the spider, Charlotte. Looking out for him with such love and protectiveness. Me wishing I had a guardian angel who’d look out for me too. Wondering if my angel was maybe hiding in a corner where I couldn’t see her, but was still spinning her magic webs. For me. Magic webs of life-saving words.
Then it was on to biographies. Revelation! Biographies showed me other lives, other ways of living, other ways of being in the world. Other than the constricting craziness of the box I lived in. Keeping me stuck like glue to the world of scary, the world of chaos, the world of no control. I read about people who had overcome all kinds of obstacles, terrible things happening, who grew up to be amazing people who did wonderful things. They were inventors, peace-makers, change-makers, philosophers whose thoughts changed the world, healers, lovers, artists, teachers, ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Writers.
And they all started off just as I, an infant coming into the world to find their place in it.
I read everywhere and anywhere. Constantly. I read until my mother made me turn out the lights. When she closed my bedroom door, I’d reach under the side of my bed next to the wall and find the flashlight.
When she said, “Debbie, put down those books and go outside and play with the other kids. It’s not healthy to read like you do,” I’d sneak books out under my clothes, slip out and find a spot under a tree. Far enough away where she couldn’t see me, but close enough that if she called out for me, I’d hear and come home.
It’s how I survived. Reading constantly. Learning there was a
nother world out there, many other worlds out there, helped me to escape the one I was living in. Those long hours that felt like minutes of being lost in books and words and other worlds and other lives was more than healthy for me. It saved me.
Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC, is an author and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she specializes in trauma, grief and loss. Her award-winning book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope combines her personal story of devastating loss with practical insights and simple suggestions for healing. Join her Facebook community, Grief to Gratitude, and follow her on Instagram.