Life Affirming Literature

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I love books. Some books I love more than members of my family. In my 30’s I’ve found myself asking a lot of big questions about life, death and grief and these books have been my saviours. The connective tissue between them may be death but if anything each one of these memoirs make me believe in the beauty of life itself.

Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed

In 2014 I was raw from grief and on the verge of a mental breakdown when I found Cheryl Strayed’s book during my sleepless nights Googling “how to cope with losing a parent.” My grief had alienated me from my friends who didn’t understand how to deal with my suffering and I needed reassurance that I was going to survive this despair.

I was immediately gripped by Strayed’s story of hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 and how that journey helped mend her broken heart, over losing her beloved mother Bobbi and the end of her marriage. Whole passages of the book could have been plucked from my own brain as the realisation dawned that I wasn’t alone. The memoir echoed my own experience of a family torn apart after losing one of our own, “without my mother, we weren’t what we’d been; we were four people floating separately among the flotsam of our grief, connected by only the thinnest rope.”

In the years following her mother’s death Strayed hit the self-destruct button hard, something I can relate to. On the adultery that contributed to the end of her marriage, “It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal.” Some parts of the book were painful to read because the sense of recognition made me weep and I wouldn’t wish that pain on my worst enemy.

The paperback copy I bought three years ago is tear soaked, crumpled around the edges from being taken on every subsequent holiday and even made on a 700 mile round trip to a literary festival where I got to meet the author herself. Thankfully the session was recorded so I can re-watch at my leisure as I was too star-struck and excited to absorb the moment fully.

The book taught me a lot. That it’s ok to forgive yourself, even when you’ve hurt people you love. I learned that grief is messy and painful but you will survive. Just getting up every day and taking tiny steps to be kind to yourself can help rebuild the hole in your heart. The book also helped me to write about my own grief and is one of the reasons I started this blog.

Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) by Kate Gross

Late Fragments started life as a blog chronicling the last two years of the author’s life following a terminal cancer diagnosis aged just 34. In different hands the book could have been mawkish but the joy comes from Gross’s way with words, she explains her predicament without endless medical jargon and with little sentimentality. I’ve lived with a dying relative so know the reality of impending death can be as life-affirming as it is heartbreaking. Gross wrote the book for her twin sons, who were only five when she passed away on Christmas Day 2014. The dedication alone had me in tears, “There are two adult hands which I hope will hold a battered paperback when others have long forgotten me and what I have to say. I write this for Oscar and Isaac, my little Knights, my joy and my wonder.”

Despite the bleak diagnosis Gross finds happiness in her limited time left on earth: “For starters, there is a feeling of being alive, awake, which powerfully reasserts itself in the moments of wellness that punctuate a long illness. I have experienced joy – perhaps even the sublime – in an unexpected and new way.” Gross tells her life story with elegance, wit and just a touch of bitterness (anger would be my primary emotion if I found out I was dying in my mid-thirties).

Although Gross’s life was short it was extraordinary. She spent four years working for two Prime Ministers in her twenties, then founded a charity rebuilding essential structures of government in post-conflict Africa. Thankfully her legacy lives on – not only in print but in the fundraising and building of the inaugural Kate Gross Community School which opened in Sierra Leone in 2016. Many of us could live to 100 and only hope to leave such a legacy.

The book never fails to inspire me with its spirit and determination to embrace life (however short) and on the days when I am moaning about being tired/in pain/have a cold I glance at the cover on my Kindle and tell myself to get a grip. I’ve read the book on multiple occasions and gain new insight every time. And the postscript, written by Kate’s mother Jean following her death always make me howl with emotion.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

A life story with a difference – one told entirely through near death experiences. I was so captivated by this audiobook I devoured the memoir in a single day. The narration by Daisy Donovan was spellbinding and at points I found myself listening with my eyes closed so I could fully immerse myself in the words. I’ve since listened to the book again and now own a hardback copy with my favourite passages highlighted.

The book is broken down into episodes zig zagging across decades and destinations, beginning with an encounter on a remote path that chilled me for days afterwards. As O’Farrell observes we are all closer to death than we may realise: “We are, all of us, wandering about in states of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.” The book is thought provoking and conversation starting – while our stories may not be book worthy a cursory count in my close family unearthed 13 near-death experiences between five of us.

O’Farrell is a natural storyteller and skilfully describes everything from devastating childhood encephalitis to an encounter with a machete wielding mugger with a lack of sentimentality which allows for more empathy than a constant stream of self-pity. There were stories that made me hold my breath, moved me to tears and filled me with rage (I wanted to find the consultant who denied O’Farrell an elective caesarean which almost lead to the death of her and her baby to give him a swift kick in the nuts).

The final section – Daughter – is set in the present day and is one of the boldest and most startling chapters of a book I have ever read. O’Farrell’s daughter was born with a severe immunology disorder and the threat of anaphylaxis means her fight for life is something the family are faced with on a daily basis. The final chapter ramps up the sense of danger and urgency and whilst O’Farrell may have downplayed her own struggles you cannot help but feel the passion for her child leap off the page. It’s a book that makes you appreciate your every breath and be thankful that the author managed to survive this long to tell her tale.

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(Still) Sober

When I first wrote this I had no idea if I would make it this far with my sobriety intact. It’s now been 10 months since I gave up alcohol, the longest period of abstinence in my adult life. I’ve had a few messages asking how I’ve been getting on so thought I would give you an update. Here’s a few things I’ve learned since January:

Sober Socialising Sucks

I don’t have to tell you drunk people are annoying, it’s a fact. I’ve found socialising without alcohol really difficult. I get panicky, then bored. Boredom leads to temptation and I struggle to resist temptation. Whether it’s weddings, baby showers, funerals or work functions; booze is the common thread running through each event. I can count the amount of times I’ve been “out” this year on one hand and there was only one party where an alcoholic drink wasn’t thrust into my hand. So I make my excuses and stay home. Social isolation isn’t a great long-term strategy but until I can control the urge to binge on booze it’ll have to do.

The Shame Struggle is Real

Sobriety is my dirty little secret. I don’t routinely tell people I’ve given up alcohol because I’m ashamed to admit I’m an addict. I also think if I don’t tell anyone I am in recovery less people will know I’ve fucked up if I fall off the wagon. I’ve made up some mediocre excuses for refusing alcohol rather than tell the truth – antibiotics, driving the next day (I don’t own a car), upset stomach and Dry January and Sober October were two bandwagons I was happy to jump on.

I Miss Some Aspects of Boozing

I miss the buzz I got when I was drinking. I miss the flush of my cheeks, the loosening of my tongue and my inhibitions melting away. Drunk me danced, sang, made friends with strangers and had no fear. I miss the loss of clarity. My problem drinking stemmed from wanting to escape from the pain of reality. Months of sober contemplation have made me crave a little less lucidity. I tried to replace the high from drinking with something healthier (exercise endorphins) but all I managed to do was injure myself.

Time Passes More Slowly…

…or it feels like it. I seem to have more time on my hands now I’m not spending two days in bed recovering from a night out/in. I could easily lose a whole weekend to vomiting, naps and pizza. My local takeaway actually thought I’d moved house when I called recently, after years of calling every Sunday to order a huge pizza and chips to finish off my recovery from Friday night.  I certainly don’t miss the post alcohol comedown when the anxiety, fear and paranoia could stretch to over a week.

My Problems Didn’t Disappear Overnight

Part of me believed giving up alcohol would be the solution to all of life’s problems but unfortunately the majority of them are still there.  I fall easily into destructive patterns so it’s really simple for me to replace one vice with another. Casual sex, sugar, junk food, spending – I’ve overdone them all. The mental clarity I’ve gained from sobriety has actually accentuated some of the issues I was having. My insomnia has gotten worse as the negative thoughts I would quiet with alcohol are now loud and clear in my head every night. My anxiety, particularly in social situations has never been worse. There have been some welcome side effects though – I’ve lost some weight, made less poor choices with men and my skin looks better. It’s not been all bad.

I’m Tougher Than I Thought

It may be strength or stubbornness but the fact that I sit here 10 months sober is all down to me. I’ve had the means and opportunity to get hammered every night but I made a conscious effort not to. In the summer I stood at a function for an hour with a glass of champagne in my hand, which I picked up out of habit and could have happily gulped down and asked for another, but I didn’t. I’m lucky to have found support from friends who read the blog and strangers who’ve gotten in touch since January to share their stories. Some who have been sober longer than I ever drank and some who are taking the first steps towards seeking help.

This year I’ve found determination I never knew I possessed. I dealt with really stressful situations without my usual crutch. I attended five funerals in three months after series of shock bereavements tore through my friends and family. I started a new job, suffered financial woes, had a serious health scare and experienced the worst PTSD episode of my life. And I survived them all without drowning my sorrows. Did I want to? Fuck yes. Sobriety will always be something I tackle one day at a time but the impulse to drink is getting a little less every day. Now we’re coming up to the biggest test of the year – the festive period where all day drinking is acceptable and merriment is mandated. Luckily I’m too bloody-minded to piss away all my hard work now.