Illustration by Issy Muir.
I was my own one-woman show.
Every writer grows up creating characters from their lives, penning stories to escape, expressing things they couldn’t otherwise articulate. When I was around fourteen, I invented two characters that I used to embody quite often: Matt and Scarlet. She was an extraverted vodka enthusiast, and he was a quiet tree-climber. Best friends who fell in love, of course. While brushing my teeth I would be Scarlet, staying over at Matt’s house because she was too afraid to go home. I touched my own shoulder as he entered the bathroom to greet her. In bed I would play out a scene of them on Matt’s rooftop, where the pair had a picnic and then lied on a blanket under the night sky.
I would hold my own hand as I drifted off to sleep, comforted by Matt’s presence beside Scarlet. His thumb stroked the joint of her thumb.
A lot of my writing had to do with death, and the older I got, the more self-destructive my characters became. The more they wanted life, the more they ended up dying. The more they wanted death, the more they got romance. I guess you could call that teenage angst, or you could call it depression. Living through these characters kept my life interesting and my mind occupied; I didn’t have to think about myself or anyone else.
I was 15 years old when I wrote a vivid scene of Scarlett’s bare foot pressed down on the accelerator pedal. She was driving herself into a tree. When you asked 15-year-old me how I was doing, though, I would always say, “good.”
Scarlett had everything I wanted: red hair, green eyes, and thin legs. Yet she was unhappy. Her pain permeated the walls of my bedroom, squeezed my fists into ugly little moth balls, pressed its nails into my forehead.
It was my pain too. There are still times I reconcile with the characters I write about, trying to distinguish between my characters and myself. To suppress anxiety is to sometimes give it a different name, a different face, and so I gave Scarlett a white face because that was the color of someone who voiced their problems. Those are the girls whose quietness isn’t brushed away as brown-girl passivity. Their tall legs are pillars that allow them to reach the rest of world and declare imminent suffering. There are no words for the suffering of a thin girl with arms darkened by hair and sunshine besides “shy.”
“Swell face,” my mother would say in Guyanese-Creole. “Why your mouth swell?”
“She’s shamefaced,” my grandmother would say. This was our family’s word for quiet pain, because there was nowhere else to put our sorrows but in our faces. Words of suffering were too taboo for our vocabulary, so only when we observed each other’s faces could we decipher negative emotions. But as soon as someone else approached we’d start smiling, forgetting. Our smiles were expressions of fear.
I think it’s easy to come out of your body and get lost on the way back. When I lost myself in a confusing emotion like fear or anxiety, my mind couldn’t follow the breadcrumbs back to the real world, and so I always returned to my characters. When I fooled myself into thinking my unhealthy characters were simply products of a genius literary aesthetic I failed to see their real function, and I even fetishized them by basking in their sadness.
It is tiring to write about myself because it’s tiring to deconstruct my past. But I write because writing is how I keep moving. Some people run, some people drink, some people dance. I put my fingers to the test and see how long they can endure. The cramps are a sign of hard work.
I read Frank O’Hara, Clarice Lispector, J.D. Salinger, and Durga Chew-Bose, and they all seem to be telling me the same thing: keep moving. The momentum is strong, and it gives me the bravado to tread through heavy water. Isn’t this what existing is? Stopping is conceding, stopping is drowning.
I can’t swim.
When the lethargy hits my body, I wish I could swim fast. Except I can’t even swim slowly. My friend Selena from the fifth grade had a swimming pool in her condo. We’d play Marco Polo and I’d panic every time I was too far from the wall. I would panic discretely because I knew how she’d look at me if she noticed.
When the lethargy hits my body, therefore, sometimes I don’t will it away. I let it overtake me because I’m too tired to fight back. It’s probably once a month, not just on my period, and sometimes more often if the conditions are right.
These are times in my life which I’ve never written about because they were too real to understand. Nothing has a singular truth, so there’s a truth to everything. Every possible scenario is here and now and always will be. That makes recounting reality both comforting and daunting. What’s real then? Scarlett is not me. She is a person I mentally engaged with, a girl I created to write a story. She’s not real, but the feelings are not fictionalized; I own these feelings and they are real.
I’ve found that characterizing my mental illness through writing does not make my writing better, and no romanticization of my issues is going to solve my real-life problems. I don’t want to feed the fetish of a “tortured artist.” Maybe it’s normal to live in the world of fiction in order to escape the woes of everyday life. Maybe it’s more important for these escapes to be temporary, and for us to know that they are escapes. It’s only now that I find myself able to understand what my imagination was trying to tell me. I am still my own one-woman show, but I’m more aware of the world around me; now my writing reflects my own experiences, my culture, and a healthier imagination.
My therapist was right when she told me that inside of me is a child who feels the world is unsafe. This anxious child will always be inside of me, and when I feel the urge to protect her what I’m really doing is protecting the vulnerabilities that have resulted in my characters. In some ways, my characters were lifesavers. When I held Scarlett’s hand, I was really holding hers. I still find myself stroking my palm in stressful situations. When I put my hand on someone else’s, she’s there, pulling it away with a cry of distrust. She will never cease to be, because it’s useless to try to rid myself of her. Stripping away the tools that I used for protection would be erasing the past I worked so hard to overcome. I believe that at each stage in our lives, however we may measure those stages, we develop different versions of ourselves. Each version of ourselves is worth remembering, because each is always going to be a part of our personal fabric.
Sometimes I find myself gasping out of love with her and in fear of her. It sounds like I’ve created some sort of Frankenstein’s monster.
What am I going to do with this girl who is no longer me but will always be present? Maybe if Frankenstein’s monster was nurtured in the right way, he could have avoided a terrible fate. I’ll save my little girl—I’ll save Scarlett. She doesn’t deserve to be destroyed.
When I write today, I do so in a conscious effort to make art that I enjoy, and not simply to distract. But I’m not giving up on writing as catharsis either; expression is all about awareness. You don’t have to be sad to be an artist, but you do need to be aware. Writing is a mechanism for change and exploration, not just a cheap form of mental health care. When I write I should be able to examine my words and understand what I was feeling at the time. I owe myself—and my writing—that respect.
When I write characters now, they are either a part of me I have already explored or am willing to discover. My characters don’t have to be me, but they always reflect me. If I look at all the pieces I’ve produced throughout my life, I can gasp, grasp, and grin at my growth as a person. I can reflect on healthy and unhealthy behaviours, and I can keep track of my well-being. Each version of myself is preserved in Word docs and journal pages, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.