Good afternoon, friends. I hope that your weekends have been treating you kindly. 🖤
Truth be told, I almost didn’t write this post today. I had a very traumatising and difficult day yesterday. A large part of me wanted to grab a stack of books and then curl up beneath the blankets so that I could ignore the world for a short while. But then something happened. When I awoke this morning, still reeling from my exhausting Saturday, I got dressed and decided to visit my local library on a whim. The more time that I spent there this morning, the more that I came to realise how important it is for me share this post.
I’ve heard so many arguments lately as to why libraries don’t deserve their funding (mostly by idiotic and privileged politicians), especially with how the evolution of society is focusing more and more on digital reliance. Yet, if it weren’t for the library, at least the local ones that I visit quite frequently, I don’t think I ever would have been able to face the treatable aspects of my mental health and I also wouldn’t have been able find what truly drives me in life.
Libraries are so much more than merely a building full of books to rent. They are a sanctuary for individuals when they need it the most. They offer support in the forms of companionship, obtaining knowledge, helping members of the community to feel accepted and equal, inspiring a passion for education and literature, and above all else merely being a presence that anyone can turn to when everyone else around them rejects them without a second thought. My local library helped me nurture a dying passion for reading. It ignited my life-long dreams of becoming an Asianist (historian who specialises in Asia and the Asian subcontinent) and made me realise that it is attainable if I’m willing to give myself over to it. There is so much diversity at my library with the employees who range from various ethnic backgrounds and gender identities, to all of the people who visit it. It’s situated in a local Muslim neighbourhood, so I’m always seeing culturally and religiously kindred people. I don’t feel alone or ostracised here. I feel like I’ve found a second home.
All of the things that I have mentioned may sound like very minor things, but in the grand scheme of suffering that is imposed on people via mental health conditions and illnesses, it’s a fucking beacon of hope and usually the only thing that can be that fine line between life and death. Because of that, I wanted to share with you three main ways that the library has helped me confront and conquer my mental illnesses, and why libraries are so vital to local communities, usually being the only foundation for a future for most people.
For the first one, I’m going to name the most obvious one, something that seems like a no-brainer, but is insidious enough to be something an individual doesn’t think about actively in relation to other factors: stress management.
I’m a Stress Mess for about 95% of the year. Whether I’m worried about having enough money leftover after paying bills to put food on mine and the kitties tables, or if I will be able to afford my medication (asthma, specifically) for the month, it is a godawful party in my mind that never, ever goes away. Ironically enough my traditional methods for coping with stress consist of two things: binge eating and binge shopping.
Binge eating is something that I am finally learning how to cope through. It took a lot of help, but I’m on the right track and not consumed by it as much as I used to be. Binge shopping feels like an outrageous way to deal with financial stress, almost a common-sense no-no. Yet, I struggle with it tremendously, particularly where books are concerned. When I have a terrible day, I come home and hop online to buy a bunch of books I know I’ll never get around to reading (once in a while even in a genre that I can’t stand). Every time I get close to paying off my credit card, life will hit me with a left hook, and before I know it, I’m back in that black hole of money mess.
Last March (2018), after hitting a critical point in my frustrations with this never-ending cycle that I logically know I should be able to control, I sat down and looked up what I needed to obtain a library card. If you had asked me why I never resorted to this before, I wouldn’t have a smart straight answer for you. When I was in grade school, I was told by a couple of teachers that libraries were “for poor folks who want to read but can’t.” I felt like my checking out books would be selfish and would be taking away from others. If I had the money to buy books, I should just do that. Terrible logic, I know that now, but that was what I was taught in a nutshell.
My first day of getting that library card, I visited eight libraries within the system and came home with nineteen titles. Browsing the shelves, pulling things off of them and depositing them into my nifty canvas bag, and then heading to the small terminals to check everything out was (mentally) exactly like shopping in a physical store. Something about this behaviour satisfied the part of my brain that associated stress relief with shopping almost perfectly, and I didn’t have to spend a single fucking penny. My world was rocked.
My spending habits had decreased exponentially between March and May (two months). Where I would go out and become the owner of fifty or so books in the span of four weeks, I now only indulged in a few here and there. My purchase numbers fell below ten a month, and hastily afterwards, I would go months without a single selfish and irresponsible purchase. The money I was saving allowed me to do proper grocery runs, pay off some credit card debt, and even get kitty insurance for my two senior cats (which helped me out so much this February when one of them needed minor surgery). Of course other shit out of my control arose to fill that empty slot of stress (one of my cats almost died last year, I’m still paying that off, but that’s okay because he’s alive and healthy and that’s all that matters). However, I’m not an active contributor to it anymore.
This helped my mental health because by removing this stressful cycle, I was able to relax and not constantly worry about money, which in turn made it easier for me cope with depressive episodes. Those episodes, specifically money-related ones, didn’t last nearly as long and I could always mentally refer to my library habits as a way of motivating myself to keep fighting; to know that things won’t always be so difficult. I just have to take one day at a time until a solution for that respective problem surfaces… like the library did for my stress shopping.
Learning to Chase My Dreams
My first day with the library card, I went straight into the non-fiction section to see what they had with regard to Japanese history. It didn’t occur to me check their catalogues or any of that. I wouldn’t learn about the many benefits of my beautiful green and white card until much later. That day I was on a one-track mission: Japanese history (usually when I get shopping urges, they centre on an explicit genre). I found four books and all of them were about Japanese-American Internment Camps. Excited and riding the adrenaline of this new door that had opened up to me intellectually, I went on a library-hopping adventure and ended up coming home with over a dozen Japanese history books.
I immediately came home and began reading from my stack. The more that I read, the deeper I dove into this long-suppressed passion of mine. When I was married, I had always talked about wanting to become an Asianist who specialised in Polynesian and Japanese cultures. But my partner at the time humiliated me and psychologically abused me into picking something more “financially responsible.” My passions for the arts and wanting to become this specialised historian died during that period. Yet, as I sat here reading about the atrocities committed against the Japanese people (and by the Imperial Army) during the Second World War and how they rebuilt into such a strong nation, my heart started melting to the possibility of this dream I once had long ago .
Sir Besty nurtured that dream and encouraged me to read more and more about Japanese history. They would ask me questions about certain eras or periods, or even cultural practises. When I didn’t know the answer, I went traipsing to the library in search of #OwnVoices books so that I could educate myself further. Then during June of last year, I made the choice to return to school and pursue my passions with an unforgiving determination.
I was going follow my heart and my aspirations with every fucking ounce of energy I had, no matter how difficult or risky or impossible it may feel. After all, I only have one life to live. What’s the point of living if I’m going to hide in a corner too afraid to fail or actually place myself on the path towards success? As Sir Besty once said:
You only fail when you don’t try. If you try and things don’t work out, that’s not failing. That just means things didn’t work out. It’s a door closing to make room for another one to open. Being a failure is being too afraid to try.”
I tried to use age as an excuse as well (I’ll be thirty-two this year), but they shot that one down just as quickly and more ferociously. After I recognised that my passions and goals didn’t get strangled out of me, that they were purely buried beneath layers of trauma and insecurities, I returned to the library and researched programmes, both in my area and in Japan. A couple of the local librarians had undergone similar paths as me, but ultimately made the choice to become a librarian rather than something else. It was so insightful and unbelievably exciting to chat with them about their experiences. It gave me hope and showed me that nothing is truly unattainable in life.
With all of that, I finally returned to school this January with a tentative plan laid out for how I will obtain my degrees, which includes taking the JLPT exam in December for the first time. I even have ideas for the projects that I want to do for my thesis and dissertation.
This was beneficial to my mental health because when you don’t have something to drive you in life, it can become so easy to get lost in the dark. It’s like that area in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild where everything is smoky and smoggy (not naming the area to avoid spoilers). There are twisted trees and the only way to make your way through this terror is by instinct and a willingness to see it through to the end. I was struggling for so long because I was running around in circles in the same spot, too intimidated by the creepy arse trees to pick up that bleeding torch and say, “Fuck this shite, I’m getting outta here.” When I did, my high-days (Bipolar Disorder thing) increased incrementally, and when those low days popped in to hold me down, I shook it off and said, “No way, bro. Not today,” and I never would have been able to get to this point if it wasn’t for the library.
Facing My Worst Fears
My name is Nyan and I’m an agoraphobe (equal in intensity to my arachnophobia). The severity of my condition rarely allows me to leave my bedroom, let alone my house. There are many things that have caused me to become this way: trauma from being abused by my former partner, trauma and fear from being physically assaulted in public by random strangers simply for being brown, Queer, and/or Muslim, germs (I’m mysophobic too), and more. It is as comforting as it is suffocating and despairing.
Going to the library and seeing so many diverse people who are similar to me in ethnicity, cultural and/or religious beliefs, and even body shape and social status, allowed me to be less afraid of the outside world. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, brown, or anything else; rich or poor or in-between; fat or thin; Queer or straight—everybody reads, and everybody struggles with something or another.
My first visit to the library had me so consumed with my giddy-excitement at finding and reading these Japanese historical books that I visited seven other places. Not once during that excursion did my agoraphobia cross my mind. I felt so free. It was extraordinary. It wasn’t until Sir Besty came home from work and asked if I was okay with being outside for so long, asked if my anxiety had been triggered at all, that the depth of the day’s accomplishments truly hit me.
I was outside for the first time in years for a handful of hours by myself and I didn’t panic or feel anxious or afraid or paranoid. I didn’t feel like an agoraphobe.
Out of everything that I’ve shared with you today, this is the one that is making me emotional as I type because, honestly, if this was something I never learned to overcome, I never would have had the courage to return to school or dare to dream and pursue the things that I’ve laid out before myself.
(Everything I say here is about my own experiences, and not a judgement on anyone else. Everyone is different and that is okay. This one is all on me.) Being afraid to leave your own house can be so constricting. It’s a challenge just to meet with friends or family, or to be able to explore the world and all that is has to offer. I remember being a kid and being someone who wanted to dedicate their life to travelling. I can’t do that if I’m too frightened to step into my own damned driveway.
After my library initiation, I began to visit there more often. First it was once a month and only to drop off books or pick-up holds (this was a majestic discovery). Then it was once every couple of weeks, followed by once a week. Every now and again, I’d pack up my things and sit at one of the tables there so that I can work or study. I would put in my earphones and tune out my anxiety and feelings of exposure. At the beginning, I could only manage staying for an hour. But now I can stay there for a quite a few hours working away without being bothered at all. These were my baby steps with confronting and learning to cope through severe agoraphobia.
After about six months of visiting the libraries regularly, I decided it was time to visit other places and see what happens. I began doing my grocery shopping alone once a month and then that led to me visiting parks where I could read for a while. Currently, this one is still difficult for me to do, as I can only remain at parks for about an hour before it becomes too much for me. But hey, one hour at a park that’s a good half-an-hour away form my house is one hell of a step forward, no? Parks notwithstanding, I can even eat out at restaurants by myself now. I bring my book or my work, eat my food and get shite done.
Being able to conquer my agoraphobia—even though it’s still quite a battle on some days—led me towards wanting to face other things that I’m afraid of. I’m able to not get completely freaked out when I’m around certain insects (spiders can merrily fuck the hell off). Sir Besty and I attended my first large-crowded event (we went to a WWE house show). Hiking has become a regular activity that I find so much pleasure in and I do most of my hikes alone, an unthinkable feat at the start of 2018.
Frankly, I find a level of thrill and adventure at trying new things now, especially things that I would normally be too afraid to do or try. Once again, as the mantra of the post goes, I never would have been able to do these things without my local library. When my agoraphobia does sprout up again with a vehement vengeance, and I find myself withdrawing or falling onto former hiding-habits, I begin anew by going back to the library. Browsing shelves or sitting in a comfy chair or bench outside by the tree, help bring me out of my cave of fear and anxiety.
Yesterday, I had some of the worst PTSD triggers that I have had in years. Normally, I would sit in a corner of my bedroom and stay there for hours or even days depending on how bad the triggering episode was. Today, I went to the library and checked out some books. I couldn’t stay for very long, but by getting out and going to a safe and familiar space, my brain recognised that it was okay to let go of whatever was making me scared and to move forward. Since my agoraphobia mostly stems from my PTSD, I’ve noticed that by having this very unique sanctuary has helped decrease the intensity of PTSD triggers and episodes, and when they do occur, managing them has become far less frustrating and incapacitating.
Libraries are magical and wondrous places that are about so much more than books. They are about people, above everything else. Yes, you can rent books and read books and it’s an excellent avenue for low-income readers. But it’s also about helping individuals to accept themselves, the people around them, and for them to be able to live their very best lives. It can be a source of comfort and conviction, as much as inspiration and freeing independence.
I want to give thanks to all libraries out there and all the people who work or volunteer at one. The imprints that you leave behind are incredible and uplifting. You probably make a difference in someone’s existence in ways that are incomprehensible. You are appreciated and I thank you very, very much.