What I do remember, is going to the library with my mother. I must’ve been either four or five, because I wasn’t yet in school, yet all my brothers and sisters were, so it was just Mum and me. Our library was on a steep hill and I would race up the wheelchair access ramp, then clatter back down the steps and tell Mum to hurry up. Walking into that place was bliss. There was a hush about the library that a quiet house cannot replicate. I would dash to the children’s book boxes and rummage through, looking for my old friends within them.
A story my mother likes to relate is of going to the library with me as a child. She tells us that she had to give me thirty minutes warning, because there would always be tears and tantrums from me. I never wanted to give the books back, so she needed thirty minutes to persuade me to show her where I had hidden my precious treasures.
As a child, I grew up on Disney books and fairytales. Cinderella was my utmost favourite. I still have the book that showed me
Cinderella, and I now read it to my children, hoping to instill the love of fiction into them.
By the time I was nine I had read all The Famous Five books that my library carried, plus all of them in my school library too. By ten I’d read every single Judy Blume book I could find. By the time I was eleven I was onto Dolly Fiction paperbacks.
When I was thirteen, in desperation to keep me occupied at her house, my sister gave me my first Mills and Boon novel to read – Rise of an Eagle, by Margaret Way. I still have that book. I keep it for the memories. It was wonderful – it was Cinderella for grownups.
But what did books mean to me? It meant a life for me beyond my four walls of my bedroom.
You see, looking back on my childhood, I was extremely lonely and very isolated. How can the youngest child of nine children be lonely? It was because of extreme allergies, something that twenty-five years ago we were struggling to understand.
Let me put it into perspective for you. In the skin-prick test, if your reaction to the allergen is more than 1mm, they say you are allergic. If it is more than 2mm, you should seek specialist treatment. On my first test, they were unable to measure more than 11mm because it was merging into my other reactions. I was allergic – highly allergic – and my top five reactors? Dust mite, horses, grasses, cats and dogs.
What a pity I grew up on a horse farm.
My mother didn’t believe in medication, so in order to survive my teen years, I locked myself in my room and never came out.
Dramatic? Definitely. Did it save my life? You’d better believe it.
The written word became my best friend. Those people between the pages of my book I was able to have a conversation with. They were nice. They didn’t cause me to cough, sniff, wheeze, cry or any of the other reactions that simply talking to my family in their horse-covered clothes would bring on.
They were my sanity.
Those nights that I struggled to breathe, not wanting to go to sleep because I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up in the morning?
Those books sat with me.
It wasn’t until I was eighteen and sought medical help for my condition that I appreciated how bad I was. I’ve gone through years of desensitization programs, and swallowed thousands upon thousands of anti-histamine tablets. Now that I can control my environment, I can own cats and birds. Horses are still bad though – one hour is the maximum time I can spend at
my sister’s house, and a simple walk through her stables sets me off.
Being able to string together a couple of paragraphs and put it in a book for another person to read? It's like passing on that gift that was given to me all those years ago. It’s paying forward. I like to think of someone in a dark place in their lives, being able to open a book – perhaps my book? – and survive their darkness until the morning light comes. So if you are struggling, open a page and lose yourself for a while. The stories are always there. Some make you cry. I hope mine make you laugh. But survive.