by Kelly Lee Casey
Having seen the request for an essay describing a situation that altered my life in a significant way, I had sat down repeatedly throughout the week in front of my laptop trying to pinpoint that one circumstance.
I didn’t have writer’s block and it wasn’t as if I couldn’t think of something monumental that had shifted the course of my path. In fact, it was more like I couldn’t choose just one. The past few years have been, well, let’s just say “challenging”. I separated from my husband of twenty years, had financial problems that were mounting by the day, a career that I had worked hard at for more than a decade—only to become a dead end, and then in the beginning of the year my father passed away suddenly.
Despite having more than enough material, it seems I could only list these events, not express their profound effect on me. Every time I sat down to type, I couldn’t find the proper words to summarize the turmoil of the seemingly unending challenges and upheavals. Many of the emotions that have coursed through me in recent years have been raw—primal even. A sense of loss and failure hung over my head like a heavy raincloud threatening to burst at any moment.
Except I couldn’t let that happen. I’ve kept my feelings in check because I thought it was the best way to navigate not only myself through the pain, but my three children as well, hoping that I could prevent them from bearing the scars from the decisions and battles that were not of their own making.
I put on a brave face. A false face. Maybe my boys could see through the façade, maybe not. But I’d be damned if I let them see their mother fall apart; so I lived in my head. I hid there. I daydreamed of a better life; a better future.
This coping mechanism was not unfamiliar to me, it’s one I had relied on since I was a child. I think it’s just who I am. It has had its good and bad points. Bad, because I escape into my thoughts at times and it’s been an emotional crutch that hasn’t always allowed me to see reality for what it actually is. I sometimes see things as I want them to be, which only delays growth and moving on from a situation or mindset that is unhealthy. But this ability to get lost in my mind has also served me well.
In hindsight, I knew my marriage was falling apart, I can see it all now, like a movie on replay in slow motion. But at the time I was focused on taking care of my children. I also threw myself into my career, trying to breathe new life into it after having taken a step back when I had my babies. This energy poured into my job wasn’t for personal glory or fulfillment, it was out of necessity when my husband’s business began to fail and the debt was piling up.
I was stressed-out and starting to not sleep well. After numerous nights staring into the dark of my bedroom, often alone as my husband withdrew deeper into his own sadness and feelings of failure, I started to read. Although mentally I found it hard to concentrate, I was hoping to exhaust my eyes so much they would be forced to close on their own. It worked.
I began to read voraciously. Reading had always been something I loved, but as I got older and the demands of life became more complicated, I rarely found the time. Now it became a necessity. A mental escape and ultimately a physical one, when I would drift off peacefully, often mid-sentence, with the book or iPad still in my hand.
For obvious reasons, romance became my genre of choice. I longed for the supportive, passionate, life-affirming relationships the characters had. I read some fantastic stories. Then one day I finished a book that I’d been looking forward to reading for weeks and it had left me flat. I was actually mad. The blurb had held so much promise and when it didn’t fulfill, I felt cheated. I thought to myself, I could write a better book than this!
I could write a better book than this…I mulled over those words in my head. Why not? Why couldn’t I? That proverbial little voice in my head told me I could do it. So I did.
Under a pen name I wrote and self-published my first novel that year. When I had begun, my husband was sleeping on the couch at that point, completely uninterested in anything I or our family life had to offer anymore, but the sight of me night after night at my laptop, clicking away, piqued his curiosity.
When I told him what I was doing, he didn’t make fun of me, he didn’t tell me it was a waste of time, he supported me. It was not the response I was expecting. He was fascinated. He started to come home from work and ask about my book, and one night after the kids were in bed, I offered to read him the first few chapters. He loved it. The next day he asked me to read more. Then the next. It became our routine for the next couple of months until I finished the manuscript.
Now I would love to tell you that it saved my marriage, that we had our happily ever after—just like the characters in my story—but we didn’t. We separated not long after. But I look back on those nights when we were both lost in my words, as our way of saying goodbye to each other. Through the emotions of my characters, the loss that I had created as their story and ultimately the promise of a future filled with love, was my way of working through the process of letting go of a marriage that was over; to see the relationship for what it was, not what I wanted it to be. It ended with the hope that we would each find a sweeter life on the other side of what we had become. I know my husband felt the same. We parted as friends. I think the closeness and connection we had through my daily ritual of storytelling is the reason we are still friends to this day, focused on being good parents to our boys.
That wasn’t the only time I lost myself in a world constructed with words based on wishful situations in my mind. When my father passed away, I had been in the middle of writing my second book. I had done it more sporadically that the first. But the suddenness of the loss left me feeling like I needed to hide in my head again, and I did. I finished the second half in the weeks that followed his funeral. I explored death directly through one of the characters in my story, and as always, it was cathartic.
I am a fortunate woman. I have figured out how to turn possibly one of my worst character traits of dissociation into a positive, productive outlet and it’s changed my life in unexpected ways. I made friends with some amazing women across the globe, my books having resonated with them enough to reach out to me. I haven’t earned enough money with my writing to make it a full time job, but I’ve made enough to buy some extras for my kids, which makes me happy. I have no way of knowing if my books are any better or worse than the one that had irritated me enough to push me into writing one myself, I’m my own worst critic. But I do know that by channeling my energy in this way, it has allowed me to heal. In fact, I am doing it right now.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the essay, I didn’t know what to write when I first sat down. It was a hectic week and I couldn’t focus. Then I cracked my tooth last night. I bit down on a hard piece of food and I knew. A fracture in my molar. Instead of obsessing over going to the dentist and the aggravation and expense that will more than likely be involved, I decided to lose myself in the soft glow of my monitor for a while.
The end result isn’t a work of fiction like my romance novels, and the reality of the situation is that I have to make an appointment for my tooth to get looked at. The Advil is wearing off and my jaw is starting to throb. With the last few words of this paragraph about to be typed, I feel like I’m finished escaping for the day, so I think I’ll go make that call.