When I think, now, about the book that made me believe in literature, in storytelling, again, I think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, that first book I read after I’d returned to Brisbane, after I’d seen the healer, after the migraine had gone. To cut a long, sad story short, I had suffered a ten-month migraine—triggered, it seemed, by reading or writing or looking at screens—that, towards the end, nearly ended my life. At some point, I returned to Brisbane, unable to continue living independently in Sydney, and after several sessions with a man I will call The Healer, the migraine, suddenly, was gone. Or almost gone, but that’s another story.
In those first few days of what I will call Freedom, or almost Freedom, I kept waking at odd hours of the morning, in cold sweats, from dreams in which I was the protagonist and the migraine had returned. What was most terrifying, then, I think, was not that the pain had returned—although that was, certainly, terrifying—but that my ability to read, to pass the time in a way that didn’t involve crying or staring at a ceiling would suddenly, absurdly, be removed once more. I guess what I am trying to say is that I was terrified, again, of being alone.
We’re going to make a plan, Mum said, as we drove through Milton towards the Indooroopilly library, and so we spoke about the psychologists I would see, and the hikes we would complete, and the yoga classes we would do, all the time listening to Phillip Glass or Ludovico Einaudi, as if we were in our own movie, this movie about mothers and sons, about hope and pain—I love this shit hole, I said, as we passed the XXXX brewery, and then Mum looked at me in the mirror and said, I’ve missed that. Missed what? That smile.
It’s hard to describe how I felt walking through Indooroopilly shopping centre, no longer an adolescent—that shopping centre where we used to attend movie marathons, McDonald Coke cups filled to the brim with Bundaberg Rum, that movie theatre where I had my first kiss, where I celebrated, silently, and later, like a loser, yelling, YES, punching my first to the sky—but as a man, or a boy pretending to be a man, who had moved back in with his parents, but if I had to try, really try, the best I could say was that I was terrified, and shaking. I remember as we entered the library I slowed; reading or trying to read had given me the headache or pain to begin with, and I saw the books not as books, but as bombs or poison or as reminders: of my own book and my own perceived failings, of the texts I had tried to read, thought I could read, but could then not read, plunged, once more, into my own head, into isolation, into pain. It’ll be okay, Mum said. Just take it slow. And so we walked, together, under those bright lights, breathing, hoping, and I made one of those ridiculous deals we made as children: where we prayed to God or the sky or ourselves and promised to behave, to be better, if we could just be normal; if everything could be okay.
If this all seems ludicrous it’s only because it was, and as I walked around the aisles I closed my eyes the way I used to when I worked at the Sydney Opera House, when I pretended to check all those tickets, knowing, if I read those tiny letters, the migraine would outstrip the codeine, and I would be unable to pretend nothing hurt. And so, I walked, blindly, approximately, to wear the C section was, and selected Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man, and then to the M section, and selected Loorie Moore’s Bark, and then to the O section, and selected Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. On the car trip home, I glanced briefly, indulgently, at the covers and tried to remember the thrill of reading books as a child.
That evening I lay on my back, in the room I had spent my adolescence, and I pressed my neck into the carpet, trying to straighten it, trying to keep the door open to the house, the muscles, where the headaches lived, the way the healer had shown me I should. And then, I remember, I groped for one of the books by my side. When it came into vision, I read The Things They Carried, and I held that book, arms straight, high above my head, glancing at it, then looking away, then glancing again, as if it were Medusa, as if it had the power to return me to that private hell, something inescapable, to stone. Many days later, when I finished that book, I lay on my bed and cried.
I don’t know how to finish this essay. I wanted to tell you about that book, about its magic, its darkness, its humility, its humour, the way it grips you, holds you, the way it held me up, the way it taught me to love literature, myself, again, the way it saved a part of my life. But I can’t. Instead, I will leave you with a quote from Tim O’Brien himself:
Together we understood what terror was: you’re not human anymore. You’re a shadow. You slip out of your own skin, like molting, shedding your own history and your own future, leaving behind everything you ever were or wanted or believed in. You know you’re about to die. And it’s not a movie and you aren’t a hero and all you can do is whimper and wait.
And then one more:
But this too is true: stories can save us.
About the Author
Oliver Mol is the author of Lion Attack! He has published over 60 works in Australia and overseas. Rolling Stone called him: King of a New Jungle. He is working on his second book.