I was sitting on the floor between two long metal shelves, trying to breathe and shift the heavy burden on my chest that insists on settling there when I least expect it. I focused on the books, all categorized and organized in a way that made sense, and tried to find a title I would like. It was my 25th birthday and I still hadn’t gotten used to the panic attacks that grab me by the throat and blur my thoughts. I’ve had generalised anxiety disorder for four years now and I am still getting a grip on it.
As I ran my fingers through the spines of the books I was browsing, I breathed the panic attack out of me. I got distracted by titles, picked a few and surveyed their written promise to the reader. I felt the pressure in my chest subside. I lifted a book to my nose and inhaled the book smell I love and it took me back to an age where I didn’t have anxiety, where books were my best friends, where being transported to another world was the easiest thing to do.
As I sat on the blue carpeted floor of my university’s library, I realised that between shelves lined with books, I felt safe, I felt more like me than I had in a while.
It might seem strange to the average person that libraries have somehow, over time, become safe spaces for me. But for me, it makes sense: I spent countless happy hours in libraries during my childhood. After teaching me how to imagine stories in my head, my mother let me take as many books as I wanted home too. They weren’t very good nor were they of particularly high literary standards – I remember going through a phase of obsession over Full House books – but they were worlds that were easily accessible to me through that place called a library.
There’s something about walking down shelves of books that really fascinates me. I think it helps to think of each individual book as a piece of its writer. Each book is a world created by an author, waiting to be discovered and imagined by a reader. Each book is someone’s story, someone’s experience, someone’s opinion. Some books will fit me, some books won’t fit me at all. And that’s one of the reasons I find libraries so comforting: it’s a place where I can potentially get to know thousands of stories, thousands of people, thousands of points of views, but I am free to do so in my own time, at my own pace and only if I want to.
Anxiety has a way of taking control away from you: when you want to work, you can’t because your thoughts are blurry. When you want to have fun, you can’t because you feel anxious about meeting people. The accessibility of libraries isn’t just a matter of having a right to information and literature for me (although this is definitely one of the top reasons why I love them), it’s a matter of having the option to escape, to be in a different world if I need to be.
It’s also about the ease of being in a library: I don’t need to talk, I don’t need to put on a face, I don’t need to pretend. Sometimes, you have to whisper “Excuse me” or “Sorry” and that’s about it for human interaction. Any chatting that occurs is predictably about the books I am taking out, so I don’t need to think too hard on what to say or how to say it. Also, as someone who love organization, the systems used to organize thousands of books in libraries are really settling and interesting to me.
The thing is, when you have mental health issues, safe spaces outside your own home are very difficult to find. I am very grateful to have recognized libraries as one of mine and I hope others can take solace between books and shelves.