‘The Third Alternative’ (Bethan Jones, University of Aberystwyth, Wales)

Trigger warning: this article talks about self harm and depression. Please ensure you are in a safe space before reading.

When I was a child I escaped with words. Before I could read my parents and my grandparents read to me; after I learned to read I read to myself. I saved my pocket money for trips to Merthyr, the town over the mountain from mine where a W. H. Smith sat on the high street, and sometimes Cardiff – the big city that had not only a W. H. Smith but a Waterstones as well. My bedroom housed a fort made of bookcases, with a worn red beanbag occupying the space in the centre where you’d normally find an armoury, and where I piled story upon story and nestled among dragons and princes while the world turned outside. I read in the backseat of the car; while walking to school; on the beach on holiday. I read for more reasons that I can now recall. I read because I was the geeky girl at comp who knew too much; because I was the one who everyone bullied; because I felt more at home in other worlds than I did in my own.

When I was younger I would wait for the dip in the mountain which showed me the lights of the valley, and as the car wound down the road I knew I was almost home. The lights are different , and though the mountain is before me I cannot move. I am in limbo, a ghost between my old life and the new one which is being fashioned for me, and the only one I am haunting is myself. I long to be among the black patches where there are no lights for then perhaps I wouldn’t have to remember. I long to forget where I came from, and where I am going holds no power for me. I think, therefore I exist, but this existence is too harsh; the edges are too sharp and I can make a weapon from the softest of things. My memories make me bleed, and my scars are given to me by love and hope; faithful traitors. I have wished to believe in neither, yet they have both found me and I have slept ion beds of thorn and nails, watching the petals wither and die. Their sweetness is in decay; it is in the beauty of autumn, not spring, that I find myself, for I am where the dead things are. – 20th November 2002

So I escaped with words but they were words that were inescapably tied to the place I was in. They say that smell is the most powerful sense, and that certain scents have the power to transport you to specific times and places. Books hold that same power for me. Reading The Beano or The Dandy takes me back to the age of eight, sitting in the grey armchair in my gran and grandad’s living room (the same chair that now occupies the same space in my living room), while my gran cooked chips in the kitchen and my grandad read Asimov in his chair.

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Reading The Famous Five takes me to that worn, red beanbag nestled between bookcases with the summer evening sun dripping through the window onto the page. But I occupied two spaces, when I was reading. The space of the world where my physical self was, and the space of the book where my imaginary self lived, where I hunted smugglers with George, Anne, Julian, Dick and Timmy the dog, where poor Pepper died in a barn over and over again.

There is a photograph of me in the back of my parents’ car aged seven or eight. I am reading – I was always reading – and the sun strikes the window just so. The glare obscures me. I am half in the car, half somewhere else entirely. I am liminal; neither / and at the same time. – 1 August 2003

Reading – and by extension, writing – were my escapes. But when I went to university I needed to escape in a different way. I discovered depression, The Cure and self harm – not necessarily in that order or at the same time – and words were no longer enough, somehow. Or the physical world was too much, and walking the line between them became like walking a tightrope underneath which were sharp rocks instead of a safety net. Music became the escape I needed then, and the Smashing Pumpkins and Counting Crows repeated themselves on my CD player along with Robert Smith.

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I (re)discovered comics shortly after I realised what depression can do to you. I was introduced to them by friends – Lenore, at first – the cute little dead girl who appealed to my Goth sensibilities, then Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Squee and Questionable Content and Gloom Cookie. And then Violet Grimm of Dogwitch who I wanted to be (and whose look I tried to model in my own going-out clothes).

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But none of these spoke to me in the same way that Sandman did. I can laugh at how cliché it is now – a twenty-something Goth reading Sandman while listening to The Cure. But Gaiman’s world of myth and the power of stories and dreams reached me on a level beyond words. I connected with Morpheus, in Sandman #1, trapped by dreams and missing a part of himself. That was, after all, how I felt.

My skin is pale even against the white of the room. Sometimes I stand quiet against the wall, wondering how long it will take before I cease to be myself, before I lose my identity and take on that of the white paint, the cool plaster. I stand still for hours, and I lose track of time. Time ceases to matter when I am here, when I am trying not to be myself, and I think maybe this time, maybe this time… Then the door opens, briefly, and I am myself once again. Time rushes back in and hurtles me with it on and on into a future which has no place for me, nor I it. I play a game with myself to see how long it will take before I lose myself in the future or the past, and sometimes I am winning, sometimes I lose. – 18th April 2004

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I identified with Dream even more after reading Sandman #8. “I feel like nothing,” he tells his older sister, Death, as he feeds the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. And that was how I felt most of the time. But I didn’t identify with Death, though I was a little in love with if not her, then the idea of her.

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                      It was, though, more than Dream, and much more than Death, Delirium and Despair in whom I saw myself reflected: crazy, alone, unloved.

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Despair, Desire’s sister and twin, is queen of her own bleak bourne. It is said that scattered through Despair’s domain are a multitude of tiny windows, hanging in the void. Each window looks out onto a different scene, being, in our world, a mirror. Sometimes you will look into a mirror and feel the eyes of Despair upon you, feel her hook catch and snag on your heart. – Sandman #21

I spent hours sitting on my bed watching the sun move across the Bath sky, turning blues and hazy whites into pinks and purples and then darkness. I tracked storm clouds and hot air balloons across the blank space outside my window, and I spoke to no one. Where words had once given me another space to occupy, now they only seemed to chain me. My diaries from that time are filled with sharp, black lines. They are litanies of hatred, turning inward, self inflicted, admonishing my younger self for being too stupid, too ugly, never (never, never, never) good enough. When writing became too hard the pages are dotted with blood.

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Those words, in the same way as those which filtered my childhood, were inescapably tied to the place I was in. But instead of occupying two spaces now, reading gave me three. The physical space of the single bed in my small single room and the imaginary space of Morpheus’ dream world were joined by the emotional space of depression. Reading back the words I wrote too easily transports me to a time and place I do not want to remember. I keep telling myself that I’m not her anymore. I’m not the girl I was back then, even if she helped shape who I am today, but I’ve spent a lifetime escaping with words and I know the power they hold.

So I escape in different ways and painful ways. I map directions on my skin with steel, reminders that one step to the left would make me fall, reminders to look straight, keep my eyes on the horizon, never look down. But some words seep through. I collect these in ring-bound notebooks, pin them to the page like butterflies – 16th June 2005

Some time ago I moved back home to Wales. I boxed my comics up and they collected dust in a storage unit while I stayed with my dad, in a terraced house too full of books for our collections to co-exist. But when I bought my own house I pulled them from their boxes like I was greeting old friends. There was Preludes and Nocturnes, The Wake, Doll’s House. There was Death: The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life. There was The Quotable Sandman and Adventures in the Dream Trade. I bought two bookcases, six feet high and two books deep, and put my graphic novels and comics in pride of place, on the shelf next to my armchair. And I read them again. Lenore, Dogwitch, V for Vendetta, Squee and Watchmen.

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But I didn’t read Sandman. I think in part it was because the series had meant so much to me that I didn’t want to find it was worse than I remembered. And in part I know it was because I had read it at a low point I didn’t want to be reminded of. So they sat on my shelf, and occasionally I picked up the quote book or the interviews with Gaiman, but I never read the comics.

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But not long ago I decided to read Sandman again. I had gained enough distance, I thought, or maybe I was older and better equipped to deal with the things that had floored me back then. And so one day last summer I took myself up to the back garden with a stack of trade paperbacks, sat in the sun with my cats, and read.

I recognised Delirium and Despair – they will, after all, always be a part of me. But I wasn’t them. I wasn’t Dream either, looking for redemption or revenge. I recognised perhaps a younger aspect of myself in him, but I felt older (older than one of the Endless), more mature. What I had glimpsed in him and identified with some ten years ago now struck me as self-indulgent; selfish even. Dream has responsibilities, after all, and it seemed to me he shirked them. The character I identified with most this time around, was Death. Not because I longed for her, like my younger self had done, but because I recognised her humanity.

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Reading Sandman in my garden in the sun, I was once again liminal. I occupied the space of the stories, the physical space of the garden and – just at the edge of the garden path, just at the point of shadow on the rosebush – the emotional state of that small, single room in Bath. That last space continues to linger, sometimes recedes, sometimes creeps closer, but it hasn’t – so far – encroached any further. Instead, I find more spaces, within the series and within myself, that offer me both escape and a way back again.

If you do not climb,

            you will not fall. This is true.

But is it that bad to fail,

                        that hard to fall?

 

Sometimes you wake up.

            Sometimes the fall kills you.

 

And sometimes,

            when you fall,

                                    you fly. – Sandman #29

 ABOUT

Bethan Jones is a PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University. Her thesis, which adopts Stuart Hall’s model of encoding/decoding to examine fan fiction, is tentatively titled ‘The G Woman and the Fowl One: Fandom’s Rewriting of Gender in The X-Files’. Bethan has written on a range of topics related to gender, fandom and digital media. Her work has been published in the Journal of Creative Writing, Participations, Transformative Works and Cultures and the edited collection The Modern Vampire and Human Identity.