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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The darkness and the long walk home

It’s fall, and suicide is in the air. Here in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, a nearby high school has been roiled by the self-inflicted death of a 16-year-old girl, who was reportedly a target of harsh cyberbullying. The national news has featured felony stalking charges filed against two Florida girls, aged 12 and 14, who allegedly cyberbullied a schoolmate, urging her to kill herself until the girl climbed up a water tower and jumped.

Then this morning I read David Sedaris’s new piece in The New Yorker, “Now We Are Five,” about his family’s confused sadness over the suicide of his sister Tiffany, who’d become isolated and appears, from David’s description, to have struggled with her emotional well-being.

I’d been thinking I might try to write this week about cyberbullying, as I visit schools often this time of year to talk about my young-adult novels that deal with this; but I don’t feel like I have anything special to offer. It’s an awful problem. The scorching cruelties young people routinely launch at each other online are like weapon blasts in Call of Duty, except that the impacts are real. Most kids are fairly resilient — but the danger is that, so often, those who are targeted for the harshest abuse are not. They’re the ones who are already isolated, hurting and struggling with low self-esteem. They’re vulnerable stragglers, easy for the predators among their peers to pick off.

Many kids who do get targeted don’t tell anyone, and that's where anyone can get into trouble. With your secreted anguish building and getting heavier inside, you can be at risk of slipping into a dangerous depression. I was one of those kids. Isolated and very awkward in early adolescence, with a bottoming sense of self-worth at just the time when fitting in feels so all-important, I spoke to no one about the day-to-day ridicule, name-calling, and worse. It wasn't hard for me to believe that the kids who did and said those things might be right — that I was just too weird. Too weird, almost, to live.

When I talk with kids today about this, they often ask how I got through, and I tell them that my strategy — the one so many kids employ, telling nobody and pretending it all wasn’t happening — did not work. But even so, I’m here. I got through. So what did help? What did get me through?

One thing was reading. Having barely survived seventh grade in the public system, I was sent by my parents in grades 8-9 to a private boys’ day school, which for a kid who drew negative attention was like going from the frying pan directly into the fire. That place had a serious bullying culture, and there was zero supervision or help for those at the bottom of the pile. But the school was also committed to good books, and I was exposed there to a well-stocked library and discussions of meaningful novels. I’d always been a reader; but here, taking refuge in that library and then reading in my room at home, I discovered Steinbeck, and Orwell, and especially Saroyan.

But maybe that wasn’t the only thing. It was such a dark time — not only was the school an unsafe place for an odd kid, but I rode the bus an hour each way, every day. I lost touch with my neighborhood friends. And I had to walk almost two miles by myself to and from the bus stop ...

And there. It struck me for the first time, after all these years, that that might be the forgotten key.

Last winter and spring I struggled with a passing depression. Work was very slow and things got scary; and after I’d sat up through too many sleepless early mornings, I started trying to understand. I found a good book, The Chemistry of Joy. Among his useful advice, author Henry Emmons recommends exercise. “If you take away only one message from this book,” he writes, “let it be this one: Getting regular, vigorous exercise is the best possible way that you can alter your own brain chemistry and improve your mood.”

I started walking again. I’ve always been a walker, but when you are down it’s a challenge to get yourself up to do much of anything. Gradually, though, I got back into it, and now I walk two to three miles most every day. Then, talking with Cary this weekend about depression's link to suicide, it struck me that maybe what pulled me through, way back then, wasn’t just books and reading, nor even discovering in ninth grade that I liked to write. Maybe it was also the walking.

Every morning I’d walk to that bus stop full of dread — but each evening I’d walk home in a different frame of mind. I remember those long walks like they were meditations, and maybe they were. I had come through another day in the danger zone, and now I was heading home for dinner with my siblings and my hard-drinking parents. This was my time. What would I do with my life? Was there a god? How would I be a great hero? I walked it through, thought it through, fantasized it through. By the time I made it, in the dark by now to the yellow-lighted windows of our house, I think I was okay for another night.

Maybe that is how I made it through. I had my books, I had the things I was suddenly writing ... and I had my long walks home. I guess, looking back, I was pretty lucky.

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