(Content note: This blog describes experiences of severe anxiety. These experiences are my own, and other people’s will differ, so please don’t take them as universal)
Sometimes you read exactly the right book at exactly the right time – even if it doesn’t feel like it. A few weeks ago, I was going through a major bout of anxiety brought on by a stressful work situation. I needed an escape, and so I turned to the most lighthearted-looking book on my ‘to be read’ pile.
Doesn’t it look adorable?
Any YA/NA fans reading this will already be shaking their head and chuckling, because Fangirl – despite being funny, despite having many moments where it is, indeed, completely adorable – is not a fluffy escapist novel. This story has teeth.
Instead of a cute, quirky comedy with a cute, quirky protagonist, I found the story of Cath, a young woman with severe social and generalised anxiety who struggles to cope in her first year of university. When I realised this, I had an ‘ah’ moment, and very nearly stopped reading.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read Fangirl. I did. I’d heard so many good things about it from reviewers and other readers. But I wasn’t sure it was the best book for me to read at that time.
I’ve identified with protagonists before. That’s generally a strong sign of a good book. But, in this case, the protagonist was a nerdy, insecure writer barely coping with major anxiety and feeling frightened, out-of-control, and generally awful. It was a tiny bit too close to home – especially as my first year of uni was, thanks to my own anxiety, extremely difficult.
But, by that time, I was already too far into the story, too interested in the compelling and very real characters. So, I read on.
Sometimes you read the right book at the right time. I have never come across such a good portrayal of anxiety in fiction before, ever. The story kept hitting me right between the eyes with moments and feelings that were so terrifyingly familiar, and that I’d never been able to put into words – most of all, this line from Cath:
“I don’t trust anybody. Not anybody. And the more that I care about someone, the more sure I am they’re going to get tired of me and take off.”
These three lines sum up the fear, the insecurity and the guilt of social anxiety. Because that’s exactly how it feels, and it’s so hard to explain.
Generally, when people don’t trust someone, it’s because that person has done something wrong. When your lack of trust comes courtesy of anxiety, though, it’s not because of other people at all. It’s because anxiety is always there, whispering in your ear, that they’re mistaken. That they are kind, and patient, and supportive, and good, and absolutely trustworthy – and they just haven’t fully realised what a terrible, horrible, mess of a person you are. And that when they do, they’ll do the sensible thing and get the hell out of there.
This is the greatest trick anxiety pulls, to steal a phrase. You don’t want to be around yourself, so you can’t imagine why anyone else would want to be, either.
I loved that Fangirl fully explored Cath’s anxiety – and didn’t finish up with her being miraculously cured when she realises that, in fact, people do genuinely like her. I loved that the friends Cath makes really care about her, and know about her anxiety, and there’s no ‘in spite of’, and no trying to ‘fix’ her (“It’s okay if you’re crazy” is one of the most important lines I’ve ever read). I love that Cath describes her writing as an ‘escape’, because yes, that’s one of the beautiful things about writing – being able to step outside of your own head for a little while.
Fangirl was an incredibly tough read for me, but it was also cathartic. It was the right book at the right time – in fact, the only way it could have been more right is if I’d been able to read it ten years ago, when I was struggling through my first year at uni and wondering why I was getting it all so wrong. I’d recommend it to anyone who lives with anxiety, or who knows someone who does, because this book pins it down, brings it out into the light, and shows that, yes, anxiety is horrible – but that doesn’t mean that you are.