Louise O’Neill: A word after a word after a word is power

Margaret Atwood wrote “A word after a word after a word is power.”

I am blind in this world. I do not know what direction in which I face. I do not know what I believe. I do not know who I am. Then I begin to write.

A word after a word after a word, each one slides off my pen and drips onto the page, drip, drip, drip. A word after a word after a word. And it, whatever it may be, begins to make sense to me. There it is. A story. My story.

They say that artists have themes, issues, motifs that they keep returning to. There is one story buried so deep within our bones that we are compelled to tell it in an effort to draw it to the surface. We must tell it and re-tell it again and again, until finally, it will leave us.

I do not want to be a single story.

I Google myself. I see the story that is there. It is a good story. An interesting one. A story that creates an easy box within which to place me. This is who she is. This is what she is. The lid on the box is taped shut and I am fine for a while. I hold my breath.

I don’t want to be my story, not that story anyway. And yet it is there. It is part of me, part of my tapestry, black thread woven through the colour. Sometimes I dream about it.  I am in a sweet store and I eat and I eat and I eat. I look in the mirror and I am fat. Fat does not just mean fat, of course. Fat means disgust, fat means rejection. Fat means loneliness.

Everyone knows that.

“Tell us, Louise, how much of your book is inspired by your struggle with an eating disorder?”

“Tell us, Louise, what do you think caused it in the first place?”

“Is your next book going to be about eating disorders?”

“What message do you have for young women who are struggling with eating disorders?”

I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry. I am sorry for your pain, I am sorry for what you are going through. I want to say that you will be OK, that you will make it out alive, that you will definitely recover. But we both know that may not be the case.

Tell us your story.

I don’t want to bore you. I have told this story again and again. It’s what the interviewers want to hear. It’s an easy hook that will grab the reader’s attention. And I want their attention because I believe my book is important. I have pushed away all of the cultural conditioning that tells me that as a woman, my story is somehow trivial, somehow inconsequential. I want this story to be told. (I believe it is worthy of being told.) I want this story to be heard. (I believe that it is worthy of being heard.)

I think of that time and it is as if it happened to someone else, like a tale your mother told you of when she was young and you have heard it so many times that you almost feel it belongs to you. I pass that hospital on the bus sometimes, and I make myself remember.

I am 21 years of age. I try and sleep. My roommate, another Louise, is crying. She sobs and she sobs and I move my duvet into the bathroom so that I don’t have to listen to her. (I should comfort her.) (There is not room enough in me to help me, my pain fills me up, I am stuffed with it.)

I look at myself in the mirror. I am so young. This should not be my life. 

The night nurses come in regularly to shine a torch in my face to see if I am still alive.

I continue to breathe, in and out, in and out. One breath after another. My lungs will not give up. My body refuses to wither away. I live and I live and I live.

There are other girls there. They are whittled skinny and red-knuckled. We grasp cups of steaming-hot tea in our hands. We drink it black. We sit at our own table in the dining hall and we watch each other, waiting to see who will eat the most, the fastest. Waiting to see who is the weakest.

We form a coven of sorts, but it is poisoned. It is rotting from the inside out. But I have told you this story before.

I will tell you a different one.

My friends are shocked, they are worried. They talk in whispers and they look at me with creased foreheads. They band together. They form a protective circle.

They know that I do not like to talk on the phone so they text incessantly, cheerful messages full of inconsequential nothings. I am forbidden from using my laptop so the letters and cards begin to arrive. One friend, who is living in Barcelona, writes to me at least twice a week, long, long letters, five or six A4 pages each. She writes on the front and the back. She tells me her stories, she tells me she loves me, she tells me she misses me.

The care packages come. Viviscal tablets because my hair had fallen out in clumps, a huge duvet cover because I had complained of constantly feeling cold. They send their favourite books of all time with notes about why they loved them and that they hoped I would love them too. They burned CDs with songs that we listened to before nights out at college. Collages of photographs to put on my wall, posters to make the sterile room look more like my own.

And they visit. They visit every day. A cousin comes three times a week, often staying so late that she gets locked in and has to be left out by a security guard. A neighbour from home illegally downloads episodes of Desperate Housewives so that we can watch them together. My housemates make up a schedule to make sure that no day passes where I might be alone.

I am never alone.

My room is full of laughter and noise. They tell me stories, but these stories are fun. Boys they have kissed and cocktails they have drank and clubs they have danced in. They hold me up when I am afraid that I will fall down. They hold my hand. They ask me my dreams and they tell me I can make them come true. I thank them, over and over, for their support and they tell me that I am worth it and I begin to believe them.

They say that women compete, that we bitch about one another. They say that we are too eager to tear our sisters down. They say that women watch each other, teeth bared, ready for the moment that they can devour one another. And I have seen that happen, I know that can be the truth.

But women can also lift each other up. Women can cheer each other on. Women can form a bond out of deep, mutual understanding of what it is to be female in this world, the artifice and struggle that can engender. Women can listen to you and love you and want you to succeed, to thrive, to be happy. 

These are the women that I know. The women I know are kindness and light. They are love and beauty.

They are my coven.

Louise O’Neill is an award-winning YA novelist. Her latest book, ‘Only Ever Yours’ is out now.

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