My daughter is sharing with me her reading list for university and bemoaning the cost of the textbooks in the way that one would if one were actually having to pay for them.
I tell her about how I remember my own study books being astronomically expensive but how I really loved buying them all the same. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of a new book even though I remember that some of them were never opened.
“My dad was the same with records,” I tell her. “He used to buy them constantly and, when he died, we found quite a number still wrapped in the cellophane, unopened and unplayed?”
She smiles but doesn’t seem particularly surprised. “I’m a bit like that with stationary,” she says.
“There was a guy called Simon that Mum was at university with. He used to go to the campus bookshop and only buy books which felt satisfying when he “swished” them between finger and thumb next to his ear. If he liked how they felt, he bought them.” I tell her.
The books and records here are all serving a purpose, but not necessarily the one which was intended or required. If I’d been having this conversation with Martin, my long-time friend in recovery, we’d be talking about drink or drugs playing a similar role. Distraction from something else or simply a filling of a space which is otherwise too uncomfortable to leave open.
Martin’s destructive strategy was drink but mine has variously been books, or music, or guitars and, in years past, unsuitable relationships. I was just doing the same thing, trying to fill an emotional hole with something the wrong size which didn’t fit there.
The conversation with my daughter is echoed through dinner on Friday evening when my son and his girlfriend are telling me about her housemate at Uni who has returned to a bad relationship for the third time.
“Does she tend to end it or does he?” I ask.
“He does, then he changes his mind and she comes running,” they tell me.
I’m familiar with the feeling which motivates such behaviour. It’s pain, and our unwillingness to experience it.
If I think back across my life there have been too many times when I was offered the opportunity of being free from pain in exchange for a willingness to walk straight through it, however hard it brought me down while I did so. But instead, I bought books or guitars, or dated the wrong women, and pushed it away and prolonged it.
Mostly Martin drank vodka.
It’s not a question of trying to avoid the problems, it’s much more having the courage and maturity to find the right solutions, even when they’re terribly uncomfortable.
Beth is flicking through a huge textbook about the brain with elaborate diagrams you can colour in to cement your learning. She smiles at me, closes it and holds it close to her ear, “swishing” it to see how satisfying it feels.
“Don’t make your choices like that,” I tell her, “Simon, the guy who did the swishing, dropped out in year two and went home.”
“I’m not surprised,” she replies, “I expect he had all the wrong textbooks.”