This is the prologue for Desiree-Anne Martin’s forthcoming memoir.
Words are my drug of choice.
They are my refuge; they are my panacea. They are the antidote to the poison that runs through every artery and vein of the anatomy of my childhood. Long before the hastily inhaled cigarettes that burned my throat during second break, half-hiding in between the crumbling headstones of the long-forgotten brides of Jesus up at the small convent cemetery. Long before the bottles of Bioplus mixed in cups of too-strong coffee that kept my heavy eyelids from drooping while I poured over mind-numbing high-school calculus equations and heady historical facts about dead people and disremembered places. Long before the back-end of the toothbrush connected with my epiglottis forcing the acidic, bilious contents of my stomach to lurch out of my mouth and leave telltale splatters across the toilet bowl. Long before the shiny blister packs of slimming tablets that would make my heart race and jaw tremble and makes me rub my hungry, concave belly with reticent glee. Long before that first sip of cheap, red wine ran into my parched veins and quenched every thirsty cell of my body until it felt like I had come home at last. Long before I submerged myself in the unbearable heat of that scorching bathwater over and over again to relieve the unbearable pain of what lay trapped within. Long before the codeine daydreams and the benzo comas. Long before the endless stream of men and women that filled my mouth, my cunt, that filled any void that existed. Long before LSD made my unconscious bleed all over my reality. Long before the dizzying nights of delirious dancing spurred on by the piles of cocaine I snorted up my raw nostrils and even before the chemical hazy halcyon Ecstasy-laced weekends where I fell in love with everything and everyone except myself; and long before the crack pipe burned my bottom lip and pinned me up against the wall, scrambling for an exit route; and yes, long before the needle pricked my flesh and sent that noxious, precious elixir straight to my orphaned soul and cradled it and made it whole. Long before all of that, there were words.
I remember smuggling a book into the toilet on a Sunday afternoon during my designated naptime when I was four years old. I already had problems sleeping when I was supposed to. I was teaching myself to read, having stolen my older brother’s Kathy and Mark readers from his brown boxy school case. Kathy has a bright red dress and milky white skin framed by hair cut in a severe brown bob that never moves no matter how much she was urged by Mark to: “Run, Kathy, run!” Mark also runs a lot, in his short blue shorts and knee-high socks accompanied everywhere by their dog, Spot. They run everywhere, they frequently sit on the mat, they ride on the bus to the City with their Mum who wears a smart green hat and a coat, and once they drive in the car with their Dad who also wears a hat which he takes off every evening when he comes home from work.
I recall sitting on that cold tiled toilet floor, the avocado green and white-patterned tiles – tracing the words with my index finger and matching them to the garishly coloured illustrations of a smug, dawdling tortoise and an arrogant, reckless hare. I remember my frustration at not being able to decipher some of the words. I wanted to know them. I needed to know what happened. I remember the look on my mother’s face as it appeared at the crack of the open door: surprise, then anger and disappointment. I felt ashamed, found out. I instinctively hid my book behind my back. I hid my words. Like I would hide everything else that would come after.
And later I would achieve small literary victories: having stared for what seemed like an eternity at a large ornate framed black-and-white photograph of my mother on her wedding day that rested on the white melamine TV unit – trying and failing to make sense of the words printed beneath the photo – one day the phonetically pieced together “VAN KALKER P-A-H-O-T-A-G-R-A-P-E-E-H-Y-A-H” suddenly and magically made sense and I yelled at the top of my childish voice, much as I imagined Archimedes proclaimed, “Eureka!”, “PHOTOGRAPHY!” I marched triumphantly around the house repeating the newly discovered word over and over again, “Photography! Photography! PHOTOGRAPHY!” This made no sense to any of my family members, but I didn’t care to explain it. The word, the unearthed treasure, the reconstructed jewel, was mine.
When my brother was in Standard One and I was in Sub A (which would later come to be known as Grade 3 and Grade 1 respectively), he would climb into the car after school bemoaning the fact that he had to learn a four stanza poem about seashells on the sandy seashore by the end of that week. I had it memorized and could recite it by the end of the 20 minute drive home.
Once I could read confidently, I consumed books, in fact, all reading matter I could get my hands on. I inhaled words, chewing and digesting them greedily at any given opportunity. Blurry-eyed and bent over my runny porridge, during car rides despite my stomach swirling and my head pounding from carsickness, propped up in my bed long after the 8 o’ clock TV news jingle had signaled that it was time for my brother and I to go to sleep, during school holidays where I would scour over prescribed set work books and finish them long before the academic year even began, anywhere and everywhere, I wrapped words around me like a steely suit of armour.
I would write too. I started my first “Secret Diary” at age 9, inspired by The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and I would journal well into my late twenties and again in my thirties. I would religiously scribble my one-dimensional observations and fickle feelings down onto paper in my oft-criticized, untidy script. I would use the diaries as a tool of self-expression, but also as a tool of blatant manipulation, leaving them open on certain pages in strategically placed locales for my prying mother to find if I wanted to communicate something that I was too afraid to do directly. Like asking for my first bra.
Words became my guaranteed escape from the lies and the secrets, from the trauma and the terror. I found solace in the fantastical worlds that books offered and the inviting landscapes that my imagination conjured from the dry, sweet-scented pages.
Later I found refuge in the words of annotated scripts and dense screenplays. Words that had a transformative effect on my domain, and even more so on my identity. In drama class at school, at the theatre school that I secretly auditioned for and gained acceptance into, I could morph into anything, anyone. Just, please dear God, anyone that wasn’t me. I could take myself away from my reality and slip into any space and time, just by uttering a few appropriated lines or manipulating my larynx and changing my accent. I hid behind the safety of others’ words because mine always seemed insufficient or often entirely absent.
Words held unimaginable power. Words, when pieced together in a certain manner, exerted great influence. I became adept at weaving stories, a mixture of fabrications and quasi-truths, to cover up the reality of how utterly ruined I felt inside. I learnt early on that I was a remarkably convincing liar and that deception slipped off my forked tongue easily and without reason or apparent provocation. I lived in a constant state of semi-realism, blending fantasy with reality and spinning it around myself like a comforting cocoon. I used anything, any form of control, to not feel the excruciating pain of the truth.
But I am done with deceit. Lies hold no more allure for me. Laurie Penny, feminist commentator and author wrote, “All I’ve ever wanted to do with writing is to move the world in small ways with words,” and that is the sum total of my most humble hope. That I find my words again and that they form my truth and that truth is steadfast and undeniable.
That my words connect with another and move them to tell their truth.
And that words will, somehow, begin to heal what has been broken.