How Writing Frees Us to Free Others
By Christa Avampato
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” ~Rumi
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~Leonard Cohen
These two quotes gave me the title for my young adult book, Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters. But what the title doesn’t tell you is that there was a long and winding road, often painful and treacherous, that brought me to Emerson. For me, she’s not just a character derived from my imagination. She is the manifestation of a journey that showed me that we are stronger, braver, and more courageous than any of us can ever imagine. To me, she is the very definition of life.
In the five years leading up to when I first put pen to paper to write her story, I had been struggling with the effects of PTSD. On September 5, 2009, one of my neighbors in New York City blew up her gas stove. She had been cooking, oil spilled, and rather than shut off the gas, she just ran out of the building. I was in my apartment on the fourth floor. I had just gotten out of the shower and noticed that radiator in my kitchen was hot and making a ticking sound. I looked down at the floor around the radiator and saw the tiles heaving up and down. Something was terribly wrong, but I didn’t know what. I grabbed my keys (which now seems completely futile) and went out of my apartment to knock on my neighbor’s door downstairs. They had been doing construction on that apartment and I thought that may be causing the tile and radiator issue. I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
The second I walked out of my apartment, I was consumed by an unending cloud of black smoke. Noxious and heavy, it felt oily on my skin and in my lungs. All I could think about was the old Dick Van Dyke commercial about stop, drop, and roll. I crouched down as low as I could and literally ran for my life, scrambling down three flights of stairs and out the front door of the building. I never felt my feet hit the stairs; it felt as if I was carried. I would later learn that eventually the fire in that first-floor apartment became so hot that it burned the door off its hinges and spilled into the hallway that I used to get out of the building. Had I waited even a few minutes longer, I would have run right into the flames.
I remember getting to the sidewalk and looking back at the building feeling completely helpless. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. The owner of the barber shop next door offered to let me use his restroom. I didn’t know why he was offering that and had to be persuaded to go with him. When I looked in the mirror in the bathroom, I understood why he offered to let me use it. My face was covered in soot, as was my hair, my legs, and my arms. It hadn’t even registered. Eight years later, I can still close my eyes and fill my nose with that smell as if I’m right back in that building.
Though the flames never reached my apartment, I would lose nearly everything I owned to smoke damage, save for a few boxes that were sealed and stuffed into the back of a closet. I had just moved into the apartment three weeks before the fire.
I had a good job, good friends, and enough savings to move into a new apartment a week later thanks to a referral from a friend who read about my fire on Facebook. Right after the fire, I stayed at a friend’s place in Queens for a week while she was out-of-town. They were my first and second angels in this experience. I arrived at my new apartment with a borrowed air mattress and two plastic CVS bags of belongings that I salvaged once carpenters reinforced the stairs of my old building and I could get back into my apartment for about an hour with the insurance company. Nine months before my fire, I had purchased renter’s insurance for the first time in my life because a friend of a co-worker of mine had lost all of her belongings in a fire. After that incident, that co-worker insisted I get renter’s insurance and sat at my desk with me as I purchased it. He was the third of my many angels in this experience.
A few weeks after my fire, I found myself sitting on the sidewalk crying. I didn’t remember how I got there or where I was going. A man came up to me, touched my shoulder and asked if I was okay. I just stared at him blankly and said, “I don’t know.” That was the truth. I felt like I was falling into madness and had no idea how to catch myself. I told a friend about this incident, but then in the next breath insisted I was fine. He insisted I go to his therapist, Brian, at least once, because though I was strong I was clearly not fine. He was my fourth angel. And Brian, who I primarily first went to see just to make my friend happy, was my fifth angel.
Over the next three years, Brian and I would uncover many incidents of trauma that I had been harboring from the time I was a small child. I had driven them way down into my gut, hoping to bury them. Those many traumas from my childhood manifested as insomnia, intense anxiety, fear, and crippling self-doubt. I hid them all, and hid them so well that even my very closest friends had no idea how tormented I was. I was, by all accounts, an exceptional actress.
But eventually, every actress leaves the stage. In my case, the stage was burned out from under me, literally and figuratively. I was drowning and thought I had nothing to cling to. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that in my darkest moments, I wondered if this whole thing called life was really worth it. On one particularly frightening night, I had a terrible nightmare that I had decided to dive right off the roof of my building. I woke with a start as I hit the pavement in my dream. When I sat up in bed, the moon shone so brightly that it was almost blinding. I went to my window and saw the silhouettes of the water towers in the distance. They reminded me of soldiers, standing guard, protecting me from myself. In that moment, the seed of Emerson Page was planted in my imagination. The moon and those water towers brought her to me.
What I didn’t know then, what I couldn’t possibly know, is that what seemed like the worst day of my life would turn out to be the best. The day that looked to everyone, myself included, like the day on which I lost everything was actually the day on which I gained everything. Working with Brian, I came home to myself, in my own skin, after wandering around in the world lost, alone, and afraid. Brian helped me to find and stand in my own light, even in my darkest hours. A wizard, he helped me to create peace in a world in which I never thought I’d find it. And it has endured.
I began to sketch the outline of Emerson’s story over the five years after my fire. Her story will be published on November 1, 2017, exactly three years after I started to write the prose that would eventually become my book. Emerson struggles with the effects of PTSD from the loss of her mother and the insecurity so inherent in our teenage years as we come of age. Her father, Oliver, and family friend, Samuel, are reeling from grief caused by the loss of loved ones. Her friend, Truman, struggles with depression after having aged out of the foster care system. My message in the constant thread of mental health issues throughout the book is to show that we all struggle at some point with these afflictions. They are very much a part of life, as much as joy and love and friendship. We will all eventually hit rough waters, and yet, we will hide it from people. We will pretend we’re fine, as I did for so many years, because we have our pride and because we refuse to be the person who brings other people down with our troubles. The stigma of mental illness is alive and well, especially among our young people, and part of my reason for writing this book is to help all who read it to feel less alone. To have hope. To have faith. I see you. I hear you. I feel your pain as real as I feel my own.
And, it doesn’t end there. I stand before you, my book stands before you, as an unfailing reminder that if you are willing to do the hard work of recognizing your wounds with the help of professionals like Brian, if you will stand up and speak your truth, even if your voice shakes and sputters, if you will honor the cracks in you rather than trying to spackle them shut, there is so much light that awaits you. That light will flood your mind and heart and hands in a way that you never imagined possible. That light, however small, lives in you now. Your job, your only job, is to fan it into a flame that the whole world can see through the masterpiece that is your life. You matter. Your story matters. It matters so damn much.
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote a passage that speaks loudly to me every day:
“Toni Morrison said, “The function of freedom is to free someone else,” and if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else.”
After my fire, I freed myself. From guilt and shame and regret and disappointment, and the million other traumas of everyday life that break us down. My fire broke me down, completely. It stripped me bare so that I could see what I was made of at my core. And that was the beginning of everything.
When you hold my book in your hands, that’s a piece of my soul. It’s the piece that not only survived that fire and the traumas that came before it, but the piece that learned how to thrive in their aftermath. I wrote it for you. I wanted you to know my story, and Emerson’s story, so that you would feel free to write yours. And I hope you will because I can’t wait to read it.