Turned out that a weekend of mental health was not enough for me. I needed just one more day. I’m starting to suspect that this sudden need for R&R had a lot to do with the book I was reading, which I have mentioned once already: The Passage, by Justin Cronin. It’s definitely not for everyone, but for someone who loves post-apocalyptic fiction, a la Stephen King’s The Stand or McCormac’s The Road, this was pure dystopian heaven, deliciously horrifying and at the same time uplifting.

Plus it’s really long (800 pages, or so I’m told by those who don’t have a Kindle), which makes it even better. I’m a fast reader — Gabe says I don’t just read books, I inhale them — so good books tend to go by far too quickly. It’s rare that I find a book that can both hold my rapt attention and also withstand it for longer than a few days.

When I do find such a book, it’s almost like I’m having an affair. It disrupts all of my routines: sleep, gym, work. When I’m not reading the book, I’m thinking about it, and desperately want to finish whatever it is I’m doing so that I read some more. I leave social engagements early so that I can go home and read. I sneak in quick trysts on my lunch break, justifying them to myself by saying, “Oh, I’ll work more later.” Or tomorrow, or whenever I’m finally done with this book that is draining my life force just like one of the scary as hell vampires it so chillingly describes.

All week, I’ve been frantically trying to get my work and preparations for our visitors done so that I could carve out a chunk of time to read in the afternoon before Gabe gets home, or in the evening while he’s watching TV. I knew that if I didn’t finish it before our company starts arriving, I would be sneaking off while we were visiting castles in Sintra, catching a few lines here, a few lines there. And that would not do. There’s nothing I hate more than breaking up the end of a really good book. No, I would not adulterate my reading experience in that way. (Not to mention my family experience, of course…!)

Yesterday, I cleaned our flat in the morning, so I did accomplish something with the day. Afterward, as I was getting ready to go to the gym, I realized that I had no desire whatsoever to go lift weights. As usual, all I wanted to do was read my book, especially because  I knew I could finish it that afternoon and finally resume my normal life again.

Now, you have to understand: my workouts are sacrosanct. I hardly ever miss a gym day, if only because it gives me an excuse to get out of the house. Normally, this would have been a pretty big deal. But yesterday, without giving it a second thought, I happily curled back up in my chair and hit power on my Kindle. I was finally able to read through til the end, blissfully uninterrupted.

When I finished, I felt the inevitable sadness that comes when leaving a good book behind, but also an immense relief. Finally, this tome would relinquish its hold on me! Or so I thought. I went to meet Gabe for dinner and a movie, but I found myself thinking about the book and its characters throughout what turned out to be a terrible film experience. When I got home, I realized all over again that I was done, I had nothing waiting for me on my Kindle, and oh, I was sad. It was all I could do to keep myself from starting the book all over again.

I don’t think I’ve been like that with a book since I was a teenager, when I read and reread Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series over and over again. Or perhaps (yes I admit it) Diana Gabaldon’s epic works when I was in grad school. What can I say, I needed pure escapism then more than ever.

Throughout my life, I’ve always been happiest when I was lost in a book — sometimes to my socially inept chagrin. Ever since my mom read us the Lord of the Rings trilogy before I turned ten, books have been my favorite form of entertainment and escape. Whenever adolescence proved too much for me, I turned to McCaffrey’s world of dragons, which was always much more exciting and glamorous than my own. Later, in college and even in grad school, I continued to read as much as I could, including yes, Diana Gabaldon. Whenever I came home on vacation, I immediately ensconced myself on a couch with a book for the entire time allotted to me.

While I read, I heal. By looking away from that which has been weighing on me, I give my mind the space it needs to process. When I emerge at last, bleary-eyed and fuzzy, the real world always seems more manageable, if slightly more mundane.

So were my mental health days this week an excuse to read my book? Or was the book an excuse for me to take mental health days? Perhaps both. Lately I have really begun to feel the strain of a year’s travel, of ten months spent outside my comfort zone, of solitude and foreign language and strange food. I have enjoyed every minute of it, and have grown in ways I wouldn’t have imagined a year ago.

The truth is though, I am tired. I am ready to go home, where I don’t have to constantly reinforce my boundaries, where I know the unspoken patterns of society, where the rules and the people and the language all make sense because they are my own.

I am becoming increasingly aware of my travel weariness as we enter the homestretch: a little over five weeks til we leave Lisbon, and seven til home. Thirty-seven days left in our adopted city. That’s it! Luckily, I think my fictional retreat this week has now prepared me to better enjoy the real world for the time that remains to us abroad. Good thing, too, as I know that time is going to fly. I will turn the page, and boom — we’ll be on to the next chapter. Funny how that happens.

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