The Funny Thing About Depression and Reading

photographing-landscapes-6eAfter I’ve read a sentence six times and fail to retain anything I’ve read within the last five minutes, I think I know what’s wrong. I’ll tell myself that I’m tired. The book isn’t interesting. I’ll pick it up another time. Just keep reading. You just don’t feel like reading. Just wait. It’ll get better!

These reading dry spells can last for weeks and sometimes even months for me. Most readers have run into this at least once or twice, but with Depression, it can potentially annihilate all your interests and love for books.

The thing is most professionals will suggest reading books. It’s one of the many, many, MANY methods in countering the effects of Depression. I haven’t tried them all, but I know from experience, reading and depression do not mix. It’s like breeding a porcupine with a sheep and creating this seemingly soft but prickly thing. There’s never been a time when a book pulled me out of one of my Lows. Reading brings comfort and lets my mind actively engage with something. As long as I can concentrate, can feel something, and can stay in the present long enough to visualize the story anyway. Depression is a vacuum that mercilessly cleans you out. It removes the parts that make you who you are, so it makes sense why it can be hard for me.

It can be frustrating to people looking at someone with Depression from the outside. It might be tempting to say ‘cheer up’ or even advise that person take some Advil (oh how I wish I were kidding about that last part.) It’s more complicated than that and having to explain the reasons can turn into a cornucopia of pervasiveness and sound like half-ass excuses for laziness. As much attention as the mental disorder has received lately, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about mental illnesses, except that there’s no cure, just methods on how to manage it. Reading just sadly isn’t one of them for me. How I wish a stack of books could be my anti-depressants when it’s a source of uplifting energy for others. Interestingly enough, books contain some of the most heartbreaking, dispiriting material imaginable.

Goodreads has a list dedicated to the most depressing books of all time starting with The Diary of a Young Girl. They’re not wrong though, with characters such as Jay Gatsby and Edna Pontellier as the poster models of repressed adults. A copious amount of books are saturated with brooding and volatile themes along with dismaying and tragic content. It’s almost impossible to find a book that doesn’t expose us to at least some traumatic experience involving sexual abuse, rape, alcohol/drug addiction, molestation, murder, disability, cancer, bigotry, racism, suicide, etc. So why do we continue to read these books if they’re only filled with joyless and heartbreaking moments? Because they’re good for us.

Books, mainly literary fiction, evoke tangible responses and affects how we emphasize with our other fellow human beings. We’re able to discern another person’s pain, internalize it, and grow as people. It’s the contradictory and hopeless, tragic stories that have engendered timeless classics that are profound and memorable. Maybe not the most pleasant of truths (when is it ever), but all of us have suffered at one point and are able to relate to another because of our pain. Books are bulky, accessible, jacket wearing doses of good-for-you humanity.

As I learned especially after being diagnosed with Depression, there are steps that I can do to avoid triggering a Low. This involves reading regularly and maintaining a routine. I realize how contradicting this may sound, but it’s actually not. Reading does not trigger Lows; it clearly does the opposite. I’m doing something I enjoy. Reading is a form of self-care for me.

When I was in college earning my English degree, I used to have to read an average of six to eight books a week and then have to write a mature, critical argumentative paper praying that I wouldn’t accidentally mix up one miserable guy encumbered by his gynophobia from another (a summation of American Literature). What I remember most about this time was not the late night papers or the books I read but the overwhelming, global mental breakdowns. I really thought the only way to survive college was to suck it up and keep going because everyone else seemed well-adjusted. If they could do it, so could I. The crippling Lows and panic attacks were just something I thought would go away on their own. I thought I would grow out of them. Classic self-denial-twenty-three-year-old me.

Looking back, I was missing balance and neglecting myself. It’s important to take time for yourself—just don’t go crazy and realize you just spent the entire day binging on that new TV show or shopping for all the pretty clothes you want to buy (I’m frugal.) Workaholics like me are terrible at taking breaks. We wear ourselves down like a pair of shoes. And, I admit, I still struggle in taking time for myself, as I sometimes interpret not working as ‘wasting time,’ when it’s not.  While doing something consistently keeps me in a check, and yes, happy, it’s still good to unwind with something else.

Before when I was Depressed and suffering Lows, I wouldn’t do anything. I’d wait for the Low to pass like a Cold. I would try and just read when, in actuality, I was just sitting in my room with the curtains shut and becoming a paperweight. A change in environment and activity ends up being the best thing for me to do, even though, I admit, forcing myself outside and interacting with other people feels like the total opposite of what you want to do with every bone in your body pretending like they’re crystallizing.

The brain is funny like that, and as I grow older and “wiser,” I’m coming to terms with mine and the things I have to do to be mentally healthy. If I want to do things I love, such as reading, I have to put the book aside once and while, go out, not be a hermit, socialize, interact with people, say more than two sentences, play with my dog (it’s an activity!), smile at someone, hold open the door, maybe eat a salad, walk or run, take a hot bath, write, write more, and sleep because the best part of books is that they’ll wait for you until you’re ready.

NoteI’m not a doctor, a therapist, or any kind of expert. You’ll find no prestigious degree noted in my fancy bio. If you or someone else you know is suffering with Depression, Anxiety, trauma and mental illness, please seek professional help. They know what they’re doing and can help make your life suck significantly less. I waited longer than I should have, and as a result, suffered to the point where my issues turned critical. Don’t do that to yourself. Talk with medical professionals in your area and learn what your options are. And I realize that therapy can be stupidly expensive, so find options that work with you. Some clinics offer sliding scale fees making therapy affordable and less likely to trigger financial stress. Make sure to find someone you’re comfortable with, and if you’re on medication, find the right balance, which may not happen right away. This may take some experimenting, but it’s worth it. Your first time with a therapist might be scary and new, but you will definitely reap the benefits as long as you take it seriously. This is about you and your health. Your pain is just as real as any physical one. Okay. I’m done with the public service announcement.

4 thoughts on “The Funny Thing About Depression and Reading

  1. I had difficulty reading much when I was much more depressed than I am now. Somehow, it saps the motivation and attention span. Reading didn’t feel as necessary to my survival as just getting through a tough day.

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    • That’s an interesting point too, Hope and “necessary to [your] survival” is accurate and well put. It does seem when I hit that point, I used to go into survival mode and essentially live off the bare minimum in hopes of curbing the Low somehow thinking that was the only out. It usually made me Lows drag out longer and worse. Weird how that works.

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