How My Mental Health Has Affected My Reading
Even though I was feeling sick and going through a fatigue spike yesterday, I’m feeling bad for having spent my time binge-watching Pose on Netflix rather than reading or writing.
Reading About Reading
This private ritual of reading about reading is habitual and it’s something that I hope will continue to shift as I heal. I’ve been down on myself for not reading enough and watching too much tv for a long time.
Right before New Year’s Eve, I virtually gathered with some friends and we shared our intentions for the New Year. One of my friends shared that she wants to get rid of her big newspaper pile. It sounds trite, but the weight of a backlog of New York Times Sunday papers is substantial.
My Reading Habits, My Struggle
I’m not sure what’s worse — the chronic imbalance of reading and then not reading, watching too much tv, or the polarizing feeling that I must either read urgently to be a better person or defeatedly accept who I am and get over it.
I realize that reading habits are entirely individual, but I consistently feel that I don’t read enough to match my interests and ambitions.
Beyond the noise, this self-destructive cycle steals my joy of reading and deprives me of fresh thoughts for writing.
For most of my childhood, I was a huge reader. I would study over the book catalogs we got in school, and then binge-read immediately upon their fulfillment. I loved Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and other young adult authors.
In elementary school, we used to sneak around books that our library refused to stock. The prize catch was a contraband copy of Judy Blume’s adult novel “Wifey,” which my friends and I dogeared, savoring her naughty, forbidden chronicles of marital affairs.
By my early teens, I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, and others.
When I Stopped Reading
Somewhere along the line though, I stopped. My father always told me not to watch too much tv, that it would rot my brain. Either in defiance of that, in reaction to budding brain fog, depression, and other mental health challenges, or simply because it was easier and no one stopped me, I started watching tv for hours instead. I spent much of my pre-college years watching all weekend, alone, turning it off only to sleep.
I recently saw the first episode of “Queens Gambit” (SPOILER ALERT). Beth Harmon breaks into her orphanage’s pharmacy and gobbles down fistfuls of pills and it reminded me of what I can do with tv when given the license. In fact, around the time that I plugged in permanently, one of my friends, a former contraband reading buddy, started doing drugs.
Obviously, tv was less destructive, but it’s still addictive.
Over the years, I maintained a habit of reading myself to sleep. But somehow despite my self-judgment, tv remained my baseline for relaxation while reading books became a thing I should do rather than an easy habit.
Self Worth and Compassion Had a Lot to Do With It
I go through cycles where I aim to do it more and even succeed. I clear the decks, but either become impatient with my chosen book or give up reading habitually when a particular book is done. I might criticize my book choice. Sometimes I read too many things at once and get lost in what I’m reading or why I’m reading it.
Everyone seems to read better things than me — cooler, edgier, more classic. They know more than me. When I get like that, everyone just seems better than me, period.
I’ve learned to talk myself out of this destructive state of mind, but it used to be worse. When people referenced things I didn’t know, it would send me on a downward spiral, questioning my self-worth and what I did with my time.
Once in my early 20’s when I was a UN tour guide, a colleague referenced Oslo and I didn’t know where it was. I went and cried secretly in the bathroom, I felt like such a dumb American.
Shortly thereafter, I bought the geography board game, “Where in the World?, which I still have today.
So, rather than weightier literature or social commentary, for most of my life, I’ve read a steady diet of self-help, partly due to episodes like the above. I still do like reading weightier things, but something I don’t know can trip me up and make it hard for me to continue because I feel bad about myself and get distracted.
In this respect, the Internet is a godsend. With some discipline, I can quickly look up anything I don’t know, bookmark it for further examination, and continue back along my original route.
Through all this, I managed to get through graduate school and have a relatively decent career that relied on reading and writing, despite my troubled relationship with intellectual pursuits. Around graduate school, though, I struggled increasingly with self-confidence and it showed.
For one thing, I didn’t consistently read the news, even though I was studying public and international affairs. I was often vocal anyway, sometimes just to stay awake, and often because I didn’t have the discipline to focus until my questions were answered. I felt compelled to ask them to help me keep up with the class.
Still, I Felt Shame About Not Being Smart Enough
On one particular occasion, either during economics or statistics, we were discussing the current government shutdown and I said something so obvious and repetitive, that there was a noticeable, collective groan. I still feel ashamed recounting this.
Years later, at an alumni- gathering, some of those same colleagues obviously snubbed me over cocktails. They are by and large now in more prominent, public positions than I may ever assume, and that’s just how it is.
I still feel their disdain but they’re not here in my life, reading with me or seeking to craft a writing-voice, or continuing to heal from the mental and physical issues that have dogged me since the days of Beverly Cleary.
So, I seek to forgive their logical, albeit harsh behavior toward me at the time. Likewise, I seek to forgive myself the pain of having an intellectual veneer that’s marred by the impostor syndrome, feeling that I can never meet my own standards with my own actions.
What I know now that I didn’t then, is that the brain fog and depression that disrupted my reading habit in my teens are the missing pieces from my story. One that professional success or successful people, however they’re defined, will never see and yet one with which I live every day.
Reclaiming My 50’s: Healing and Intuitive Reading
Now, in my 50’s, I’ve declared this to be my era of healing. Having bounced around a handful of interesting careers that I never fully completed because I never felt well enough to do so, I’ve landed here, taking a break from working for money and determined to make the best of it.
I’m carving out space to claim the birthright of feeling comfortable enough in my skin to pursue life passionately. That means learning to read more intuitively, by deliberately choosing what I want and when I want it, in a way that supports my interests and wellbeing.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling fatigued, down, or otherwise incapacitated, that still means watching quality tv or resting unapologetically. And at other times, it means taking an ambitious dive into more substantial content that I uninhibitedly self-select. I can read a blog post about how to be well-read, and pick a book a year in that direction if I want. Or, I might still end up watching the movie version.
In any event, this year, I’ve committed to reclaiming the child who uninhibitedly waited for her book catalogs and devoured her books with pleasure when they finally arrived. Whatever the medium, I seek to reclaim joy and self-confidence, and I think that’s a great next step regardless of the outcome.