I never know how to start a discussion on mental health. Do you jump right in? Talk about your personal experience with it? Explain the scientific intricacies?
I know this is fairly out of the norm for my blog, I usually focus on reviews, but the last few weeks have left me thinking about how books and my brain have been working together. I also finally got around to listening to Anne Bogel’s episode of What Should I Read Next that included a guest who struggled from anxiety, and found solace in books. Hello, my brethren!
I have General Anxiety Disorder, I was diagnosed while seeing a therapist during my last year of undergrad. It should have been apparent after the eight million red flags that popped up starting about 8 years ago. A lot of things were apparent long before I acknowledged them. C’est la vie. It manifested itself as performance anxiety, and eventually turned into a full fledged monster that crept into various parts of my life.
Anxiety for me is essentially a fear of the unknown multiplied times 100 (it effects everyone differently). Because of this, my mind thrives on control and rituals, the ability to ensure the outcome. When I lose control or my routine changes, I become unsettled. It results in anything from chronic upset stomach to a full anxiety attack. Something as simple as taking a different route to work can be unsettling. What if it takes me longer then it normally does? What if something I didn’t plan for obstructs my path and I’m late? I leave the house at the exact time everyday, and it’s usually plenty of time to arrive to my destination. On the days I work at 2pm, I leave at 1:32pm. If I leave at 1:35, I power walk in an effort to make up the lost 3 minutes. The irony is that I live three blocks from work, and arrive with plenty of time to spare. I could theoretically leave at 1:45 and be fine. But I don’t. I can’t. As soon as the clock hits 1:33, I panic. I once made Cody continue his conversation to me via text, because I needed to leave and he was still talking as I was walking out the door. I refused to wait and hear him finish, because the thought of leaving late made me tense up.
The compulsions and the feelings of dread are very real. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve laid awake at night thinking that maybe we didn’t lock the door before we went to bed. And it’s not just a “eh I probably forgot, let me just go double check”, it’s a “YOU NEED TO LOCK THE DOOR. CODY PROBABLY DID IT WHEN HE GOT HOME, BUT MAYBE HE DIDN’T. YOU NEED TO GO CHECK IMMEDIATELY. THIS COULD BE THE NIGHT SOMEONE DECIDES TO BREAK INTO YOUR HOUSE AND YOU LEFT THE DOOR WIDE OPEN FOR THEM. GO CHECK. RIGHT NOW. LOCK THE INNER DOOR TOO. CHECK THE BACKDOOR. WHAT IF THEY BREAK IN AND TRY TO KILL YOU AND CODY? THEY COULD HAVE GUNS. YOU DIDN’T LOCK THE DOOR.”
And it all sounds so ridiculous. But it’s there, and it’s awful.
I have compulsions but also an inability to focus. I organize and plan everything, but I can’t even focus on a ‘To Do’ list. The moment I start one task, I begin to worry about the other tasks, and I jump around from one to the other (see: how I clean my house). Deviation from my plan causes me anxiety in turn, so there’s no real escape. Anxiety can be absolutely debilitating. And since we’re being very real here, I cry A LOT and I haven’t driven a car in…years (car rides on highways and interstates is a HUGE trigger for me). That’s what anxiety does. There are whole days where the thought of leaving my house is terrifying.
But you know what isn’t terrifying? Books. Ever constant and consistent books. The beauty of literature is that it doesn’t change, it has a routine. No matter how many times I read Harry Potter, he’s always going to defeat Voldemort (spoiler alert). Books are a very real, very tangible form of comfort and solace. I often hear from other readers that they love bringing a book with them wherever they go. You never know when you’ll be stuck somewhere with nothing to do. I bring books everywhere because I can hide between the pages in an overwhelming situation. The first few times I took the city bus, I pretended to read. My mind was on fifteen other things: how to pull the cord, what if I miss my stop, what time will I arrive, what time do I need to catch the bus home…but holding a book and acting as if I wasn’t bothered kept me grounded enough to calmly get through the ride and get off at my stop. Sometimes looking calm on the outside is enough to get me through.
Another thing I have is a designated reading time each day. No matter what else happens all day, I require myself to read for at least thirty minutes before I go to bed. It not only creates a routine, but it offers my mind a chance to relax and focus only on the book. If the book isn’t that great, my mind can start to wander. But if the book is one I’m heavily invested in, it becomes the equivalent of a hot bubble bath for my brain. With occasional bouts of insomnia and tension, reading before bed is a great way to ease into sleep.
The hardest thing is when I encounter a book that makes me anxious. Thankfully they are few and far between. Fierce Kingdom is a great example. Public shootings are one of those triggers that sits in the back of my mind and festers. Once again, since we’re being real here: I have a very hard time in public places with large crowds. The shooting in Aurora, Colorado sparked a huge fear I didn’t know I had. I’m embarrassed to say that I still have a very difficult time relaxing in a movie theater. I’ve spent entire movies tensed up and checking the exits repeatedly, watching every person who walks into the theater (I don’t go to midnight premieres anymore, we only go to matinees where crowds are small). I picked up Fierce Kingdom without realizing it was about a shooting. I struggled to read the book. I don’t watch shows or movies centered around public shootings and terrorist attacks, so trying to read a book about the same topic was crippling. And it saddens me because I know that wasn’t the author’s intention. She just wanted to write a thriller about a topical subject.
In high school and college, I set out to read the BBC’s top 100 classic novels. I can only assume I tortured myself to give myself a pat on the back for reading more classic novels then other people. Now’adays, I read only what I want to read. I read fantasy and science fiction, and I avoid boring run of the mill contemporary fiction (and thrillers about shootings). Reading is one of the few comforts in my life, so why would I force myself to read things I don’t like or that makes me anxious? Life is too short to not read what you want to. If you DNF a book, you DNF it. That book just wasn’t for you. Your mental health is important, and some times combatting it just means giving yourself that thirty minutes before bed with a book you’d theoretically feel guilty reading (but you shouldn’t, because you should read what you want).
I’m not one to be giving advice (because I’m usually the one needing it), but please remember, you gotta do you. Read your books, take your time, do yo thang. This has turned into a long rambling jumble of words, so I leave you with this: just be real, be honest, be okay with having bad days and do not be okay with reading bad books. You’re gonna get overwhelmed, you’re going to want to hide, and that is a’okay. Just make sure to come out eventually and help yourself, even if that means reading the YA fantasy novels written for 12 year olds and you’re 26. We all struggle with mental health, even if you’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s important, and you have to do you, cope how you need to cope, and find ways to make it better.
And with that, we return to our regularly scheduled book reviews.