On Reading When You’re Depressed

Amanda Diehl has written a good feature article over at Book Riot on reading with depression.  In it, she asks for advice on how to read and how to cope with our lives when we’re under such stress.

Like Ms. Diehl, I’ve never been able to read very much in a depressed state, but I can say, for what it’s worth, that reading has helped me carry on through some very turbulent, emotional times.

Over half a lifetime ago, I was in love with a woman who did not love me.  I asked her to marry me, but she married someone else.  The rejection spun me into a serious depression, the immediate effects of which lasted a full year.  In those months, nothing brought me happiness.  I had no taste for food or the other things that I had previously enjoyed.  I cried everywhere I went:  in the shower; in the hallways of the university where I taught; in my soul at night, where even my tears could not reach.  It was a wonder that I could function at all, and teach my students, who were unaware of what was going on.

My family was of no help.  They did not know–could not know–how crushing the blow was to my self-esteem.

I did find some consolation in books, but it took several years.  What happened in my case–what has to happen, I think, in most cases for people to begin to recover–is that I found words that expressed the kind of depression I was feeling, and words that allowed me, finally, to accept the mercy I had wanted to give myself after being such a fool.

First, it was Toni Morrison who showed me what my depression was, as I read the end of her novel, Sula:  “It was a fine cry–long and loud–but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”  That was what I had been doing in my mind, circling–helplessly–back to the same point I’d been to before, except that I didn’t really know where the “point” was.  It just helped that someone knew what sorrow is, and how it acts upon us.  It is an emotion; it cannot be seen, although its effects can, but if we were to draw it, the shape we would draw is a circle, for that is what it does:  it draws us back, over and over again, to ground we’ve already walked, and do not wish to walk upon again.

Years after that, Robert Mitchum’s character, Steve, in the movie Holiday Affair, said words that have helped me to heal ever since:  “I figure a man in love has the right to ask any girl–even another man’s girl–to marry him.”

All my life, I had been made sick by the idea that I had no right to do what I did.  But I did have the right.  And since I have accepted the consequences of my actions every day since the day I asked her to marry me, I should have known that I had the right.

As a practical matter, I believe we should treat ourselves as gently as we can as we cope with depression.  We must be careful of what we read, where we go, and who we talk to.  I was fortunate to have found words that have helped me to recover.  I cannot claim at all that reading will help everyone.  But I do believe that the words we need to hear to guide us through our depression are out there, even from unlikely sources; and if we are patient enough, and kind enough with ourselves, we can hear them when the time comes.

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