On Depression and Needing Books

After years of battling depression and anxiety, I’ve learned that some weapons are more potent than others. I’ve learned that exercise is as indispensable as food, that sleep is magic, and I can’t be afraid to ask for help before depression robs me of the ability to ask. But also, surprisingly, I’ve learned that reading – what I read and how much – is an indicator of my mental health.

I need to read books. When I don’t read, my mind dulls, and the world reverts to black and white, like the dystopia in The Giver. And while reading does not lift me out of a depressive episode, it certainly helps to prevent me from falling in to one.

Matt Haig, in his extraordinary book Reasons to Stay Alive, describes his personal experience of severe depression and his need for books.

I read and read and read with an intensity I’d never really known before. I mean, I’d always considered myself to be a person who liked books. But there is a difference between liking books and needing them. I needed books. They weren’t a luxury good during that time in my life. They were a Class A addictive substance. (…)

There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping. It is not where we are, but where we want to go, and all that. “Is there no way out of the mind.” Sylvia Plath famously asked. I had been interested in this question (what it meant, what the answers might be) ever since I had come across it as a teenager in a book on quotations. If there is a way out, a way that isn’t death itself, then the exit route is through words. But rather than leave the mind entirely, words help us leave mind and give us the building blocks to build another one, similar but better, nearby to the old one but with firmer foundations, and very often a better view.

I look back on seasons of my life that still curdle my stomach to even think about, and I realize that books were the vessels that carried me from there to here. Books keep me alive.

2 Comments

  1. Just to know that I’m not alone in my journey dealing with depression and anxiety is very comforting. Thank you. Coming from a workaholic family upbringing where reading was considered a lazy preoccupation of time, I’m gradually breaking this down as I see myself in a new light. Thanks

    1. You are not alone in the least. Depression and anxiety are alienating illnesses – and those of us who suffer need to know we are connected by the shared experience.
      Re: reading, I understand the sentiment that it is a lazy preoccupation. I’ve had that view myself at times. But the more I read, the more I discover that it is irreplaceable and valuable – perhaps one of the most valuable things I can do in my lifetime.

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