Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Reading with Depression

I've had encounters with the black dog at different stages of my life, which I'm sure many of us have. I've only come across one doctor who ever prescribed medication. I ended up not taking it, because when I sought the opinions of others, they thought she might have been a bit too quick. They suggested a good rest, plenty of fresh air and my favourite pastime, reading, first. It's worked for me. In return, I've often suggested reading a good book to friends or family members with depression, but it hasn't seemed to be the right thing to do. Here is the sort of response I've received.

'Sorry, I can't read books at the moment. My concentration is shot to pieces. I can't hold onto the thread of a plot.'

'I can't read until I'm feeling better. All my energy is focused on looking after myself.'

'I've got enough guilt and 'shoulds' on my mind already, so please don't add another one by suggesting that I read a book.' 

It got me wondering whether recommending books to depressed people is a bit of a social faux pas which I'd violated. For my attacks of the blues, reading therapy is the one thing I can depend on to pull me out of it quickest. But maybe I'd never experienced such severe, crashing, clinical depression as they have, so I had to take their word for it. Then I came across a little book entitled, "Reasons to Stay Alive" by Matt Haig, who had been grappling serious depression for years, and came through the other side. He concurred with me. He believes his black dog had almost killed him, and books were his saviour.

Haig says that depression changed him from a person who simply liked books to a person who needed them. And his reasons turned out to be similar to mine.

He gave a builder analogy. Parts of his mind were broken, and the words of other people within the pages of books became his bricks and mortar, helping him to patch it back together again. Then he gave a potter analogy. He considered his mind to be a hopeless mass of mess and chaos, and the words and sentiments within books helped him to mold it back to the shape he wanted it to be.

Haig especially valued books by authors whose minds were clearly in a state of more peace, contentment and faith than he was experiencing. This is also what I've found most helpful about mood lifting books. What we find within their pages, whether fictional stories or gentle, non-fiction encouragement, is like medicine for our thoughts. In my own experience, depression almost always has some bad thought catalyst behind it. If I try hard enough, I can usually track one down. That's why the alternative ways of thinking presented within books has always done me good. It re-aligns my thoughts, getting to the origin of my depression and giving me an alternative way to think.

Some of my favourite fictional characters are those whose personalities help to restore what I might be lacking for the time being. If I'm feeling a bit jaded and glum, the cheerful enthusiasm of someone like Anne Shirley will rub off on me. Or maybe if I feel insulted or put down, re-reading the humorous way Lizzy Bennett reacted to Mr Darcy's mean comment will help. And if I need a boost to get back to some work I've been putting off, taking a break to read about the Hogwarts students buckling down to their Potions and Transfiguration homework may do the trick. 

Similarly, Matt Haig imagined books to be like a treasure map, trying to direct him back to his true self, which he felt was buried somewhere beneath all the muck and mire of his depression. They were like clues along the way, and the more he read, the closer he felt he got. He imagined himself stuck in a sludge of quicksand, and books provided the leverage to pull himself out, because they were full of thoughts he wouldn't have been capable of coming up with on his own. They were like a rescuer's rope.

Some of the reading choices he mentioned took me off guard. They weren't the sorts of books I'd necessarily think of recommending to a depressed person, being quite heavy and tragic, but they seemed to work for him. Would you choose 'The Diary of Samuel Pepys' to help pull you out of a mental slump? Me either. But here's what Haig says. 'There was something about the way Pepys jollied on through the apocalyptic events of seventeenth century life that was very therapeutic to read about.' Okay, I guess I can understand that. It just goes to show that anything may help.

As for my own choices, just about anything I've recommended on this blog with four or five stars will fit the bill. Maybe even the ones to threes work too, once I've reviewed them, because the very action of finding words to explain my impressions is often enough to help me feel less depressed, regardless of a book's quality.

But to finish off with, here are some specific books written by people who have successfully fought their own way out of the murky trap of depression, giving their happier survival stories about where they've been.

1) Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. It seems only fair to start with the book I've drawn from so much for this blog post. He also mentions other things apart from reading which helped him through several years of deep depression.
2) You can't afford the luxury of a Negative Thought by Peter and John Roger McWilliams. These two brothers have put together a thick book combining quotes from all sorts of historical figures, laugh out loud humour, and sound wisdom to convince us to brighten up our minds.
3) Wobbly by Vikki Roubin. This book was written by an Aussie lady, and I found her personal story and tips for dealing with depression and panic attacks very helpful. It's great because I met Vikki at a writers' conference in Brisbane way back in 2007, and later when I contacted her to say how much I enjoyed her book, she replied that part of her impetus in buckling down to write a book was from attending a workshop I'd presented, in which I discussed just going for it.
4) Stepping out of Darkness by Lisa Limbrick. The author is another Australian friend of mine, who it's been a joy to meet in person. She draws from her own background of psychological knowledge to describe how actually owning her depression has been the first step in developing tools to deal with it.

So whatever else anybody may be doing or taking to combat depression, whether medication, therapy, counseling or long sabbaticals, I think books would have to help too, if you feel you could manage.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this related one about melancholia, the happy side of sadness.


  1. Yes! Reading can be therapeutic, and good writing can challenge us & lift us out of our circumstances. I remember reading a Christian romance that had a really honest portrayal of a sisterly relationship- that really challenged me with my sister! Another had a character whose portrayal of forgiveness was another chance for some soul searching. When I'm feeling the need for some extra joy, I (re)read Georgette Heyer's Regencies - so witty, so much fun :)

    1. Hi Carolyn,
      It is wonderful when such things happen, and novels become therapeutic as well as entertaining. Even better to think that therapy and entertainment can be part of the same medicine. Thanks for sharing your experiences. And I agree, that stories like Georgette Heyer's regency romances can be just the thing because we know what to expect, and it's just the boost we need.

  2. Yes Paula, reading is like a tonic ... for me anyway. I suppose everyone is different, however when I find that I just cannot concentrate on a story, and start forgetting who's who, I simply place a notepad and pen on the arm of my chair. I just make notes (point form) about where each character fits in, and how I am feeling about each scene or scenario. This little habit of mine also comes in handy for reviewing books too. I just wish I had developed this habit for some of the earlier books that I need to review. Oh well, I suppose a re-read wouldn't hurt. I just love this post, it sings to me. I don't think I will be replacing my Bipolar medication anytime soon, but you never know, and in the meantime I cannot think of a better way to enjoy myself and uplift my mood. Well done and thank you.

    1. Hi Jo'Anne,
      I've been keeping a little book review journal too, because I know I have to write impressions when they come. My memory has proven to be not as good as I think it is, when it comes to thinking, 'Oh yeah, I'll mention that in my review.' I'm glad you're finding it works for you too. And yeah, if you do try to get hold of the four I mentioned, I hope you'll find they work for you too.

  3. I'll weigh in on this one. I have bipolar 2. A lesser known form of bipolar disorder. Apart of the illness is crashing and soul destroying depression otherwise known as 'lows'. I experience them often and they can last for months. Since being on meds they tend to last no more than five weeks. But 5 weeks is seriously a long time to feel terrible.
    I am also an avid reader and a writer. Here's the thing, when I am really low I cannot read. It's actually not possible. My mind basically short circuits and I have to keep reading the thing over and over to try and understand what I have read. I can't explain it well. If you haven't been there, it's hard to paint a good enough picture. But basically the words jumble, the plot is hard to follow and I am just so incredibly drained I put the book down.
    So, to tell you the honest truth there will be people for whom reading when low or depressed will not work.
    I also feel quiet strongly about people offering me suggestions about how to cope with my illness. Unless they themselves have bipolar 2 and understand what I am going through and have found something that works, I am really not interested. I am not being mean, but unless I am actively asking for suggestions on what to do when I am low, I would prefer people just make me a cuppa and be my friend. Just sit and listen to me, or be there while I cry. Truth is I (and many of us with mental illness) feel terrible that we can't just beat this thing in our head. That we can't perk up and get on with it. That we can't just go read a good book and lift our spirits out of a really bad low. And I am often bombarded with wonderful and well meaning people telling me to do this or that is hopes it will fix me or help. There really is no fix. And believe me when I say I have tried everything. Every known medication. Every therapeutic devise. I've done it. Sure, I have found some things that help. Some things that can make the lows less lonely or less likely. But I CANNOT actually prevent myself from being low. Nor can I shorten the duration of that low when it comes. I can do everything right from diet to exercise and all the way back again and still have a massive low period.
    So, no. The book thing doesn't always work. Not for me anyway. My mind, which is required for things like comprehending and decoding text, is overloaded just trying to remember to breathe and get up in the morning. I am so glad that reading has helped you, though. I am one of those people for whom it won't work. Sadly.

    1. Hi Tabitha,
      I understand the distinction you're making here. Well, not through experience, but the way you've described it here. I'm so sorry those low periods of your bipolar disorder are a way of life for you. I'd hope at this stage that I'd be one of the truly sympathetic friends, and wouldn't offer reading therapy alone as a fix-all. If the start of this blog post came off sounding a bit snarky, I didn't intend it to.
      You are clearly a true book lover, both reading and writing, and if reading therapy was a foolproof cure-all, it would definitely work for you! Same for some of my other friends who have said similar things. So in turn, like you, I hope I'm not coming across as being mean.
      I'm really glad you took the time to leave this comment, as that's what blog discussion posts are all about. It's given me plenty of extra food for thought too. We who haven't experienced the same thing can't help being limited in our thinking, even when we do mean well. Perhaps I should qualify in this post that reading therapy is something some readers might find helpful some of the time :)

  4. Thanks for your comment, Paula. I didn't at all think you were coming across mean or anything :) I think I did understand the spirit of what you were saying and books are definitely wonderful places to go and relax. They are friends when friends are hard to find and places to go when you cannot escape. I cannot imagine a world without books :) So I did get what you meant. Love to you and the family.
    You might be interested to know that my husband and I have also decided to homeschool out two youngest children (5yrs and 10yrs). We are very excited and a bit nervous about it. We will start next year at the beginning of the year. That gives me time to plan and get ready for them. Thanks for your open discussions here on the blog. Blessings to you x

    1. That's great news. I hope you'll all be very happy. I'm sure you'll notice the lifestyle differences straight away. You'll surely also have some moments of asking, 'Why are we doing this?' We all do! When you remember that there are as many different methods of homeschooling as families doing it, that helps the moment to pass. I'll be interested to keep up with how you're going.

  5. you know Paula, I absolutely adore reading- in fact some days I think I may have a serious addiction to reading. I simply must have books on the go, with some waiting to read. My husband cannot understand it.
    My point of this sad addiction, is that I am forever suggesting books or offering my books to others to read.
    If someone is feeling sick or sad or anything... I have a book to remedy the situation.
    Just lately, in my fifty-seventh year (did I just admit my age???), it has occurred to me that others may not share the thrill of a book to read.
    When I go to the library, it takes all my will power not to sit and start the book immediately.
    So I do realise what you are doing in offering 'book' advice.
    And you have given me many suggestions to add to my list of books to read as well, thanks.
    Gosh, I do sound like I have a problem. Hmmmm.

    1. Hi Rosie,
      It's a good addiction to have, and one which I share :)
      I've come across people called 'book apothecaries' or some such term, who do what we do for a profession! Imagine people coming to you and willing to pay for your book recommendations. I can totally understand how it would work though.
      You've reminded me that when I was younger, and walking home from the library, I used to take the books out of my bag and start reading while I was walking. Those were the days.

  6. I agree. Reading uplifts my soul. But I noticed that when I'm really down (and I have suffered from diagnosed depression at times in my life), I go back to reading Archie, and Betty and Veronica comics. I read them a lot as a child, and they always delighted me. They are short, entertaining, and uplifting. And possibly a short and sweet alternative to reading.

    1. Hi Rose,
      Wow, do you still have a stack of those. I used to love them too, as a kid, but my pile has long gone. I'm not sure where they went. But you're right, even though they're short and sweet, they have good plots complete with themes and story arcs. Funny, I was just talking to another friend about the beauty of comics and graphic novels, which she has actually written.

  7. I agree with you. Whenever I need a lift, I look for a book. Funny movies also do the trick. Have you read Furiously Happy? I actually handed that one to my daughter who has been in a dark place (possibly puberty related) It helped immensely, if only because it gave us something to laugh about together and made talk about depression seem easier. She's since read Jenny Lawson's first book, Let's Pretend this Never Happened. It's on my list.

    1. Hi Cristina,
      I haven't read it yet, although I've come across it and been attracted to the cover. Since you guys have recommended it, I think I'll get hold of it. I've only heard mostly good things about it.