Learning to Read Again - Dealing with Depression
A decade ago was one of those times when my depression was really severe. Much of the time, I was cocooned in my bed, sometimes I ventured further, but I was mostly trapped by the walls of my house. That was my world. The worst part of it is that I wanted to READ. I had all this time when, if I wasn’t doing anything with myself, I might as well use the time to read. But couldn’t. No motivation. None at all.
This kind of depressive paralysis had happened once before – now over two decades ago, when my girlfriend had left and I had this empty place in my life. THEN I started reading. Didn’t matter what it was. I just need to keep my mind off things. Within one week I had finished thirty books. I know one of them was Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones (don’t remember a thing about it, except that I really didn’t know how to pronounce Cadfael) and another was Sidney Sheldon’s The Doomsday Conspiracy. (This last one I remember because the main character had just had a relationship breakdown and he was suffering as well). I don’t suppose too much of the story stayed with me. What I was doing was occupying myself, seeing the pile of completed books grow in the lounge.
But the depression of a decade ago had two parts to it. First, I had no energy or motivation to do anything. I didn't say “I’m going to read a page”, because I was simply cowering away from the world. I slept for most of the day and most of the night as well. If I did manage to get up, and tried to read something, I couldn’t remember anything that I’d read. I’m not sure if it was depression or the tablets that I was taking, but I could have read the same page twenty times. I would know what was happening when I read it, however, as I turned the pages, I could have been reading a different book. Nothing from the previous page was staying with me. In fact, even the words didn’t seem to connect. There was nothing wrong with my memory: I could quote poems and parts of books – I could even remember phone numbers from the 1970s and 1980s (arguably a fairly useless talent, actually I recently tried to phone an “outer London” number and started it 081 rather than 0208) – but who the characters were, what their motivation was … all gone, just seconds after I’d read it.
This was a major frustration. Largely this was because I was still buying books at a rate of one who reads a lot. New books were coming out by authors I enjoyed (retail therapy – that little buzz when you buy something, another little buzz when it gets delivered). My “to-read” shelf became a bookcase, and then those books were packaged up in a box (or seven) and put in the garage to make room for more books.
One of the few moments of motivation I had was when Stephen King came to England to promote Lisey’s Story. He was doing a signing in Watford and, as chance would have it, I managed to get a lift to Watford from York, and then caught the train back home. This was a really big deal for me. I was very much outside of my comfort zone. Out of my home. Travelling on my own. There weren't many people I would have done that for!
In Watford, I was talking to a chap in the queue (I think we had three hours to kill before Mr King turned up.) This chap was talking to me about the benefits of Audible – sign up, get trial books, and they even give you a little MP3 player to play them on. I’ve loved listening to audio books when I had more concentration. When Radio 4 broadcast the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole back in the 80s, my Mum was recording it for me because the school holidays in Belgium were different to those in England. (I saw a poster today – Adrian Mole would be 50 this year!) In early 1987, I recorded the BBC dramatization of Lord of the Rings in 13 hour-long episodes. Had to be ready at 45 minutes to turn the tape over so I didn’t miss too much. And I’ve always loved reading. Stick me in the corner with a good book and I could be there for hours. On one occasion I read half of Stephen King’s IT in one session. I read until my eyes were raw through not blinking. My girlfriend thought that I’d been drinking.
Anyway, back to Watford where Stephen King was signing, I listened to what the chap in the queue said, I went home and signed up for audiobooks (having, of course, first waited for King to turn up!)
But, when I tried to listen to stories, I had the same problem. In order to feel like I was getting my money’s worth, I downloaded some LONG books. The books I’d listened to before had been abridged down to three hours. Sometimes it was a pack of four tapes, which might have lasted for six hours. (Imagica, by Clive Barker – 1136 pages or thirty-seven hours, reduced down to six hours. Go figure). But particularly with the longer – unabridged – books, I couldn’t remember anything that I’d heard before.
I needed to learn to read again.
It wasn’t a case of working out what letters made what sounds, which in turn made words, which made sentences and so on. Rather, it was the process of reading and concentrating, remembering what had passed before and how it connected with what I was currently reading. It was like being a child again, except the difference was that I wanted to read. But I was trying to read outside of my ability. It would be like wanting to scale Everest when really, I was barely capable of getting upstairs.
So, rather than beginning with a book that I wanted to read (Ulysses was top of my list), instead I had to read something I was capable of reading. Something I had a chance of finishing. Instead I tried short stories and poems (again, we weren’t thinking about Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queene). Start small.
I discovered, with genuine delight, that I could get to the end of a haiku, and a limerick, and a sonnet, and what I had read at the beginning was still relevant to me when I got to the end. I read short jokes. When I turned over the page, it didn’t matter if I had retained what had gone before. The point was that I was enjoying the process of reading. I found something that made me laugh, or made me cry. Something that I could engage with from start to finish.
Trying to read for more than ten minutes was exhausting. But I accepted this. Tried to read for ten focused minutes, and then eleven, and then twelve. I set a timer for these reading sessions. All too often I would find myself turning over pages having not absorbed a single word. The timer would wake me from staring into nothing, and I could try to do something else. Try again later. I had most of the day to TRY. (Thinking about it now, that was the kindest voice, the one who told me It’s ok, it doesn’t matter how much you did. At least you tried, although it was soon shouted down by the louder, aggressive voice: You didn’t finish, though, You’re still a bloody failure …)
But I tried to perseve. Two or three times a day. I tried to find something that wasn’t challenging, e.g. a story where the point of the narrative only made sense if recognised each of the characters’ motivations, and it left you to work out for yourself who the murderer was. The way forward was with books with short chapters (I’ve just read Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. That would have been an excellent choice. As long as you have “Before the Beginning” (Birth of the Gods) at the beginning and “Ragnarok” (End of time) at the end, everything else could have been in any order.
It was a frightening time. My career as a lecturer and a writer is obviously centred about books. What if I couldn’t absorb any new reading, or criticism? And favourite writers keep bring out a book each year. It would take a lot of reading to catch up.
Around this time, the Quick Reads books were released. Books by popular authors, and in a variety of genres, there was something for everyone. Over the years there have been such authors as Peter James, Richard Branson, Minette Walters, Maeve Binchy, Kate Mosse, Danny Wallace, Jeffrey Archer, Linda la Plante, Alexander McCall Smith. The books were a pound or two each, and they were short. Manageably short. I read a few of these. There was a sense of achievement in actually finishing reading a book. It was a blow to the negative voice, because I could see something I’d achieved. (I did mark a couple of passages that I’d found amusing. Years later I turned back to the passage, remembering nothing about the book.) And perhaps, now I was beginning to train my “reading muscles”. I listened to longer stories (again, ten minutes at a time). But unabridged novels are VERY long. Having listened to a few short novels, I then, rather foolishly tried to listen to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – a doorstop of a tome. But it was something that made me want to keep listening to the 32 hours of the audiobook. But only a few minutes at the time, and building it up. And then something I was looking forward to doing. Sometimes I took a couple of summary notes to remind myself what had happened, so I could flick through what had happened before. As a Lecturer I know that I’ve only experienced a part of the story – particularly in the case of Jonathan Strange, because the book is written using archaic spellings, so I’ve not experienced the book in the way that the author intended. But it’s close enough. For now.
Ten years later - present day - for me reading can still be something of a mixed bag. I read in different ways: physical books, computer screen, from a tablet. Sometimes I have to read fast, sometimes I read for pleasure, listening to the musicality of the language. And, even now, sometimes I read a story and have no idea of what happened on the page before. If it’s work-related, then I may have to go through it again, but when we read for pleasure, it’s not a race. It’s not about clocking up reading the most books in a year (although I do find the Goodreads yearly challenge to be a great motivator.)
Depression: when we have it, we all have suffering in common, but we suffer in different ways. There is no “right” way of dealing with it. We have different coping strategies, techniques, therapy or medication. I wanted to share this experience as my way of saying that, although it feels like it at the time, depression isn’t forever. I also know that while I believe this today, I may not believe it tomorrow.
Reading is supposed to be fun. A book can take you anywhere. An open book is a doorway to adventure. There’s no right or wrong way of reading for pleasure. When you’re reading something that you enjoy reading, it’s not important how much you engage with the text. There’s no time limit. And also there’s no right or wrong way to get back into reading, except for you to recognise your limits. Recognise your achievements and challenge yourself at your own pace. You will get there in your own good time.
Just enjoy the journey when you can.