How My Mental Illness Affects My Reading Life, and Vice Versa
The circulation assistant eyes me warily, and I return the gaze with a crooked smile I can’t shake off. She asks, “Are you actually going to be able to read all of those?”
Her tone says she is joking, but the underlying incredulity is there: checking out 20 books at once is a little extreme, especially if you have 30 out already. I shrug, accidentally jostling the books.
“I read nine books a week now.”
She gives me a look that straddles disbelief and awe. I thank her politely and turn to leave, struggling to get the slippery-covered books in line as I fight my way out to the car, gently tossing them on the backseat where they spill all over the seat. I’ll deal with getting them inside my house later. My head already feels light, airy, and I’m literally buzzing with energy. My mind is filled with thoughts that race. I drum my thumbs on the car seat as I crank the upbeat electro-pop higher. I’m going to read 400 books this year. I’m going to read 400 books this year. I’m going to read 400 books this year…
It’s late June, and I’m manic again.
How mania affects my reading, and how reading affects my mania
Books and reading can be incredibly powerful sources of healing. Hence the term “bibliotherapy” and its respective practice. I have long been attracted to the idea of bibliotherapy because I suffer from bipolar disorder, or manic depressive illness to some. Over the past 10 years since my diagnosis, I have seen my reading deeply affected by my illness—and my illness greatly affected by my reading.
One of the classic ways other people can tell that I’m heading off the deep end into hypomania or mania is when I start buying or borrowing a ton of books. When I say a book buying shopping spree, I don’t mean 2 books, or 5 books, or even 10 books. To my mind, buying 20 at a time is perfectly reasonable. I’m doing research for my blog/articles/own novel, I tell myself to justify it. It’s collection development. It’s to help me write my thesis. I can read them. I can read them all.
The boxes arrive, stacked up on my porch outside. My cats climb in the cardboard wasteland after I tear the boxes open. There’s no more room on my shelves. I tell myself I’ll buy another shelf. No, two more bookcases. Nope, three would keep be going for a few months. My mind is convinced that spending hundreds of dollars on this is justifiable and healthy. My credit card statement a month later suggests otherwise.
Likewise, sometimes I go on binge-borrowing at the library as in my example above. I could check out ten 500-page books with two-week loans and totally believe that I can read them all, each in a day. Then I get withdrawn and depressed, my mind disorganized, and I stop going outside my house for days. I’m not well enough to make it to the library. And the fines keep going up.
My mind focuses on a big idea, like reading 400 books a year, and I latch onto it even though the most I’ve ever read in a year is 60. I obsessively change up my Goodreads Reading Challenge and calculate over and over how many books I’d have to read a month/week/day to reach my challenge goal.
And then I start finishing books faster, too. My eyes inhale, that’s the best word I can describe it, just suck up all the words on a page. I finish one book a day. It’s not enough. Two a day for two weeks until the sobering reality kicks in. I’m manic.
The behaviors I’ve described above might not be that unusual for book lovers, and indeed, they might not seem out of the ordinary in isolation. But to me they are symptomatic of a larger, more dangerous mood dip upwards, pieces of a larger puzzle that say my medication needs to be switched up. Because buying 20 books three days in a row can wreck my credit, wipe out my meager freelance income, and leave me staring at double-stacked shelves of books I know I no longer want to read—or could read. Same with reading 10 books in a week. It might seem not that unusual for avid readers, especially speed readers. But for me, it sends my mood sky-high. Each finished book, each “Read” entry makes me more confident. Nothing can stop me. A novelist myself, I feel the Flow and spend hours writing, neglecting my actual, paid work, dumping my efforts into writing word after word, page after page, chapter after chapter, until I’m 10,000 words in after 24 hours, and my mood crashes.
Then I really hate reading.
How depression affects my reading, and how reading affects my depression
Eventually, the cold, crushing reality sets in. I don’t remember anything I read. I fiction reads like gibberish.
Worse: I can’t read anymore.
They soak me in mood stabilizers to treat the delusions and the rapid cycling, the mania. But I’m catatonic. I can’t focus on anything. It takes me an hour to read two pages. I flash back to undergraduate when I majored in English and chose to focus on 18th and 19th century British literature. I would spend hours in my dorm room trying to make sense of the shapes before me. I tried audiobooks, reading side by side. It didn’t do anything. I made no progress. I cling to Sparknotes to get the gist of the plot. I bullshitted my way through essays and coasted on my reputation as a promising student in the department. Professors worked with me, even as disability services was practically useless.
Nothing is worse than not being able to read, especially when you are a book blogger and book journalist, librarian and novelist. Not reading just feeds the depressive cycle. I’m worthless. A lightweight. A fake. A con artist. A manic depressive.
Finding peace in reading
Ultimately, it shakes out to a bearable medium between spurts of consumption to quieter lulls. After 10 years with this diagnosis, I’ve learned that there is no such thing as constant. You wake up and you don’t know what each day will be like, what each hour or minute will bring. But throughout it all, reading has been an anchor, a rock. It has fueled me with stories when I needed escapism, has brought me joy and inspiration.
My reading experience is a fucked up roller coaster, sure. But I don’t want to get off and live a life without books or a reading practice of any kind. And as a novelist, I try to sneak the mentally divergent into my fiction, celebrating the quirks and joys and challenges of life with a mental illness, same with coverage of mental illness disability on my blog and in my articles for websites and publications.
Reading and bipolar disorder have a bizarre symbiotic relationship of healing and hell. We need to bring more awareness to how reading can affect bipolar disorder so physicians and psychologists can understand this complex, intertwined bond.
To readers who have this illness, you are not alone. Find comfort in your own form of bibliotherapy. Speak up and let others know about the warning signs when it comes to reading and your illness. The book community is greatly supportive. We are rooting for you.