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Our Reading Lives

How I’m Trying (And Failing) to Rebuild a Reading Habit Destroyed by Trauma

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Patricia Thang

Senior Contributor

Patricia Thang is an educator located in Los Angeles. Though a native Angeleno through and through, her heart also belongs to Tokyo, where much of her family is from. Besides books, she is an enthusiastic devourer of many things, including podcasts, television, and J-pop. She realizes there’s not enough time in the world to consume all of that content, but she’s trying anyway. Other endeavors to which she has dedicated herself include cuddling her dogs until they’re annoyed and taste-testing every vegan ice cream she can find. Twitter: @aintnopthang

Two and a half years ago, I came down with what I thought was a normal cold or flu. I handled it the way I always do, but what should have gone away in about a week just got worse and worse and persisted for over a month. When I finally went to the emergency room with very concerning additional symptoms, we figured out that I was actually suffering from complications from an infection in my heart. This would be terrible for anyone, but as someone with complex congenital heart disease, it was a particularly devastating revelation.

The day after my 27th birthday, I went into open heart surgery for the fourth time in my life. What followed was an incredibly difficult and bumpy road to recovery, one that I didn’t think I would reach the end of. All in all, from the time I first got sick to when I was finally well enough to be independent again, I spent close to six months hospital- and home-bound. And the trauma of those months all but obliterated my attention span, especially when it came to reading.

I’ve always turned to reading as an escape, especially from the anxiety and claustrophobia I feel because of my disability. In fact, I have a really clear memory of sitting in a chair and using my hospital bed as a table so I could read a book that was too heavy for me to hold up while I was recovering from my third open heart surgery at 13. But this time around, I couldn’t find the capacity in myself to even push a button on my Kindle, let alone read any of the words inside. It’s an eerie feeling when you suddenly don’t know how to use the escape route you’ve always used anymore. I was more trapped than I’ve ever been.

By around the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, my body was finally reaching its normal again. And for a moment, I was feeling pretty good about my efforts to get back into reading. I was finding books that made me happy, allowed myself to DNF books that didn’t (for the first time ever!), and tried to focus on the quality of my reading experiences. It was going pretty well, but you already know what happened next.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the health-related anxiety and fear I already live with on a daily basis skyrocketed to unprecedented heights. Just one year earlier, I had gone through the worst health crisis of my life because of something that seemed like the flu but turned out to be nearly life-threatening. And here was yet another such enemy, this time attacking the entire globe and killing people leaps and bounds healthier than myself.

We know this past year and a half has had vast and various effects on reading. And I know I’m certainly not alone in losing my reading habits altogether. Some are embracing their slowed reading, and I’ve certainly found ways to keep myself occupied in non-reading bookish ways. But I’m well into a third year of not being able to read at anywhere near my normal capacity, and it’s starting to make me antsy.

It’s not that I’m not interested in reading anymore, because I am! My enthusiasm has definitely recovered, and I am so excited about so many books, my grabby hands can hardly keep up with my fervor. But when it comes to opening up those books and actually reading the words inside, something suddenly shuts down.

I’ve tried out a few strategies to get out of this funk, mainly focusing on short formats like essays and stories to ease myself into the habit of reading without the daunting pressure of committing to hundreds of pages. And while I’ve found some slivers of success, it still hasn’t been quite enough to give me the momentum to keep going. While in the past, reading was an insatiable feedback loop where finishing something would propel me to the next and the next, I’m now in a place where no matter how much I enjoy something in the moment, once it’s over, that’s it. I absolutely loved the first essay of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders, but have still yet to pick up the rest of the book. Jonny Sun’s piece about cooking eggs in Goodbye, Again was one of the most poignant and affecting things I’ve read in a very long time, but I haven’t returned to that one just yet either.

I’ve never been much of a poetry reader, but I tried out a couple collections this past year to see if changing things up would be effective. I certainly enjoyed them — and I do recommend poetry on audio for a tiny dose of mental stimulation while doing small tasks like brushing your teeth — but again, they still didn’t bring me the need to immediately start the next thing. Nor did trying out things that were comforting and familiar. Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems, despite being healing in the moment and bringing me all the same feelings her Hyperbole and a Half blog did when I religiously followed it as a college student, was slow-going and certainly didn’t embolden me to pick up something else afterward. And let’s not even talk about my Lord of the Rings reread that has been sitting abandoned for close to a year.

In the foreword of Goodbye, Again, Jonny Sun writes, “I don’t want to burden you or ask for much, and I hope you can visit these as you steal moments away for yourself whenever you can,” and I am trying to take that sentiment to heart. I don’t want reading to feel intimidating or like a burden anymore, but for it to be precious and thrilling. For this reason I haven’t pushed myself, so I’ll easily go weeks without so much as looking at a book. But I do still want to find a good balance of trying to gradually read more again while at the same time not forcing it.

So what’s the next step in my long-lasting endeavor to get my reading habit back? Other than continuing to try out all kinds of books, seeing what sticks, and hoping something at some point will suddenly put some drive back in me, I’m not sure. I do have a whole stash of Pride and Prejudice retellings floating around in my Kindle, and as a big P&P stan, maybe I’ll have to test those out soon. If they work, I’ll let you know.