Newsletter 1

Reading, Depression, and Me

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Last month, Rioter Amanda wrote about the challenges she had while trying to read during a bout with depression. The post resonated with me particularly hard and at a timely moment. Just days before, I went and got help for depression after years (and years and years) of believing that it was who I was and something that I could manage entirely on my own.

For long periods of my life, hitting low points meant turning to books, rather than turning away from them. I could sit down on a weekend and devour 4 or 5 novels in no time. Sinking into another world, one entirely outside of my head, meant getting away from the disease. I could disconnect from myself. I’ve always been a fan of dark realities, since so often, they’re well beyond any realm I could imagine in my own world. Whatever was causing me pain couldn’t hold a candle to the things I was seeing in fiction.

When you’re in a bad mental place, you reach for comfort wherever you can find it.

I put off getting help not just because I thought I could do it myself. I was also influenced by too-frequently-seen narratives in books — and other media — about mental illness. When you struggle with something like depression or anxiety or both, your brain isn’t functioning normally on any level. You really believe the terrible things your mind is telling you. Regular exposure to the message that seeking help, especially medication, is a sign of weakness and a means of numbing yourself to reality, sinks in. The last thing in the world I wanted as a writer and as a reader was to feel like the things that buoyed me through rough times would be the first things I’d lose when getting better.

After making the excruciatingly hard decision to medicate, I can’t say enough for what a positive difference this has made in my life. Especially my reading and writing life.

I’m enjoying — really, really enjoying — reading and talking about reading in a way that I never have before. It’s not a support system for me. Rather, it’s an engaging, fully-immersive experience that I am an active, present part of. I’m still turning to dark books but the way I feel about them is changed. I think I love them even more because I see my world in there. Because I am able to see what is and isn’t reality. I’m coming at stories with a better sense of who I am and what it is I believe, increasing my empathy for characters and choices they make.

There’s a sense of quiet in my head I’ve never had before. That quiet has given me the chance to concentrate and think critically in ways I’ve struggled with in the past. I’m not rushing from idea to idea; instead, I’m able to think through the actions and choices in a story and pluck more carefully and more thoroughly at the strings holding them together. My time with a book extends beyond what it’s bringing me at the moment — escape, comfort — and I’m more able and excited to grapple with ideas days later.

My reading and my writing have both slowed down. But it’s the kind of slowing down that feels good. There’s breathing room and thinking room, with no pressure to hurry up and get through so I can fill those spaces with more things. I’m taking part in enjoyable, richly rewarding activities that fuel and exercise my mind, not just turn it off.

Someone told me that there comes a grieving period when depression/anti-anxiety medication and/or therapy and/or other treatment starts to really work. It’s not grieving about losing who you are; it’s about how much you denied your past self. About how you didn’t give yourself the chance to function but listened to those painful messages your mind fed you.

Depression took me out of my reading life. Recognizing that — and getting help for it — has put me back in in ways I could never have imagined. Reading isn’t about powering through. It isn’t about disconnecting.

Reading is about being a part of something.