Our Reading Lives

Reading While Chronically Ill or, the Books Will Wait

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When I finished grad school in May 2016, I was thrilled. Finally, I’d have time to read for pleasure again. Except. Unexpectedly, my brother passed away in July and my desire to read was shot. After the funeral and a bit of recuperating, I ended up back at my current residence with little eagerness, understandably, to do anything. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, however, had recently been released and it felt like a betrayal of my brother to not read it. While he wasn’t much of a reader, he did latch on to Harry like so many of us did. So, slowly, I rebuilt my reading momentum over the months.

In October, my last living grandparent passed away and I spent my time at airports reading, finally finding some kind of relief in it.

And then came December. In December, I started experiencing symptoms of what I learned by late January was ulcerative colitis. I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that when you aren’t really absorbing a lot of what you eat and your body is constantly fighting itself like it would an active disease, you’re exhausted. Add a million doctor appointments, nerve-wracking diagnostic procedures, and a traditional introvert and you’ve got hardly enough energy to go to work (which you need for the insurance to treat your new disease) if you’re lucky. Forget any hobbies you had. Including reading.

reading while chronically ill

At least, this was the case for me. Every day after work, it was pretty much straight to bed for me, unless I managed to eat dinner before, uh, a quick exit. Reading while chronically ill (and, in those first several months, still actively grieving the loss of my only sibling and grandmother) was near impossible. Though I craved the escape of a good book, I just couldn’t manage it. There was the holding of the book, which took physical effort, and paying attention to the plot, which required mental strength. Since I lacked both of these things, reading anything substantial was pretty out of the question.

All of this showed in my end-of-year Goodreads summary. While I’d set out to read 75 books, I managed “only” 56 in 2016—much explained by suffering from pretty severe grief. From August to December, I read 20 books, which was not keeping pace with earlier in the year, despite the fall typically being my time of tearing through books. And reading while chronically ill also made a big impact—the first four months of 2017, during which time my illness was most active, I read 22 books. Fortunately, later in the year I began feeling healthier thanks to a reasonably successful treatment plan. By December 31, I’d read 102 books. If I’d still been actively ill the remainder of the year, it’s reasonable to guess my number would have been closer to 66.

I share all of this to emphasize that reading while chronically ill (or grieving, which can sometimes feel very similar) doesn’t always work—and that doesn’t make you less of a reader. When, at times we are healthy, we experience reading slumps, we do not consider ourselves less of readers. In fact, I think many of us are frustrated with slumps for the very fact that we identify so heavily as readers: I’m a big reader! Why am I struggling to read right now? And so we should see ourselves equivalently as we deal with chronic illness.

Reading can be a wonderful escape, but it need not add extra pressure to our lives. You can’t read on empty—be kind to yourself. Be well, when you can. And read when you’re ready. The books will wait.