Healing with Reading | Bookish Thoughts by Jessica Signori
We know the mind is a beautiful and cruel mistress. A connection of chemistry cocktails to make us swoon and cry and feel on the top of the world- or barely able to function. We, as humans, go through so much during our lives and - more than you might imagine - we suffer from setbacks, mental health problems, abuse, gas-lighting, negative programming, and many other kinds of perceived deficiencies in that dainty little system that is the unique mix of elements that make up our brain.
So what can we do? Therapy is obvious. Who better than someone with a degree to pick at your brain? But what if it’s not enough?
Professional help is valid and useful. Sometimes it works wonderfully and can help those going through difficult times to find themselves again, or cope with ongoing problems of a chemical imbalance in the brain. But again- what if it’s not enough?
Your brain works as it is trained, not as it should. For this reason, it can be easy to miss obvious clues so apparent to those close to us. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we’ve put up walls to protect ourselves. It’s not easy to let others in, whether they are loved ones or a therapist. When one closes their brain with a heavy lock, how can the professional pick their mind? Intervention and persistence are great, but the most efficient way (in my experience) is representation- examples and stories that show us our reflection.
"Representation helps the people represented to feel valid and seen, giving them the push to shine to their full potential." #representationinliterature #mentalhealth
We all know that representation is important. Once something is represented or named, it has power.
Specifically in fiction, representation gives people outside that particular group experience insight to help them understand and be better allies. Hopefully, they’ll stop fearing the unknown and different, and be more accepting.
But representation is about more than that. It helps the people represented to feel valid and seen, giving them the push to shine to their full potential.
The mental healing benefits of powerful representation haven’t been explored much, but countless examples of reader experience show what a powerful tool this is when you have a problem to face.
So why books? Why not movies? That’s simple, it’s the difference between witnessing and experiencing. When you read a book you become the main character. You get to know the character’s thoughts and motives. These feelings become yours and they are not a reaction, not sympathy, but recognition. And maybe, just maybe, there is something within this character that propels you forward in your own story. Maybe you find something that tells you that even though your version of normal is not “typical”, that it’s OK. Things get better, plots unfold, thoughts change. You don’t get that by just watching.
Stephen Levine says in A Year to Live, “If there is a single definition of healing it is to enter with mercy and awareness those pains, mental and physical, from which we have withdrawn in judgment and dismay. ” I agree.
When you begin a new book you decide to embrace and learn, to read and live someone else’s life. And you can do that because they are fictional characters, not real people. It’s easy to forget and forgive, to embrace and refrain from judgment. In that way, true recognition can be achieved, and once it clicks, there is no coming back. Your worldview has changed.
I’ve experienced this on a personal level. If I look inward, both at my mental health and my experiences, I always see a work in progress, and it probably always will be! And that’s OK. Therapy helps, but you need to recognize a pattern to be able to delete it. Sometimes trusting your instinct and memories might be extremely difficult, especially if you’ve walled them off.
A few weeks ago I read The Flatshare by Beth O’ Leary and I found myself going right back into my own past experiences. But I wasn’t triggered. I was oddly relieved. It felt like when your teeth are growing - we’ve all changed teeth, we’ve been there. You know what I mean.
And it’s annoying, distracting, painful to let the new teeth grow in. When you press on them, though, when you clench your jaw- it’s so relieving. It’s a weird line of pain that makes you sigh in relief because at least the numb pain is broken, if for just a while.
Do you often read about characters that represent people with mental health issues? Do you have a favorite one?
That’s what I felt reading that story. I thought, “ that’s it, that’s what I felt too!” Before that story, I had no words to describe my own experience, but... that’s it! That’s the word, that’s the feeling. It’s in my chest. It’s in my mind. And if that character got better, so can I! And I did it. I opened up to people dear to me, asked for help, and for the first time in years I wasn’t pushing to get better on my own. I was pushing with the people around me and everything was so much easier. It was a battle, but my experience wasn’t a giant anymore. Would I have gotten there any way on my own? Maybe. In time. But through this communal experience, I got there sooner. Life is meant to be shared.
Reading can also be used as a form of escapism. That’s healing, too. You get away from your own mind and fly into a completely different world for a while. You go back and you realize that it’s not that bad anymore, because if a 16-year-old can face You Know Who, you can face an anxiety-inducing test/work/relative/ challenge. Sometimes you have to confront a fictional dragon to recognize the strong part of yourself. There is bravery in action, there is bravery in naming, there is bravery sharing, and books can do all that and so much more.
So when you are ready, or if you are not so ready yet, pick up a book. It’ll help you heal, recognize you need help, or just escape from your head for a while. But most of all it will - probably - have a happy ending and remind you that you can too.
Don’t forget to care for your mind as you would for every other organ of your body. Are you injured? Put on some ice and go to the doctor. Do you need mental help of any kind? Read a book and go to therapy. It’s easy, and it’s ok. You are entitled to happiness, no matter how you get there.
"When you read a book you become the main character. You get to know the character’s thoughts and motives." #bookishthoughts #bookishartical #literarycharacter
This article was originally printed in the Fall 2019 issue of Curiositales. If you would like to receive a free digital copy of the magazine, sign up for our newsletter at the top of this page! Then, confirm your email address (be sure to check your spam folder). Once you click the link in your welcome email, you'll get regular news from Curiositales, including notifications when the latest magazine is published. You can unsubscribe whenever you like. Or, you can read it for free here.
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