I have this thing that I do whenever I’m sad. I read a book. I realize that this is not that unusual. Many people read for comfort. What I do is a little different, though. I don’t read a book for a few minutes. I don’t read a chapter. When I need to read a book, I read a whole book cover to cover. I dive head first under water. I’m a basin submerged in the deep end and I let the book completely fill me up until there is no room for sadness or anxiety or heartbreak. For however many pages the book lasts, that is all there is.
I started this over a decade ago, but I didn’t actually realize that this was my coping mechanism until recently. I suppose your late 20s are a time for reflection. As you find yourself drawing closer, or at least seeking, anyway, the right friendships, finding the right career path, you become bolder and braver in your actions professionally and personally, you become acutely aware of your mental health. With each passing year I have found myself discovering things that others found long ago.
It wasn’t until my mid twenties that I figured out how to take a compliment. Wanting to come off as modest I would rebuff those that said kind things, arguing against their assertion that I looked pretty or that the food I cooked was delicious. It wasn’t until someone told me that to argue against a compliment was to actually insult the person’s intelligence that delivered it. After that, through rosy cheeks and uncomfortable smiles I started simply saying “thank you.” Once I did, I realized how peaceful compliments can make you feel. Whether we want to admit it or not, compliments are actual validation that the dress we chose to wear to the wedding, the meal we chose to serve at our dinner party, the presentation we worked so hard on at work, all it, all of our work and all of our choices were well received by those around us. And with that peacefulness comes a confidence, and that confidence attracts those around us. All by simply being brave enough to just say “thank you.”
Learning that modesty doesn’t always have to require that you run and hide in a corner yelling “I am NOT pretty!” (and other equally hilarious hyperboles) also led to my reflection on why I must read books cover to cover on bad days. You see, the longer you dive into a book, the more you forget the rest of the world exists. I know I am not the only person that is sad when a book concludes because I actually miss the characters. I feel like they’re my friends. The real world feels less bright with the characters no longer in it. It is around page 100 that you forget that there is a world outside of the page.
As such, you become so terribly invested in the characters’ lives, problems, hopes, and dreams. I once read that it is impossible to listen and speak at the same time, and I truly believe that it is impossible to read deeply and hurt at the same time. Eventually, about 20 pages into your journey it is as if you literally set your own problems down on the counter to pick up later. And as long as you are in that carriage with Scarlet driving through Atlanta while it burns, you aren’t thinking about your mean boss or your selfish friend or your broken heart. It is truly, truly, an escape.
I read once (and I realize I said that about six sentences ago also – perhaps I should write a post all about things that I “read once”) that if everyone were to take their problems and throw them in a bin and we all got to pick new ones, we would still always pick our own. I can’t help but think that it is because the age old expression Catholic moms use everywhere – God never gives you more than you can handle – is true. Even on my worst day, I still prefer my problems to anyone else’s.
While reading, though, you aren’t thinking about your problems. You are thinking about whether Sarah is going to chose Nick or Bryan in this 10 year long love triangle. You are trying to figure out which of the four best friends had a baby out of wedlock in 1942 and did that baby really die? Or did they just tell her he did so she wouldn’t look for him in the orphanage? You are desperately trying to figure out if her husband really was the war hero that they all said or if his PTSD had turned him into a monster. (None of these are my imagination, by the by, all of these are from this summer’s reading list.)
And when you close the last chapter, when you have helped the characters along as they solve their issues and heal their hearts you have a sense of peace come over you. Sometimes I have become so enamored that I must stare at the wall for a few minutes to come down off of the high that the books have me on. And when it’s over, I can always find new clarity for when I walk over to the counter where I left my problems, pick them back up, and start to address them.
I think the big piece is that most authors present an issue and have it solved within 300 pages. It’s not rocket science, it’s basic plot structure. Seeing the conflict be presented, watching the action rise, observing from the safe distance you sit outside of the pages as the story reaches its climactic point, and then holding the hands of the characters as they finally come to a resolution reminds you of something: this, too, shall pass. The issue when we are knee deep in our own drama is that it feels like it will go on forever. We see no way out. Books, however, have a way out, always. In the imaginary space between the last page and the back cover comes that sweet reminder. And as such, we are reminded that there is always an end to the darkest of days.
The next time you find yourself in the depths of despair, give it a try. Turn off your phone. Call in sick to work. Literally go hide with a book. Do not come out other than for water and food as needed until the book is done. Trust me, your heart will heal faster than you can read. Unless you were an English major – then you might need two books.