The #OCDame: Why Reading Is So Important To My Mental Health

Reading is more than just escapism. For some people, it's a key component of their mental wellbeing.

My therapist and I were going over coping skills a few weeks ago — we like to do a check-in every so often so I can talk through what works, what doesn’t, and what else I might like to introduce to my ever-expanding curio cabinet of Ways To Not Go Completely Crazy. 

“You know,” I pause, laughing at what I’m about to say, “I can pretty much track my mental health by how much I’m reading. It would probably help if I made a conscious effort to put more books in my brain.”

“A daily dose of reading.” She smiles, pensively jotting the note down in my file. “I think that’s a pretty great idea.”

My first memory is of a book. In it, I’m not even old enough to remember how old I am. I’m sitting in my mom’s lap as we read The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle. I reach out and touch the pages with my hands, feeling the cool, smooth lines of the spiderwebs traced in gel. 

And then I see them: the words. I try to feel them too, but they aren’t like the web. I realize that the scribbles are what my mom looks at when she tells me the story. She’s reading. It looks like magic, and I want to learn how to do it. 

Not long after that, she taught me how. Turns out I was right; reading is magic

I’ve never seen a bona-fide book therapist myself, but the idea is a simple one to put into practice. Read stories that make you feel less alone and force you out of your own head. 

For the past few days, I’ve had my nose buried in Becky Chambers’ The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. I normally read approximately 5 million books at once (OK, like, nine — which is still a ridiculous number), but every once in a while, I find one that can’t help but demand all of my attention. Sometimes I get lucky and read a book right when I need it, and The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is what I need right now. It’s sci-fi written like a poem, with a found family sort of story that feels cozy and important all at once. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how I would’ve made it through this past week without it. 

Book therapy is not a new concept, though its recent emergence in more mainstream counseling practices and treatment programs has made it something of a trendy topic for think pieces and the like. I think that’s a good thing, and I hope the trend sticks around long enough to become a widely available resource for anyone who needs it. 

I’ve never seen a bona-fide book therapist myself, but the idea is a simple one to put into practice. Read stories that make you feel less alone and force you out of your own head. Stretch your empathy muscles and see how it feels to be someone else. The best part is that neither of those things are mutually exclusive; when we make an effort to understand a perspective different from our own, we often find a piece of ourselves we thought was missing. We acquire the language to explain our own experiences — not just to others, but to ourselves. 

When I finish The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, I will be sad. Right now I’m trying to savor each glorious sentence and wrap myself up in its story for as long as I can. But I know that when I finish, there will be more books to read. So many of them. 

I’ll get to fall in love all over again. I’ll add each one to my arsenal, yet another curio cabinet all its own, filled with quotes and characters and little pieces of solace I’ve collected and stitched together into a story I never tire of telling myself. 

Books save me. Books teach me how to save myself. Books are one of my favorite parts of being alive. They make sticking around feel a whole lot more worth the trouble. 

They do more than help me cope; they help me live.

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