**TW this post mentions suicide and self-harm.**
Reading, writing and drawing were my first loves. Books have always been there for me with their soothing words and pictures when life has felt chaotic and confusing. I wanted to write something about my relationship with books in the context of my mental health problems. Let's start at the beginning and see how we go...
As a young girl
I was an emotional little girl who cried easily and was sensitive to all emotions. I remember standing in a paddling pool one summer's day and screaming about something that nobody else seemed to understand. I loved to look at books, especially those with rich depictions of soothing worlds in which nothing much happened except picnics, boat rides and blackberry picking.
As a teenager
When I moved from primary to secondary school I cried all the time. Before school, after school, on weekends, in the toilets, at the back of class. Books were my retreat from an anxious reality and none more so than Harry Potter. The intricacy of the world provided an escape and I would read them on the school bus which was a very uncomfortable place for me. When I changed schools I became happier, but I still had issues with anxiety and emotional intensity. It was clear that I was very strong at English Literature because reading books and writing about their meanings came easily to me. More than that, reading was a lifeblood to me as a young person who didn't know how to cope with her intense emotions and painful feelings. Books let me see I wasn't alone; they made me feel connected to something when I felt lonely.The Brontes, Gothic novels, any poetry I could get my hands on...
At university and my mental breakdown
Studying English Literature at university was a dream come true, but in my first term I had a huge mental breakdown which resulted in me going back to my parents' house and needing full time care. I was severely depressed and had a punishing eating disorder. My concentration was in shreds and most of my thoughts were about suicide, self-harm and how much I hated myself. Reading and writing—the things I needed to be able to do for my degree—I could no longer do and it was terrifying. I turned to drawing instead which helped externalise my painful feelings.
After several months, I slowly began to read again and came back to my degree. Studying so many amazing books with some of the most inspiring and talented professors of literature was completely thrilling. I wrote dissertations on Virginia Woolf and her portrayal of consciousness and Robert Burton's 'monster' work 'The Anatomy of Melancholy'. It made me upset when people suggested my mental breakdown was caused by university and studying because it wasn't at all. Studying such amazing literature breathed life into me. It was my borderline personality disorder causing my suffering, not my studies. I cried with joy when I completed my degree because I knew what I had overcome to complete it. In the years to come I undertook a fascinating Master's Degree in Medical Humanities and examined writing on disabilities, illness and health.
Reading to feel connected
Over the years it has been hard to find books about borderline personality disorder that reflect my experience. In fact, many books about the condition lack genuine insight and compassion— one of the reasons why I decided to write my own book: Talking About BPD. One publication that stands out to me as bringing me comfort for a couple of years of my life was Doll Hospital Journal, an art and literature journal on mental health, edited by Bethany Rose Lamont. Doll Hospital Journal shared narratives on mental health that weren't often shared in mainstream media and reading them helped me feel less alone with the difficulties I was going through.
As a teacher
I love to read aloud to a group of children and see their awe and surprise at the twists and turns. It brings me huge satisfaction to take a class on a journey with a book and see them learn about its context, characters, vocabulary and narrative arc. I always learn too from the children's responses and observations. We share the emotion of the characters together; laughing and even crying at their turn of events. The learning and enjoyment is therapeutic for everyone involved.
audiobooks for anxiety
About five years ago I realised that listening to audiobooks could quieten my anxious thoughts. It's a kind of mindfulness practice that helps me tap into the present moment. I enjoy listening to anything from Victorian classics to children's literature, Harry Potter and modern literary fiction. I do find it harder to concentrate on audiobooks with more complicated plots though as I cannot flick back to find key information if there's something I've forgotten as I can when I read paper books. Audiobooks have been really helpful for insomnia or bedtime anxiety because when I listen to something familiar it soothes me so I can fall asleep.
When the world feels too much for me and I need a rest from emotions on 'loud volume' , I turn to my comfort reads. Books that could be described as 'cottage core' like Anne of Green Gables, Brambly Hedge and The Railway Children relax me. Above all else though , I return to Harry Potter. I don't agree with what JK Rowling says about trans people and I think what she is saying is damaging to groups of people who really don't need any more pain. Yet I find so much comfort in her books (and the films) that over the years they have become a consistent and effective therapy for myself.
Reading to my baby
When my little girl was just days and weeks old, I began reading to her. It was more to comfort myself than her to be honest, as she was so tiny. Yet it felt so good to be able to bring books into her world at such a young age. I hope she will get as much joy from reading as I do.
How has reading been for your mental health? Has it had an impact? I would love to hear from you.
- Rosie x