The challenge of reading fiction during the fog of depression

I had a conversation with someone recently about why I have struggled to read works of fiction over the past seven months. I have completed one fiction book in the past seven months: The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola.

I told this person that I do not have the patience for reading about made-up things and that I much prefer reading about real people’s lives at the moment.

The person I spoke to about this fiction/non-fiction split asked me why I am not interested in the escapism which fiction brings. I do not really know the answer it but I guess I just have less patience at the moment with made-up stuff. I have never really been one for escapism, low mood or not. I think reading for me has always been about the use of language. I am not pretentious but I do love words and how people combine words to connect to a person’s soul. So I can and do appreciate fiction. Not so much because it takes me elsewhere but because it connects me to somewhere.

Of late however, I have struggled to connect with works of fiction. One of the symptoms of depression is an inability to take pleasure in things. This inability to take pleasure in low moments has significantly affected my desire to read. However, over the past 3 weeks, there has been somewhat of a change in this which has coincided with a shift in mood.

I want to read about the battles (of the mind) people face and how they have overcome, sunk under the weight of or managed those battles.

I guess it gives me hope that just maybe, there is a way forwards for me too.

In the past seven months, I have had more than a few episodes of depression. Apart from the fact that this makes it difficult to read or write anything, what I have noticed most is my declining interest in reading or writing fiction and my growing interest in non-fiction books.

I have read about 9 works of non-fiction in the past 3 weeks. Something came over me during the last episode of depression and it was as though books were the only thing which gave me an ounce of comfort whereas normally I would not even be able to lift a book much less open and read it. Weird.

Some of the books I’ve read include:

  • Caroline Elton: Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors
  • Emilie Pine: Notes to Self
  • Dr Graham Easton: The Appointment: What Your Doctor Really Thinks During Your Ten-Minute Consultation
  • Arnold Thomas Fanning: Mind on Fire
  • Marya Hornbacher: Madness: A Bipolar Life

In each of these books, the writer talks about the challenges they have faced or the challenges of others they have come in contact with, and how things subsequently unfolded.

The challenge of blogging about my mental health is that I am not over the mountain. In fact, some days, I am not sure where I am on the mountain. Some days I cannot see the top of the mountain so I cannot even estimate my journey time. At times, I wish someone would wake me up when it’s all over. I am like the child shouting in the car ‘are we there yet?’ Only to be told not yet.

I hope to fall in love with fiction again at some point. In the meantime, I am trying to gently rekindle my love for it by reading short stories. I am currently reading a collection of short stories called The Book of Tehran (Reading the City), edited by Fereshteh Ahmadi. I am also planning to reread some of my favourite short stories including:

  • Vladimir Nabokov: Symbols and Signs
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: A Temporary Matter
  • Raymond Carver: Cathedral
  • Flannery O’Connor: Everything That Rises Must Converge

Short story writing has always been a source of comfort to me. Knowing I could start and finish something inspired me to get back into writing when I abandoned my first novel ten years ago after my mental health took a leap into the pit of hell.

I have struggled to read or write when my mental health has been at its worst. I think I had a period of 3 years within the past ten years when I did not read a single book. I am a long way from that but I do go through months where reading is a struggle. It is like the words become disjointed so that my eyes are unable to form sentences. My eyesight changes and my ability to make sentences out of the words is lost. I am grateful that at the moment I am able to read something.

I know these seasons come and go but I guess for me, it is better to read something which nourishes me in some way than to force myself to read fiction for the heck of it.

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