I’ll find my eyes scanning the lines— pages and pages will go by and slowly it’ll occur to me that I haven’t registered a single word of any of it.
I’ll furrow my brows and stare fiercely at a paragraph but it’s like I’m drugged up or something and my mind just floats… off.. I throw my arm out and yank it back, my shoulders tense as I try to force myself to focus, but it’s no use.
I’ll slow, slow, slow myself down. “I’ll just take it one word at a time,” Just. One. Word. At. A. Time. “Wait, what did I just read?” And I pull up a bit to try and take in the whole sentence and the words.. they’re mushy and jumbled. I can’t make any sense of what I’m looking at.
I’ll see the book laying on my bed, I’ll waver uncertainly, ‘do I want to read right now?’ ‘should I … maybe brush my teeth?’ ‘I think I forgot to pay my health insurance.. again..’ my gaze floats around, I can’t focus on the book, or the dirty laundry on the floor, or my dying plant in the corner. I sigh and lay back down.
And it makes me feel so stupid. Like damn I’m just getting dumber and dumber by the day. What the hell.
Also I hate it when people say to me, “You’re not alone.” I mean.. okay?? What am I supposed to do with that? How does knowing that help me in anyway whatsoever figure out how to read again? Alright, cool, I guess, whatever, it’s kinda nice knowing I’m not the only dumbass with this problem, but still, how is that actually supposed to make me feel any better?
That dim part of me that knows how much I love to read, how much I love to learn and lose myself in great stories and climb down into dense tomes of history, philosophy, and whatever else has happened to strike my curious interest— where’d it all go??
It becomes not worth the effort, I shrug in defeat. It is what it is I guess. I wander, shuffle aimlessly around the house like a ghost. Half convinced I could disappear into the wall if I tried, just walk straight through the couch and the coffee table, so much more solid than me.
My mind just turns to mush. Like grandmas old puked up casserole slopped all over the counter if that heavy dish just went ‘Poof!’ and vanished into thin air. I draw the blinds cuz the sun is too much for me right now and make myself into a burrito person with that zebra-striped blanket that I haven’t washed in 8 months and I guess I’ll just turn on 90 day fiance? I keep zoning out. I can’t follow along.
Or even think in coherent sentences. The effort of putting words in chronological order has never felt so impossible. They float around, fading in and out, in and out, like they’re in a zero gravity space chamber.
I can tell when I can’t read because of my ADHD or because of my depression. When I’m doing okay mood-wise and I can’t focus on what I’m reading—it’s because my thoughts are zipping around, it’s because I’m just a little too interested in everything, and when my mind floats off it actually is thinking about something else and not slowly disintegrating into an inarticulate blob, which is what I become when depression is the issue.
So, okay, first of all, I couldn’t do it without medication. And I couldn’t do it without tackling my mental illnesses head on. I spent years and years of my teens and 20’s trying out every ‘brain hack’ ‘productivity hack’ ‘time-management hack’ that I came across—desperately hoping that this one would finally be it—I would finally crack the code and become a normal, functioning person like everyone else. But without dealing with the clinical reality of my depression and never getting on medication — absolutely nothing I tried ever delivered consistent, sustained, quantifiable results that I could rely on.
And this is what frustrates me when people carelessly advertise their ‘holistic’ ‘medication free’ treatments as tried and true, legitimate strategies for conquering depression and anxiety, even the most extreme, severe cases. These practices, methods, hacks, tips, rituals, meditations, all have their place and can often be very helpful to many people, and sometimes, a lucky individual may witness the complete relief of his or her symptoms through acupuncture, or juicing, or raw veganism, or cross-fit, or Reiki, or screaming positive affirmations in the middle of zumba class, or whatever. I have no problem with any of these practices. The problem for me is how the general publics attitudes and assumptions concerning mental illness and whether or not we all have the ability to magically heal ourselves if we just tried is informed by the testimonies and experiences of an extraordinarily small group of people. But because some people, through organic, holistic means have cured their depressions without medicine, because some people, through ju-jitsu and a low-fat high-protein diet cured their ADHD without medicine, because some people started meditating and then stopped having panic attacks without ever relying on medicine… there are fast swaths of people in spiritualist, new agey, diet/fitness, and productivity/self-improvement/life-hack movements whose adherents low-key judge all of us who are simply incapable of willing ourselves free from the continued vicious onslaught of our symptoms. But if only we woke up and decided to get over our shit, we too can cure ourselves through the sustained effort and commitment to whatever fucking promise some judge-y asshole is trying to sell us.
I fell victim to this belief. For years! For over a decade! I drank everyones bullshit fucking kool-aid that I just had to get to the center of my spiritual malaise—for obviously my condition was exclusively spiritual—I just had to get my body right with the perfect diet/sleep/fitness regiment and I would be cured of this all! Don’t go to a Doctor! They only want to drown everyone in prescriptions you don’t need! Anti-Depressants make you flat, lethargic zombies with no personalities! I wasted so much goddamn fucking time with all this shit. And honestly, I’m probably always going to be kinda mad about this.
Because guess what? Waking up and going to bed at the same time every day and eating bananas and spinach salads and meditating for 15 minutes and morning walks and classical music and practicing self care and not over-indulging in social media and exercising 5 days a week did. not. help. me.
Not at least until I saw a blood Doctor and got put on some goddamn medications.
If there did exist out there some kind of exalted, hidden Holy Grail secretly containing the keys to unlocking perfect mental health — I would have fucking found it by now.
Aiiiieee, sorry y’all. That was definitely a tangent. I did kinda pop off a bit there. I have a thing, I guess you could say, around the whole medication issue.
Anyway, if you have been struggling with depression for a really long, stupid ass amount of time and nothing has been helping—and if it has consistently been interfering with your ability to do the things that important to you, like reading or anything else— please, for the love of god, do not feel ashamed to reach out for that assist. It isn’t worth it. I promise you.
Alright. Assuming that you are currently taking or figuring out your meds, going to your doctors appointments and all that— let’s move on and talk about possibilities for what you can do to get back into being able to read, as often the meds themselves, despite being crucial for some of us, are not enough on their own.
There have been a few things I’ve found that have really helped me out after my suicide attempts to step out of the clouds and slowly get back into reading again.
The first has been singing along to Youtube videos of my favorite songs. Yeah, I know. I’m sorry if you’re a terrible singer — I have a croaky frog voice myself. But when I managed to get into it with my drawing, or if I was trying but zoning in and out all the time— sometimes I would hum along, and eventually starting singing along (sorry dad), to whatever old beat or sentimental music I had playing at the moment.
It took a while for to hit me. But it started maybe a few months after I’d been home, when I’d find myself singing along to a song and realize that I only knew half the lyrics, and that started to bother me. So I’d click around until I found a video of the song that featured the lyrics. If I just watched the video, and tried to study and memorize the lyrics appearing on the screen, I wouldn’t remember any of it. But if I sat through the video and sang along with the lyrics as they appeared— aware also that I coasting on that muscle memory of the melody and body recognition of the tempo, flow, the soaring expressiveness of the lyrics that string themselves together like poetry— the words themselves started to emerge out of the black backdrop. I started to recognize them and actually make sense of what I was look at.
Im no scientist or anything, so obviously I have no clue why this helped. But I’m going to take a guess anyway.
I think it has to be connected in some way to that visceral way that music lives within each of us. Especially music that we love and listen to over and over again. Even when we let years pass without listening to that 2016 summer jam that we blasted out of our cars with the windows down for three months straight—when we hear it all of a sudden after years of having forgotten it— that memory, that connection to it just rises up out of your bones before you even realize what’s happening. First you spin around like, ‘what! what! I know this song—who sings this? how’s it go again??’ And about 45 seconds later when the chorus kicks in your body already knows what to do. You rock, bump, sway, tap, twerk, belt out the lyrics— whatever it is that you do, it’s like all that time didn’t exist at all. And it all comes with. The beat, the harmony, the instrumentation, the words.
And that’s why I’m thinking that singing along to music we love can be such a helpful step towards making ourselves able to read again. The words come with the music that your bones, blood, heart, butt, and head all remember— it’s easier to reconnect and engage with and make sense of all those words that come with the package deal. Easier than just jumping into the deep end right away of processing those still, silent, 7pt font words on the page.
My second suggestion is—and yes, I am heavily, heavily biased with this one—are comic books. Comics are are really great just on their own and they’re also a great place to start when you’re working your way back to normal literacy.
The combination of different elements can engage us on multiple levels. There’s the written word of the narration and dialogue. But it would be nothing without the art. Or without the abrupt interjections of sound effects. Or without the ebb and flow of the panels themselves, with their own tempo and pace, illustrating the progression of time itself.
But I wasn’t able to be engaged in anything at first, and it took a while, when I was still floating around in space. I let my eyes settle where they may, trying to appreciate the visuals, the inks, the colors, the expressiveness of it all, to the best of my ability. In time I was able to eventually take in the visual content of maybe two or three panels on a page instead of just one. And slowly, haphazardly start stringing them together in my mind, deciphering what of the story I could without reading the words. When I picked up the book a week later and started absently flipping through, patches of panels and images emerged and pushed up from the indecipherable flatness of the pages, proving to have made a soft mark on my memory.
And I just.. kinda went from there. Eventually getting to the word part of the comic, which is a significant player but not the sole director of the storytelling. It is carried along with and supplemented by the voice of the art itself.
The norms of our fast-paced internet culture are also a significant detriment to us in this stage. Even when we are not struggling with a depression-induced fog bank—reading books is a challenge to many of us regardless.
Our minds and our bodies have acclimated to living for the short dopamine-bursts we receive while dicking around on the internet, the little rushes of excitement when we play video games and apps—and of overall bouncing around quickly between topic to topic. Regardless of whether or not we wrestle with a clinical ADHD diagnosis—our society more and more is catering to a population with a short attention span.
Reading is often difficult for us, whatever our mental state may be, because we’re so used to having multiple sources of external stimuli bombarding us and wanting our attention at the same time. Our attention is spread thing and it is truly a challenge to commit our minds to focus on reading because it’s ‘low-reward’ in the sense that it doesn’t provide the same little rushes of dopamine we get by surfing the internet. And so, it can feel boring in comparison to being on the internet or social media.
A meditative motion can help pull our scattered brains into one functioning piece. Actual meditation, of course, might be a route you could consider taking before trying to get yourself to commit to reading. For myself—I’ve found that just sitting outside quietly for 10-15 minutes achieves a similar effect—no headphones though! Or going on a quick walk around the block. It helps to slow my mind down. Which was surprising to me when I was finding myself not able to focus on anything—I often thought my mind was no where instead of everywhere. It was nowhere, in a sense—it was pulling outward into so many different directions that it was, functionally, nowhere.
Following is a video I really like about getting ourselves to read by Joey from BetterIdeasTV (a great channel overall that I highly recommend). In this short-but-sweet informational clip, Joey covers a wider breadth of attitudes one might take towards reading itself. As I admit that my working assumption with this piece is that you used to actively enjoy reading.
This video offers a handful of suggestions that have never occurred to me that I think could be very useful to many of us. He talks a bit more at length at how browsing the internet before setting down to try to read often backfires, saying that “it’s like binge eating skittles before drinking a fine wine,”
Also I would like to second along with this video the importance of starting small—Joey recommends committing ourselves to reading just a page a day to start out. It’s just as easy to do as it is easy not to do, he points out. Which makes it well within our capacity to will ourselves to just do it.
And don’t start by diving into “The Brothers Karamazov,” by Dostoyevsky or something equally as dense—if you’re really struggling right now, demanding this off yourself right off the bat is just going to give you an excuse to badger yourself relentlessly. And where will that get you? Nowhere. You’re going to become even less motivated to fight to regain your literacy if you’re constantly calling yourself a fucking dumbass all the time.
I like the idea of starting with the commitment to one page per day, of a book that both interests you but isn’t going to require mental acrobatics on your part to comprehend.
If you’re in that foggy place and you scan the letters of the page and none of it manages to stick—you still did what you set out to do and you shouldn’t be ashamed of that. In fact, give yourself some credit for managing to hold yourself to your daily mission. Simply read the same page again the next day. And the day after that, if you must. Don’t give in! Eventually, it will start to click. Eventually it will get easier.