How I Rediscovered My Love Of Reading

During my childhood I was an avid reader, my mum jokes that as soon as I learnt how to read I would be found most often sat silently in a corner engrossed in a book. I have never been talkative, throughout my life I have shied away from social occasions, so where other people found solace or comfort in talking to others and meeting-up with people, I have always found my peace of mind in books. However, studying English in Higher Education really slashed my enthusiasm for reading. The magic of novels was decimated when we analysed their words to death in English lessons and plots were reduced to the tools used by authors to further their own messages. My teachers passed around hand-outs on the books we were reading as if they were maths equations that could be taken apart and looked at coldly like cogs in a machine.

Then I began to worry about what kind of books I should be reading outside of class. I would pick-up books in shops with a sense of excitement only to reluctantly place them back on their shelves because I resolved that these were not the kinds of books my teachers would approve of. I saw books through the eyes of my teachers and was sad to think that they would probably laugh scornfully at me for reading popular fiction rather than classics. Then, when it came to actually reading books outside of the classroom, I found that I could not enjoy them the same way I did when I was a child. When I was younger I read for the fun of it, because it was my time which could not be dictated by anyone else, I could disappear into stories and in my head there would live copious amounts of make-believe settings and scenarios which were generated by the books I read. However, studying English made me feel like I wasn’t doing my job properly if I wasn’t analysing books as I read them and second-guessing every other thing the author wrote. I simply could not enjoy reading or lose myself in books anymore.

Over the course of 2018 though, I have rediscovered my love of reading. I made reading a priority of mine and ensured that I left myself time to read books that had nothing to do with my University course or whatever I was studying at the time. Once I stopped agonising over what sort of books people expected me to read, I gave myself a new sense of freedom when it came to choosing books. Since then I haven’t limited myself to books which require me to read them slavishly and labour over the same paragraph multiple times to decipher its Old English meanings. Don’t get me wrong, I still like to read classics which were written in traditional English but only in small doses. I haven’t put barriers up between me and the author and their plot since I have abandoned the boring cynicism which A-Level English instilled in me that authors only construct plots so that they can slide in their own messages in the subtext, as if they are conspiratorially tricking us into a false sense of security. Nowadays I give myself over to the books I read with a sense of indulgement, I allow myself to live with the characters rather than view them sceptically from afar.

I have also discovered a new love of mine; non-fiction. When I was younger I resolutely avoided non-fiction and stood with the conviction that it must be terribly boring, like reading my science textbooks from school. I thought that the style of non-fiction would be dry and hard-going and that reading those books would feel like a chore because you could not escape into them like you could with fiction books. Again, I emphasise that I thought all of these things without actually bothering to experiment and read a non-fiction book, so I was basing these judgements on absolutely nothing. However, a family friend recommended ‘The Psychopath Test’ by Jon Ronson to me, which in hindsight could be viewed as a bit of an offensive book title to recommend, I don’t know what they were trying to imply… I eyed it across my room wearily for a few weeks before deciding to take the plunge and I loved it. I laughed my head off like a maniac throughout reading it like an addict, devouring every word hungrily, essentially unable to put the book down. That book opened new doors for me. I now refuse to limit what I read whatsoever. Whenever I feel myself forming an assumption about whether a certain book is ‘for me’ or not, I stop myself because my interests surprise me sometimes and you only grow by testing your boundaries, so reading something which seems out of character may not be such an awful thing after all.

Essentially, I am proud of myself for the progress I made with reading this year. So far I have read 16 books which have all been diverse and many of them I would never have expected myself to enjoy. Along the way I have learnt new things, laughed like a drain into Jon Ronson books and found my solace again in reading.

“A word after a word after a word is power.” – Margaret Atwood

I’M MOVING ON…

Recently, I had become weighed down by the routine and responsibilities of life. This sounds like the most stereotypical millennial thing to say but why should that stop me? It’s true. The transition into University life has been difficult; the constant pressing down of academia on any and all of my spare time and the looming dread of deadlines and exams have been a burden. At Uni there is a constant pressure to be many people all at the same time; the ambitious person with a five-year plan, the social butterfly, the student who juggles five extra-curriculars, the party animal and the person who can survive on four hours sleep a night and powers themselves on a constant stream of the bitterest black coffee. Why do we do this to ourselves? Honestly, I have no idea. We are so caught-up in trying to copy everyone else that we forget how to be ourselves and do what we came here to do; to develop as a person.

Cynicism seems to be the most popular currency at Uni. I know that the world can be a very dark place but constantly working to seek out and analyse those dark spaces can be exhausting. I feel like in my first term I forgot to give myself a relief from all the critical arguments and debates which I felt that I had to constantly keep pace with in my classes. My course demanded that I immerse myself completely in other people’s pain or become just generally distrustful of everyone and everything in the world. That was not sustainable or healthy.

Now I have made it my mission to remind myself to actually breathe. To not weigh myself down so heavily with the cynicism of academic theory and the pressure to be a hundred people all at once. For me, I do this by looking around me and seeing what is actually happening, taking in the moment rather than constantly burying myself in articles which are telling me that the world as we know it is coming to an end or that we are falling into our inevitable doom as a species. Instead, I am focusing on issues that I am passionate about and that I can have an actual effect on, especially the environment. Living a more sustainable and eco-friendly life makes me feel productive and like I am giving energy back into the world rather than parasitically sucking it out. I am organising things that I can look forward to and enjoy, rather than scheduling work experience placements to bulk-out my CV.

I am so privileged that I can take a breath and think about what is best for me and my health. I am not having to constantly struggle to provide a living for myself or work a 9-5 job and I should take advantage of that because who knows what my life will be like in the future and what it will demand of me? For now at least, positive choices are ones which work towards bettering my mental health rather than my grades. If that means taking a path which I was not initially planning on, then so be it…

GRATITUDE…

This post is largely just going to be about me – probably quite a boring topic for others to read about! Although, I’m just writing this because I feel that it is really relevant to my mental health journey and I want to chronicle the change in my perspective over time. So, feel free to instantly click-off if you are reading this, genuinely I won’t blame you!

This week has been a pretty tough one for me; from going back to Uni, to my doctors’ appointment taking an unexpected turn to suffering the effects of my own disorganisation. In the past I would have taken this week as a complete write-off and lamented the different things which did not go as well as they could have. Doing this in the past has constantly made me feel like a failure, like there’s no hope and like there is no point in trying at life because tough things appear at every turn. However, this time I am making the conscious decision to appreciate the difficulty in life, not love it but learn to like it for everything it teaches me, the new paths it takes me on and the way it challenges me to approach things better next time. Also, the difficult parts of life do not inherently have to overshadow the positive bits, they are not superior or deserving of more attention and positivity certainly should not be cast aside so that negativity can hog the limelight. So, this week I am writing a gratitude list about the positive things that have happened this week that I am grateful for:

  • My mum packed lots of chocolate bars in my bag for my return to uni
  • My brother landed safely back from his time in Switzerland
  • I was looked after so well by my GP and nurse on Thursday who went above and beyond to help me
  • I got an unexpected invitation
  • I started an inspirational book called ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • I saw a tiny wild bunny on my way to a seminar
  • I tasted the most delicious flapjack that I have ever had (and I have had a lot of flapjacks over the years!)

These things may seem really small and random but when each of these events appeared in my life they made my heart smile a little broader and me more resolute to radiate positivity into other people’s lives so that they could feel that special feeling too, if only for a moment.

STRIKE!

The breakthrough moment in my first year of Uni has been my lecturers striking.

Every one of my tutors are on strike at the moment and they will be for quite a long time to come. Whilst everyone else has been raging about it, whatever their opinion on the industrial action itself, I have had something close to an epiphany! For the first time in this whole academic year I have been proactive in my own studying, I have taken the initiative and decided to do all of the suggested reading because finally I feel like this degree is my responsibility, it is up to me whether I am going to be bothered or not to make a go of this.

Previously when I have been at Uni, I have done the bare minimum of work, just enough to scrape past and have a vague understanding of the syllabus. And it has been miserable. I have hated being the half-arsed student in the corner of the seminar room who is pretending to be aloof and above the whole situation when really the depression inside me was eating me up from the inside out. Finally I have instigated an actual interest in the work I am doing. I purposely start each day with the intention of finding something positive in the work I am doing, making the best of things even when a certain week’s topic may not be to my liking.

This is all down to the strike. Being left on my own to teach myself everything has been a revelation. Without the stress of having to go to seminars and the anxiety about sitting in a lecture hall, I have been able to breathe freely again and engage with my education because I choose to, not because otherwise I might be asked a question in my seminar and be completely stumped for the answer.

There has been a lot of anger and frustration surrounding this strike. Many students, whilst supporting the industrial action, have been annoyed that they are missing out on an educational experience that they have paid dearly for. However, for me, this strike has been my saving grace and I only hope that I can keep-up the momentum…

 

DIARY #2 – SELF DOUBT

Today, I find myself staring at my blank computer screen, the brilliant white of a draft blog post staring blatantly back at me. And I feel intimidated. What I am looking at doesn’t seem to be a computer screen anymore, it’s taken on it’s own lease of life, masquerading as the many faces of people I dearly wish will never find this indescribably small corner of the internet that I inhabit. All of these faces leer at me, telling me that my writing isn’t good enough, that everything I say is cliched and that I should be embarrassed to spend my time pouring out these immature words. So, I feel afraid to write and my hands keep hovering hesitantly over my keyboard, frozen in a panic about whether or not they can trust my mind to give them good enough words to type out.

I’ll be honest, most of these faces take the appearance of people who have taught me over the years. People who have seemed to me to be impossibly clever, even scarily so as I remember their Oxbridge certificates taking pride of place on their walls, almost as if to prove my own inadequacy to me. Their faces contort into amused sneers in my mind’s eye as they look at me with the knowledge that what I write is absolute drivel that could never impress anyone. The way they look at me feels paralysing.

I don’t whether the force of their intimidation in my head is so strong because I got my first semester University results on Friday. The crude grading of my supposed intelligence and understanding has always felt frightening to me, as if the sum of my parts is presented on that results page in a disappointingly low percentage which classifies me as simply average. Whatever the mark, results are always a distinct bash to my confidence because it reminds me of how my future is in the hands of other people who are undoubtedly intellectually superior to me and probably marked my papers thinking how basic my work was. The most I can do is stick a figurative middle finger up at these pretend critiques which my mind has twisted out of the faint shadows of people I either used to know or barely know at all and continue to write in spite of the faces which drift across my consciousness.

DIARY ENTRY #1 – APATHY…

A feeling of emptiness rules my life.

After going back to Uni, I’ve let the long train journeys that pass me back and forth as I switch between the careful gaze of my parents and the complete anonymity of University life, pass me slowly by. As these two hour long journeys drag painfully across my vision, they serve as a reminder that I am never heading towards where I want to be. Regardless of my destination, I never feel at home, I never feel satisfied. I trawl through life with a dissatisfied scowl on my face, bitter and resentful at how I have ended-up in this trap, resembling a pendulum swinging from one end of the country to the other. Yet, I have no idea how to resolve the situation…what is the cure, the solution that I am waiting for?

When I sit staring at the four walls of my room, I simply feel a gaping hollowness inside. This sounds dramatic and cliched but I have never felt anything so desperate and crushing before. It feels like my chest is constantly in danger of ripping open and the guttural scream that I suppress inside of me will finally unleash it’s wild frustration. The problem is, I don’t know how I will ever put myself back together if I let these emotions tear out of me.

BACK TO FEAR…

I’m back at Uni and it feels like a completely alien space to me. After a six week break for Christmas and the exam period, it started to feel like that first semester had just been a bad dream, something that I had now woken-up from. I let myself fantasise about a different life, one where I didn’t feel trapped in a course which I mistakenly chose on a whim when I was mentally unwell. I thought about the possibilities of feeling ‘normal’, not like the outcast I have made myself at Uni. My creativity began to flow through my veins again and the unexpected pleasure of poetry popped back into my life again after years of absence.

Yet, I then found myself in my dad’s freezing cold car making the journey back to that dreaded place. Back to my room in halls where I had holed myself up a couple of months previously and torn my body apart. The walls of my room hold the memories of depression naps in the middle of the day in which I fell into impossibly deep sleeps because I felt so exhausted with the effort of getting up, washing myself and eating. Now, I have to face these memories again, shrink myself back down to the size I was when I was drained and hopeless wishing for a way out of education finally and desperate for a way to feel adequate again – not the sum of my grades and tutors’ comments.

Onwards I go into this new semester, scared of what is lurking around the corner for me and hoping that one day the sunlight will filter into my room and rather than feel ashamed of it’s touch, I will feel hopeful instead.

RESTLESS…

Recently, I haven’t been able to sit still.

As I write this, I am shifting around on my chair and fiddling with my fingers. I just cannot relax. Every time I sit somewhere to do something, I find some element of my environment wrong; my chair is too high, I am too cold, too hot, I need something to fidget with, my desk is too messy etc. I am aware that all of these things sound ridiculous. They are such little, inconsequential issues but for some reason these silly problems keep forcing themselves into the front of my mind at the moment and the more I try to ignore them, the more prominent in my head they become.

So, I am finding myself unable to complete any tasks recently. I start doing one thing only to become so frustrated that I decide to start something else, to see if I can get further with that. This is a bad spiral to get sucked into. Before I know it, I have reached the end of the day and the dark of the night is closing in around me, without anything on my to-do list having been ticked off. As a result, this kickstarts the process of me feeling incapable of being a Uni student because I feel unproductive and unfulfilled. I sit on my bed at the end of the day and feel drained but without the consolation of having done well in anything, achieved anything.

LEAVING MYSELF ADRIFT…

Over the years, I have become a pro at avoidance.

Counsellors and therapists have been left exasperated with me because of the way I weave myself out of situations and wriggle out of any obligations which I know will make me feel anxious. At school, I used to make a concerted effort to avoid any teacher who took an interest in me, anyone who wanted to explore what lay behind my silent, passive exterior. For the most part, I have made my life an extensive game of hide and seek as I have consciously guarded myself against anything which could have the potential to brings things out of me that I would rather conceal. My sealed mouth and over-active mind act as an armour between me and the world, allowing me to pass through life with a minimum amount of confrontation.

Through time this has expanded to the way I dress and present myself. I make an active decision everyday to dress myself in a way that will act as the best disguise and which will reduce any individualism someone could associate with me. Essentially, I try my best to make myself invisible. I wear baggy black hoodies and jogging bottoms which cannot show my figure and cover as much skin as possible. That way I feel safe, for some reason. Protected.

The result of living my life behind a silent barrier is that I have left myself alone and without any interests that could draw me away from the confines of my room. My lifestyle is, by my own design, incredibly isolating. University was supposed to be a new start for me, a chance to re-create myself afresh but as I write this I have not been into any of my classes for the past three days because every time I think about entering a seminar room or a lecture hall I feel physically sick.

By trying to navigate through life as simply as possibly, I have made everything as far away from straight forward as I could have done. Many of the skills people have learnt during their time growing-up and experiencing new things, I have made sure that I have missed out on. I have made dead certain that I would always be on the outside looking in because I have always seen this as the safest place to be, looking at all situations from a distance in order to ascertain any ‘dangers’. Now I am finding nearly impossible to find my way back to a point where I can live without putting extreme restrictions in place between me and everyone else.

AWKARD FIRST MEETINGS

At University it seems that I am a category. A box to fill. A task to tick off the list. This is usually because I present people with a problem; I’m not straightforward or easy to understand or communicate with and I come with a whole host of educational adjustments saddled around my neck. Therefore, professors approach me with an air of caution, confusion and curiosity.

This is because my teachers know about my mental illnesses before they even meet me. Along with my picture on their module database, they are invited to read about my history of problems within the education system and the issues which my poor mental health present for me. They know the workings of my brain in quite a bit of detail before they even see me in real life and experience me as a person rather than just a list of clinical judgements.

Frankly, I do not know how to feel about this situation. I feel awkward upon meeting lecturers and professors for the first time as I know that they will have seen the notes which have been made about me from various different assessments and meetings – it is like they have been let in on one of my secrets. Whilst this is helpful because they are aware of my situation which may provide context for my detached and anxious behaviour, I also feel vulnerable when I first meet them. I know that they have the knowledge to see me in a particular light which frightens me as there are no ways that I can hide the ugly complexity of my character, it is all laid out there in the open with a complete stranger.