As part of OKP’s hiatus from YA fiction, I decided to pick up one of the recent popular titles in regular fiction, namely Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train. During my brief stint as a bookseller, this was one of the more asked-after titles and the premise was just Gone Girl enough to intrigue me. (Amy Dunne, the only love of my life I would not go near, ever. We will talk about more of Gillian Flynn’s writing later in this post.)
Unfortunately, while TGotT is well-written, well-paced and an all-around decent thriller, it has little to no diversity to speak of, at least not at length: a rotation of three complex female narrators and a single person of color as a side character, a Serbian therapist. Not much fodder for OKP.
Upon reflection, however, this book does follow a trend in my reading lately, namely: Books I Shouldn’t Read While Dealing with Depression & Anxiety. Or, as I’ve been calling it, my “Maybe Not” books.
I have been dealing with a formal diagnosis of General Anxiety, Depression, and mild OCD since my first year of high school. I have been on medication since and see a therapist regularly; both help significantly. There are still problem periods, despite the good health days I can sustain for longer and longer. Since finishing up my degree, my mental health has been in a downswing, which has taken its toll on my physical health.
Reading is usually my go-to for distractions, but on my bad days, it can be a little more difficult to muster up the effort required to concentrate on new books. This forms an unfortunate cycle: fail at reading books, go out to find books I think I can struggle through, bring books home to attempt reading, fail at reading books.
I don’t necessarily think that there is a trend in darker writing (in the same vein as the gritty realism in movies that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins sparked in the superhero genre), but picking up a bestseller lately tends to entails murder (TGotT and every book I picked up on the front tables of Barnes and Nobles last week), post-apocalyptic woes (Station Eleven), war (All the Light We Cannot See), or any combination of the above.
Bad things need to happen in books for things to happen, but the rash of dystopian novels in YA, the persistence of disturbingly gory criminal procedures on network television, and the aforementioned Gritty & Dark = Realism formula being used for new superhero incarnations (hello, Superman and Spiderman reboots, Daredevil) is a little overwhelming when you’re looking for a reason not to be sadder. (Note: I love all the above. LOVE. It’s my main problem with picking books lately is that the dark stuff grabs me. Hell, I write the dark stuff myself. It can be cathartic. …And yet.)
To backtrack a little, these darker plots and characters aren’t, you know, a sudden revelation. (Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein — no happy endings here.) But when you’re looking for something a little lighter to read, suddenly it seems that those stories are all that exist. A person can only read Jane Austen and shoujo manga so much.
So I always end up attempting books I know I shouldn’t read…and then regretting it as I’m reading. Getting to the end is usually not advisable.
The end result is usually really bad days. Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching was one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in years, but it also made me feel like I was legitimately going crazy. This could be a nice testament to the story (haunted house story used to discuss immigration and racism), but the dissociation I experienced could have been dangerous in the long run. Similarly, Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (small town murders, and a trigger warning for self-harm I wish I’d known about) was the first book to make me feel genuinely nauseous and left me in a funk I couldn’t shake.
This is not the normal post-book, wish-I’d-read-slower ennui. This is shit that is detrimental to my well-being when I am not at optimal mental health.
One thing that’s important to realize when dealing with mental health conditions is that certain triggers can affect your day-to-day mental and emotional health (which can compound the physical). If I can relate to certain narrators/narratives too deeply, their arcs, no matter how fictional, can and do have negative effects on me. For example: I steer clear of narratives on Eating Disorders because I do not want to internalize certain thought processes related to anorexia.
Looking for lighter fare that I want to read (i.e. without venturing into the strictly romance section), even in YA can be hard, especially when looking for fantasy or science fiction. Why can’t I just have a lighthearted love story in space?! Do you know how much I, an unemployed sad person, would pay for a Japanese historical Jane Austen-esque love story IN SPACE?!
(Side note: …I think I’ll try to write that someday.)
I think my main point, if I have to have one, is that maybe it’s okay if we don’t all write and read about the dark stuff all the time. There is often a dismissal of the light or silly stories out there, but those emotions are not necessarily less substantial. I think that this is something I tend to forget a lot. (I’m sure there is something to be said about lighter fare like romcoms being dismissed as too feminine, and the darker storylines out there as somehow more masculine or something, but I am too tired to attempt this.)
I think these stories can be just as complex as the dark and gritty stuff out there. Station Eleven, my recent purchase, is post-apocalyptic but focuses on a troupe of Shakespearean actors or something like that. I am trying not to have high hopes about Shakespearean hijinks. I could mine Hamlet for days for the parts I find comedic even though it is a tragedy (METHINKS IT LOOKS LIKE A WEASEL). But a lot of darker storylines have little to no hijinks to lighten the load, so to speak.
Writer and lupus advocate Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory may be a more useful way to discuss this phenomenon I’ve been experiencing, in regards to my inability to read lately. Spoon theory is used by people with disabilities or chronic illness (including mental illness) to describe what it’s like living with a disability or chronic illness. The amount of “spoons” describes the amount of effort or energy they have with which to complete everyday tasks. Every activity costs spoons which cannot be replaced until the next day (if that).
Able-bodied people or otherwise “healthy” people have an unlimited amount of spoons on any given day. They do not necessarily need to plan out every activity or every day to ensure that they will get through the day. They do not feel the impact of spending spoons.
I currently am struggling with having enough spoons on a daily basis to deal with a full-time job. That’s a bigger concern than finding books I can read without breaking down, but still, on the days when my depression or anxiety flares up, reading certain books costs more spoons than I can expend to keep a healthy emotional and mental state.
And I have to be okay with knowing these limits and accepting them.
Does anyone have suggestions for lighter reading they really enjoyed? Let me know in the comments. I’d really appreciate that!