How My Depression Gets in the Way of Reading

It’s infuriating. Whenever I feel unhappy, I love the idea of reading. But when I sit down with a book that I’ve been wanting to read for ages, I just can’t focus. It’s a certain type of unhappiness, the numbing type where doing anything is difficult. Reading, writing, hanging out with friends, the things I love all become daunting. I often find the only thing I feel like I can do is watch TV. 


I’ve talked to many people who’ve felt this sort of depression throughout their lives, and everyone deals with it differently. Some people can only read. Idealistically, I think reading will help mute whatever ailments I’m experiencing. In reality, however, I end up sitting behind a screen. I never feel great about it, but it’s easy. There’s so little thought and all I have to do is watch. If I forget to pay attention, there’s no big loss. Reading, on the other hand, is a process. For me, it’s a mental state that requires my brain to work properly. It’s a state that I love but that, for one reason or another, is so hard to get to when I feel depressed. Depression is often overwhelming and reading, even picking up a book, is one of the many things that becomes hard for me. It’s like my mind is so tired from feeling unhappy that my brain becomes exhausted. When I open the page of a book, I become nervous, and when I’m nervous, I lose concentration. 


Sarah Flanigan hit the nail on the head about depression. See her full comic on anxiety and depression here. Illustrations by Nick Seluk. 


But there have been times when I pushed myself to read, and then I couldn’t stop reading. And it ended up being the best thing for my mind. I was unemployed for a while – something many people find depressing and disheartening. This disheartened feeling, the loss of confidence and determination, is one of the worst feelings. While visiting my father abroad, I brought two books with me and found one at a hostel: The Circle by Dave Eggers, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, and The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. I had been wanting to read the first two for so long, and never dreamed I would read (or like) The Nanny Diaries. 


Because I was travelling, I had no choice but to read or listen to music, and listening to music for hours really does get boring. By the time my 7-hour flight was over, I had finished The Circle. It should be noted that I started Eggers 500+ page book two months before I finished it. When I got on the plane, I was about half-way done. I got so involved with the story, I forgot I was flying. I also forgot I was incredibly unhappy. My thirst for literature had been replenished because I had forced myself to read. Yes, I still felt this empty-discouraged feeling, but remembering that there were books and that I could, in fact, read, got me excited. And, as an unemployed woman in her 20’s, I hadn’t been excited in a while.  


Set yourself up with realistic goals. Image courtesy of Giphy. 


I read the other two books with great vigor, staying up late to read just one more page. It felt fantastic. After months of struggling to read, of turning to my computer or TV to fill my mind with useless images and embarrassing click-bait, I had accomplished something I wanted to do: read! I realized that one of the main reasons I read during this period was because I didn’t have access to other forms of entertainment. Because I want to read but turn to watching movies and TV shows instead, I feel like I let myself down. When I actually accomplished my reading goals, I felt rejuvenated. So much of my emotional and book-based struggle have to do with what I tell myself. If I tell myself I can’t read, then I really can’t. But once I relax just a little and start reading, glorious things happen.


There was also another big problem with how I had been trying to conduct my literary self. There were so many books on my list that I thought I should read, but I wasn’t listening to the side of me that wanted to read other books. Sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for a dense classic like Anna Karenina (especially when you’re me and you’re going through a rough patch). The Nanny Diaries, a fun, honest book about a young woman working for a rich NYC family, reminded me that any genre, in this case chick-lit, can be good and help you get through that frustratingly-unhappy period.


I’ve been a nanny too, Scar-Jo! Maybe that’s why I liked ‘The Nanny Diaries’ so much…Image courtesy of 


Maybe someone will look at my book-of-choice and judge me, but really, no one cares and I’m probably the only one judging myself. I don’t have to force myself to read difficult books that make me feel smart; I have to read what I want! And doing what I want makes me feel good, which pulls me a little further out of a depressive period. I had been so hard on myself for so long. Of course I would struggle through a heavy, depressing book when I was feeling unhappy. Of course I would turn to Jane the Virgin (a great show that I highly recommend) rather than read Anna Karenina. If I’m struggling to pay attention, maybe a 19th century Russian realist novel isn’t the way to go. I’ll save that for when I’m more focused. 


Going through this cycle of depression and flustering anxiety, and in turn falling back on TV rather than the things I love to do has taught me a few lessons:


1) Treat yourself well, and if that means reading, READ!

2) Don’t judge yourself; if you want to watch TV, embrace and enjoy your decision to watch TV. If you want to read chick-lit because it’s entertaining and you connect to the characters, read chick-lit!

3) Everything is a process. It’s ok to feel down and wallow in those emotions; it’s ok to struggle and to not read for a few months. But it’s also important to try and I had been failing to try for so long, it felt like I couldn’t do it. I can do it, though, whatever it is. 

4) Don’t turn things you love into a task. I felt so overwhelmed by my ‘mission’ to read that it became a burden. Reading is fun, and I should keep it that way!


I have also decided that for the next week (I’m starting with a week, for now) I will not use my computer once I leave work (unless I need to for work). It’s an experiment to see how much I get done. Specifically, how much reading I get done! Next week, I’ll post an update about how my week-sans-laptop went. To be honest, I’m feeling pretty optimistic!


Featured image courtesy of Balthasar Klossowski de Rola