WORDS THAT HEAL: The comfort of literature in times of mental duress
"I was in Class 6 when my parents got divorced. I took it normally, because it was something I had wanted from when I was much younger. But our society is a horrible place for single mothers, so my sibling and I decided not to talk about our feelings at home to spare her the stress. I reckoned I'd be fine because I had many friends. But on the first day that I attended class after the divorce, everyone stared at me as if I had come from a zoo. There I was, dying to talk to someone, but even the people who wanted to talk to me about it were hesitant. Then one day, someone asked me 'Tomader chole kibhabe?' and I froze. That's when I realised how miserable I was. I shut myself up, stopped talking to my friends, and asked myself what I'm good at. Reading. I would be okay with books and books only," Abontee said to me over Messenger earlier this week. A 16-year-old SSC student from Barisal, Tasneem Taj Abontee escaped completely into literature to deal with her parents' divorce at an impressionable young age.
The funny thing about reading is that it's at once a private and a communal activity. You may pore over a book in solitude, and choose not even to discuss it with anyone else. Even in that escape from your own reality, you're connecting with another person, another reality on the page; it's an act that colours other parts of your life, seeping in through your thoughts. Recognising these benefits, the UK-based charity organisation The Reading Agency conducted research on how reading impacts mental health.
Reading for pleasure or as therapy—bibliotherapy—boosts self-esteem and relationship skills and helps combat depression, anxiety, and stress, they found out. After consulting both health experts and people suffering from various mental illnesses, they created a "Reading well for mental health" list this year that covers grief, anxiety, shyness, and insomnia, among other issues. The titles include Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink, The Boy with the Topknot by Sathnam Sanghera, and A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax.
Abontee didn't suffer from any mental illness while growing up, per se. But she faced her parents' divorce at an age in which it could have left deep scars on her psyche. Bottling up her misery both at home and at school certainly seems like too heavy a burden for a 6th grader to bear alone. She sought comfort in the works of Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.
"Have you read Ami Topu by Zafar Iqbal?" Abontee asked me. "Topu had serious family problems too, and he had to overcome them. Also, Kajoler Din Ratri. These books helped me stay calm and decide that I'm not going to change myself for others. I used them as 'friends' to face my reality," she recalled. Over time, strengthened by the support offered by these books, she managed to come to terms with her circumstances. If her friends weren't comfortable reaching out to her, she would reach out to them, she decided. Looking back on it all, Abontee expressed the impact of literature on her mental health in a way that I've never heard before.
"They say a good book listens. These books really listened to me," she said.
This connection with fictional characters, especially those suffering from the same plights as oneself, is perhaps the most reassuring part of reading for pleasure. Imtiaz Ahmed*, an editor at a Bangladeshi newspaper, found a similar kind of comfort after ending a long-term relationship in college. He locked himself up in his room, shut his doors and windows and didn't talk to anyone. For ten whole days, he drowned himself in darkness. But he finished 11 books during this time, reading on his cellphone. He read, and fell in love with, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera before stepping back into the world.
"Mental well-being isn't just about being crazy or sane," he told me as we sat discussing the catharsis of books in his office cubicle. "The flaws in my [past] relationship made me stop believing in the good things at the time. However, every other line in Cholera made me smile," he recalled.
I asked him if it was the language, the characters, or the story that helped him feel better. "It was the amount of love in the book," he seemed to almost think out loud. "Maybe my faith in love wasn't rekindled, maybe I didn't recover completely at once. But it made me realise that the problem lurked in my dynamic with my partner and not in the concept of love itself.
I felt a little better because the story played itself out so beautifully."
The journey of the book itself is meaningful in this instance. Once Imtiaz began reading, the form and setting of the novel made him aware of the presence of the author. "Marquez is that old man in your neighbourhood who everyone knows to be a great romantic," he mused. "He's that aged uncle who will dance with his wife at a social gathering." Imagining the author, romanticising the unnamed Latin American town while also rooting for the novel's characters offered Imtiaz a welcome reprieve from his own pain. Somehow, he was slightly better equipped to deal with his heartbreak.
Of course, troubles aren't as easily forgotten when the issue is a more haunting mental illness. Talking to Electric Literature about living with anxiety in an "increasingly scary world", Amanda Stern, author of Little Panic, once shared how even the numbers of the clock were hard for her to trust as a child.
"How could anything be consistent, safe, if ten o'clock can be both morning and night?" she used to worry. She decided to use her writing to help other kids with trauma and anxiety who would read her books. It was about legitimising their thoughts, about "help[ing] them articulate their feelings when they [didn't] have the vocabulary."
I learned how such initiatives can actually help people when I spoke to Lubaba Mahmud, a Bangladeshi girl attending college in Canada. Lubaba suffers from anxiety and finds that reading about other characters teaches her to better articulate the feelings clogging her own mind.
She's currently reading First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson. Born amidst seven siblings in a bush in Canberra, journalist Wilson lived with anxiety, OCD, and bipolarity for years. She decided to incorporate memoir, instruction, and braids of other relevant disciplines in her book to help readers deal with anxiety in their daily lives, highlighting even the occasional silver lining (an anxious person can be a good planner). For Lubaba, the book works because it understands that the illness doesn't really have a cure. It's something you live with all your life. But simple acts of resilience—making your own bed, doing breathing exercises, imagining three things that you're grateful for each day—can lighten its impact on your life.
And yet for some bibliophiles with depression, despite their love for literature, even picking up a book can seem taxing. Mahera Hossain*, a school teacher in Dhaka and Narissa Abedin*, who runs an academic scholarship project in Chittagong, have both suffered from acute depression for years. Both have struggled to finish reading books during particularly trying phases, and have actually gotten more stressed out over not being able to read despite it being a hobby.
"I could hardly get out of bed. And reading a book felt like a luxury, like yet another chore that I didn't want to do," Narissa shared with me. "I pushed myself to read but couldn't get beyond one or two pages. This added a layer of guilt to the depression." Mahera, meanwhile, came close to committing suicide during an especially bad phase, made worse by tricky dynamics with her mother-in-law; she was diagnosed with OCD, post-partum depression, and anxiety. "I collected sleeping pills in a jar. I counted them whenever I became upset," she recounted. But a book still turned things around for both of them. A friend brought the eponymous biography of actress Meena Kumari by Vinod Mehta to Narissa in Chittagong. In Dhaka, Mahera joined the Facebook group 'Litmosphere', where someone suggested she read Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Alborn.
Narissa started with a single page; then she read another one. After many, many days, she couldn't put a book down without finishing it. Only two days after beginning, she was nearing the last chapter of the book. It was late at night and she was meant to go to bed because of her medication. But she stayed up until she turned the last page of the book and then fell asleep. "I had finished reading an entire book. It felt like I'd conquered the world," she stated simply.
Reminded, by the life narrated in the biography, that she wasn't alone, Narissa immediately moved on to a collection of short stories titled Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami. Settling into this mood encouraged her to face other activities that previously felt gargantuan because of her depression. "When I picked up the book, I realised I wanted to sip on some tea while reading. That meant I had to make the tea myself," she recalled. "After finishing one book I had to choose the next one to read. This pulled me towards my shelf, which I then noticed was out of sorts. So, I took care of that. That, in turn, made me leaf through some more books. Each step, each activity, felt like a huge achievement." Slowly, very slowly, she moved from a biography to the short stories to completing her first novel in many months. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.
She also made sure every book had a little inscription: a message from a person presenting it to her, or even one from herself when the book was self-bought. "Dear Narissa, Rise and shine." "Love, Narissa [and date]." It offered a form of communication—with the gifters, with the book, with herself. Another little pick-me-up for her is to briefly read from a book that she had read in a happier time. A passage from Heidi. A page from a Shirshendu book that she'd read during the holidays after board exams. She also recalled coping with her stay in a hospital because it had a small library. Borrowing from its collection, reading by the window ledge, reading while in pain, was a cathartic experience for her.
For Mahera, meanwhile, help came not only in the form of relatable characters, but also the physical comfort derived from holding onto a book. "I've carried a book or a Kindle with me during the worst times of my life. It's like a security blanket," she told me. "And reading about other people's trials, seeing how they persisted and overcame them, helped me overcome mine. I knew when I felt too overwhelmed by my surroundings that I had another world to escape to."
She found such escape in Tehmina Durrani's The Feudal Lord, Jean Sassoon's Princess, and Khaled Husseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. "When I read about what the women in these books have gone through, it gave me a level of tolerance and patience that I never had before. It showed me that I have a lot to be thankful for. Especially when I read about how most Asian women are treated by their husbands and in-laws." It was an activity suggested to her by her therapist.
Like Narissa, Mahera found the books pulling her to coffee shops, to other locations where she sat and read in solitary comfort. The process has been healing, to say the least. Narissa is still going through a reading slump. She's struggling her way through actor Nasiruddin Shah's And Then One Day: A Memoir. But she's also still reading Heidi. Mahera makes sure that she reads for at least half an hour a day.
This article first appeared in print on Star Weekend magazine.
*Names have been changed to respect the interviewees' privacy