In 2016, after conferring with loved ones, I abandoned a Masters in English Literature and apologised to tutors of my would-be PhD. I’d spent a week staring down an essay – comparisons of Heathcliff to Irish political agitators – to no avail. I could write. Mercy had spared me that indignity. But I couldn’t read, no more than when I was a toddler.
Allow me a second to elaborate. I could have read aloud any sentence, and you’d have given me a gold star for doing it. Yet, whatever semiotic faculties allowed me to harmonise words with ideas were gone. Reading English took me as long as reading Italian, which was never my forte.
So, I saw a doctor. She asked what name she should write on the antidepressant prescription. I suggested she progress our cosy little consultation past the sixty second mark. The doctor obliged, all but checking he watch with a sigh. We chatted further, and I left with sleep medication and an unsurprising diagnosis: low mood. It’s a euphemistic evasion I suspect invented by medical insurers. Ensuing psychiatry suggested as such.
I still have depression, and, over time, I realised that I’ve always dabbled with the noonday demon. The difference was that I was newly equipped. To name something is a powerful act, even if it doesn’t seem so immediately. To name something – cancer, MS, schizophrenia – is to make something not ourselves, a vital act in every sense of word. These diseases attack us with the very parts of our psyche that mediate our experience of them. They cannibalise our epistemology, if we’re being pretentious. To name them is to disarm them to a small but necessary degree.
But why expound this on a postgraduate blog? Well, the odds of being the only human whose mental health roughs up the reading process are pretty slim. There has been a morbid failure to address this throughout the comity of academia, which is bizarre. Surely, no one should be more aware than the humanities of the experience of reading and the mental landscapes on which it occurs. Surely, poets and philosophers should warn students that nothing can ravage these landscapes more than melancholia and disease, no less the importance of tending them with mindfulness and self-love.
Let’s examine an obvious case: the sensation of depression. At its most dull, it can be mere lethargy or inertia. At its worst, the ‘I’ that acts on the world falls so far behind the ‘me’ that experiences it that you feel at a great distance from reality itself. Under these conditions, how can you hope to read Dickens or Joyce when these processes – memory, empathy, reference, ironic thought, the appreciation of beauty – all require fluent communion between these selves? Between you the object and you the subject? How is it possible to even think?
The best scenario here is that you don’t want to read. The worst case, as in my own, is that you can’t. With patience, however, you can recover. You will recall that I began this essay with a thanksgiving that I never stopped writing altogether. The very notebook in which I drafted this piece is littered with whiny lists and existential aphorisms. I suppose we’re all cliches in the end.
Writing has a reputation for being less passive than reading, even though the latter is most rewarding when done proactively. This short-formed thought of mine may have been enough to save me. To cull the anxiety that would stop me scribbling. The problem was that reading became so passive that I was intellectually inert, so there was, at the time, no hope of me restoring my mental landscapes. Happily, realising the importance of this dichotomy between active and passive offers a potential solution..
Mindfulness. With a capital M. Another word thrown around with dizzying imprecision. Many assume it means concentrating more or learning to empty the mind with meditation, and these are things mindfulness can achieve. Yet it would be more thorough to say that mindfulness is the practice of living deliberately, practically and mentally. I won’t go into its methods and so forth too much, as it’s best that people seek out their own resources, but I will show how it applies to reading.
The next time you read, have a pencil to hand. Summarise or annotate with your own reflections. Make yourself part of the process. In short, exercise the part of you that does things. The ‘I’. The subject. This, rather than the you that experiences things. The ‘me’. The object. That part only needs to self-love to stay in shape, which is easy work so long as you have a healthy ‘I’ to administer it.
It doesn’t matter how long it takes. Even if you have to spend twenty hours trying to understand three pages, as I once did, you will have practiced mindful reading. You will have exercised the mental muscles you flexed so impressively as a book-devouring child. Meditation and colouring in, for example, can help with this, as can taking notes while you watch films.
For me, depression was and still is the objectification of myself. The decline into sheer passivity. I wasn’t an ‘I’ anymore. I was just a ‘me’. I believe this self-objectification could explain why sufferers sometimes feel like passengers or even imposters in their own heads. It happened to me, because my facility to doing rather than experiencing life became flabby and toneless.
I can now read again. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but, by summarising every page I ever read, I’ve recovered my connection to the flow of language and its nuances of meaning. I still have depression, but I know all its moves, and, after years, I’ve more or less made it my bitch. I’m even beginning another Masters this year.
So, here is some advice from lessons hard-learned: no matter how healthy or in despair you are, practice being deliberate, accept your own pace, seek all the help you need, and be as lovely to yourself as you can. Nurture the mental landscapes across which your selves commune. Oh, and turn off that fucking phone. There’s nothing worse for the soul than Twitter.
– Phillip Sutcliffe-Mott (@tobeormotttobe)