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Through bibliotherapy I’ve learned that books can offer greater insight and healing than I ever imagined, as long as I pay attention.
I used to read everywhere: on the train, in waiting rooms, at coffee shops, in the morning, and at night. Any free minute I had, I broke out the book I was carrying around in my bag to sneak in a few pages.
This amounted to reading at least a book a week, sometimes more than one at a time. I felt a hunger for words and stories and to read about interesting people and places. I was motivated by a desire to dig deeper, to try and explore the world, and what it means to be human through stories.
As I’ve navigated chronic illness, this desire hasn’t changed. I still want to read everything. My “to-read” list is constantly growing.
What has changed is the body in which I do my reading. I have battled a never-ending headache for almost 8 years, along with complex autoimmune inflammatory disease that affects just about every system in my body.
Most simply, this means that I’m in constant pain and fighting severe fatigue at every moment. As my symptoms change, morph, and progress, it feels as though the pain and exhaustion are the only constant.
My constant headache makes it difficult to focus, while the fatigue means that, by the time I finish everything I have to do each day, I don’t have much energy left. It’s probably not hard to see why I haven’t read as many books in recent years as I would have liked.
I also started putting pressure on myself about choosing which books to read and making sure I never wasted my precious time and energy on a book I didn’t connect with. This added unnecessary stress, and sometimes, I would go weeks without even turning a page.
Over time, my yearly book count continued to dwindle, which was devastating to me. Pain and illness have robbed me of a lot, and my ability to read the way I’d like to is near the top of that list.
Years into my chronic illness journey, through much trial and error, I have finally found a reading rhythm that works for me. It isn’t a perfect system, and I still feel sad seeing the books that go unread on my shelves. But overall, my reading life has actually been enriched in many ways.
For one thing, I’ve abandoned my relentless determination to always finish a book no matter what. Now, if something isn’t working for me, if I am not engaged, or it doesn’t feel like the right book for the moment, I shelve it. Maybe I’ll come back to it, and maybe I won’t. That’s OK.
I’ve also learned to be more fluid in my reading habits. I don’t have to finish a book every time I sit down to read. I don’t have to push myself. I can read as much or as little as I feel up for. Even if I only read a couple pages, I make sure to savor them.
More than anything, I’ve learned how to really focus on reading what I need in the moment. This has been essential to feeling like I’m getting the most out of what I’m reading.
Through my experience reading with chronic illness, I’ve learned that books can offer greater insight and healing than I ever imagined, as long as I pay attention.
I’ve done this through trying some concepts of bibliotherapy.
If you’ve never heard this term before, bibliotherapy, in its broadest sense, is using books and reading as a tool for growth and healing, and to support your mental health.
Bibliotherapy isn’t a new idea. The idea that books can hold healing power goes all the way back to ancient times.
In modern terms, bibliotherapy can be used as a therapeutic approach to help individuals process emotions and trauma, improve communication skills, gain perspective and insight, and even provide targeted support for specific conditions.
Bibliotherapy is used by mental health practitioners in individual and group settings and has proven effectiveness, as seen in several studies.
If you’re interested in trying bibliotherapy in a more clinical setting, there are many places you can find practitioners who use bibliotherapy in their work with patients.
While bibliotherapy is something that counselors, therapists, and doctors may use when treating patients, there are also many ways to practice concepts of bibliotherapy on your own.
You might try choosing books whose stories relate to something specific that you’re experiencing. Perhaps you’ve recently experienced a loss. You might look for a book that tells a story about the grieving process. Or if you’ve recently been diagnosed with anxiety, you might seek out a book in which the protagonist is navigating an anxiety diagnosis as well.
Books can be therapeutic beyond providing relatable stories and themes. You can, instead, focus on finding books that are mood-enhancing. If you’re feeling sad or lonely, you may choose to look for books that focus on happiness, harmony, and joy. Allow yourself to pick books that provide an escape, or a little vacation, from your real life.
You might also try re-reading books that helped you or brought you joy in the past. Sometimes, re-reading can not only bring us back to a place of comfort, but can also provide new insight as we return to something familiar at a different time in our life.
While I’ve read many books that meant a great deal to me, here are a few that were particularly helpful to me as I have navigated chronic illness.
- “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” by Lori Gottlieb. This memoir about a therapist also participating in therapy herself has wonderful insight into the powerful process of therapy. It also shows clear examples of growth and transformation in a variety of people.
- “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. This book has given me so much in terms of both my writing and life. It’s one that I come back to often for advice and support.
- “Devotions” by Mary Oliver. Nothing helps, inspires, and heals me more than the poetry of Mary Oliver. I come back to her words time and time again for renewal. Her work also has a deeply spiritual element that has helped me explore my own spirituality more deeply.
- “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. This is the book I have re-read the most. It speaks to me on so many levels about love, justice, connection, and growing up. I find something new every time I read it.
- “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman. This book is an enchanting — and slightly bizarre — tale about childhood, magic, and grief that has stuck with me for years. It also really speaks to the power of reading and stories.
- “The Novel Cure” by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. This book is a collection of bibliotherapy book recommendations and is the perfect starting point for your journey into reading for healing.
Stephanie Harper is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry currently living with chronic illness. She loves traveling, adding to her large book collection, and dog-sitting. She currently lives in Colorado. See more of her writing her at www.stephanieharperauthor.com.