Tili Sokolov on How Depression Impacts Reading

Tili Sokolov primarily writes reviews and criticisms of science fiction and fantasy prose and comics. Her review of Ms. Marvel was recently published in The Cascadia Subduction Zone Vol 5. No. 4: Oct. 2015 issue, “Special Focus: The Edge of Difference in Comics and Graphic Novels”. In 2014, she completed an undergraduate thesis, “Reading At an Angle: Theorizing Young Women Reading Science-Fictionally,” which you can read here. She live in Manhattan with her partner, where she spends her time reading, writing, watching cartoons, cooking ambitiously, and attempting to teach herself the guitar. She’s quite active on Twitter and Tumblr and would love to connect with you there to discuss anything on her website or related topics. You can also find her on Goodreads.

It took me over a year after turning in my senior thesis to remember how to read.

That’s a sensationalist way of putting it, of course. I was still reading words constantly, on Twitter, in my chats with friends, in comics. But I stopped reading prose fiction, and most prose in general. Depression took those things from me, quietly, secretly, when I wasn’t paying attention. It wasn’t that I just stopped reading one day – I hadn’t been reading for pleasure much for years. It wasn’t possible with all the reading I was constantly doing for my classes. But before my senior year, I still read the occasional novel during the semester, and generally started reading for pleasure as soon as I got a break from school. The suicidal depression that came with my senior thesis made it somehow much too difficult.

Even now, after the worst of my depression is over, I still often find it hard to lose myself in the written word the same way I did when I was younger. I’m getting better: I have read novels in the past year, and I managed to scrape together nominations for the 2016 Hugos. But it was frustrating seeing friends tweet about how they couldn’t decide what should go on their Hugo shortlist, when I had trouble filling up the categories.

Recovery from depression means that many behaviors I once took for granted now require immense effort. On good days, I can remember that this effort is the symptom of a disease, not a personal failing. On bad days, though, that’s hard to believe. If I’m having a hard time reading, it must be because I’m stupid, or lazy, or too weak to conquer my depression or face the emotional ups and downs of fiction. It’s on those days that cute posts bragging about how the author finishes books in a matter of hours, or intimidates non-fannish friends with their vast TBR list, feel like reminders that I no longer belong in science fiction.

Science fiction fans love to celebrate the mind. We call our genre “the literature of ideas” and talk about how much we love intellectual pursuits. The protagonists of our stories are often mental powerhouses. What can all this mean to someone whose mind is not well?

The fact is, my struggles and the infrequency with which I can read books have made me more of a science fiction fan, not less. When I do get the chance to read, I want something uplifting, exciting, something that can offer me an escape, and SFF is really good at these things. I’ve also found online SFF community incredibly valuable – Twitter recommendations and Goodreads reviews mean that I don’t have to spend my rare reading spoons on books that wouldn’t be worth it to me. And while SFF works sometimes fail to depict mental illness with much subtlety, when they succeed, they fill me with joy.

This problem of feeling alienated by expectations around reading can’t be all that uncommon. After all, mine is far from the only common disability that can make sustained reading challenging. People with visual impairments can struggle to even obtain books in a format they can read. ADHD can make the concentrated long-term attention a novel requires difficult to achieve. PTSD and panic disorder can make any creative work a potential minefield of triggers that can set off hours-long attacks. Fatigue-causing conditions – a huge category – can prevent people from focusing as well. There are doubtless other intersections I’m not thinking about.

If someone has the imagination to enjoy SFF stories, if they can put themselves in the shoes of a stranger with arcane powers or cybernetic implants, then that person should be able to empathize with me and others like me. I believe we, as a community, can do better than the presumption that constant super-fast reading is the norm or the ideal. If reading comes easily to you, please try to remember not all science fiction fans can say that. And if it doesn’t, I hope it helps to know that you and I have that in common.

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