How reading helps us survive

The health benefits of reading are manifold: it can educate, inform, entertain, relax you, expand your imagination, delay dementia and possibly help you live longer. Whether it’s poetry, magazines, novels, online articles, reading with a child (or a pet!), or five minutes with a newspaper, reading supports your wellbeing and can boost your mental health. Below, Paula Matthews, Orla McGrady and Lorraine Carey tell Lagan about how reading is important to them.

Paula Matthews

Recently I have been keenly aware of the grave dangers associated with silence. Silence isolates us from the rest of the world and compounds our sense of helplessness. Silence is therefore the true companion of stigma, another grave danger. There are times when being down makes it very difficult for us to take a chance on other people because we fear they will be mean. We avoid connecting with them in case they show us their cruelty and compound the negative messages that come with the stigma of mental health. So we repress our issues until they have to come out some way or another.

Sadly, I have met with many people during my career who have ended up self harming as a result of silence. One of the things I like to do is read with them. A safe and interesting conversation about something Chekov said, or why does Romeo and Juliet have an opening scene like that, can show people in a very simple and honest way that there is still gentleness in the world; that people still exist who will listen with interest to what you have to say. In my own private thoughts, I too have times when silence is not really the best option. Often this happens late at night when sleep eludes me but my family are sound asleep and don’t need me to wake them up. In the wee hours, everything seems much worse and more frightening than it does during the day. I become helpless and lonely, but there is no one to tell.

At times like this, I find that reading poetry breaks the silence. The unique power of the poet for me is that I know a skilled artist has painstakingly crafted the words over and over again until they perfectly express precisely what the poet is sharing. The work of many poets strips through the external trappings of language and digs right down to the good stuff, to quote a master poet, Heaney. Another favourite poet for me is John O’Donohue. His verse reflects the full range of the human experience and I believe the footprint he has left behind since he left this world is empathy. So when I am in that profound, oppressive state of silence, I often choose to protect my mental health by reading O’Donohue’s For Loneliness“When the light lessens,” he says, “causing colours to lose their courage.”

Already in the opening lines I am understood – and therefore not alone. I read through to his description of silence as “something stony and cold”. This is the point I have been struggling to make; the poet bears witness to my struggles with aptitude and grace. The arts have a prodigious strength in connecting us with our shared humanity, creating community when we are alone and empathy when we are isolated. The most marvellous thing about poetry is that it is an accessible art form, practised, celebrated and created in all sorts of hard-to-reach places like care homes, prisons and hospital wards. The humility of this art form, and the ensuing inclusivity of it, fill me with hope and sure me up for recovery. By the time I get to the end of For Loneliness, I feel connected to myself, heard by the poet and fit to face the future. O’Donohue, being a true poet, sums up the process like this,

+++Choose in this severe silence
+++To hear the one true voice
+++Your rushed life fears.

Reading is transformational for me: it takes the darker kind of silence and makes it into a time of restoration. No longer a repressive, stigmatised silence, but a moment of deep connection and change. It reminds me who I am. O’Donohue has it like this:

+++So that gradually
+++You may come to know
+++That deep in that black hole
+++You will find the blue flower
+++That holds the mystical light
+++Which will illuminate in you
+++The glimmer of springtime.

Orla McGrady

“We read to know we are not alone.” – William Nicholson, Shadowlands

Books have been an integral part of my life since my life began. In my very first summer job I bought a book weekly with my pay packet, I’ll never forget selecting Stephen King’s Christine from the bookshelf, which was to result in amassing quite a collection of his works that summer. I enjoyed nothing more than curling up to escape into his fantasy other-worlds; forget sport, discos, makeup and clothes, books were my Saturday night. Not much has changed. I started university studying something environmental related; however I learnt quite quickly that I struggled with the science bits, and wasted no time in switching to what I know best: books, graduating with a BA Honours in English Literature. There is no specific genre I am drawn to, if I get a recommendation I will read it, if I see or glimpse something I think I might like I seek it out. I have many books, and an equally long list of books I want to read!

I have depression, which by and large manifests as anxiety. On my journey there have sadly been times when I lost my faithful companion in reading. All I could manage was to flick through weekly gossip magazines, mind too restless to focus, and engage with something deeper that I knew could ultimately help me. However magazines have often proved my saviour, at night when unable to sleep, discovering the wide variety of magazines offering articles on a diversity of themes provided distraction and escape to soothe my busy mind. Magazines make up a regular part of my reading portfolio. In the last year while continuing on my healing journey to mental wellbeing (I have long since given up the notion of a destination!), I have rediscovered my passion (and ability!) for reading novels, and am happy to say I am devouring novels once more.

I also have books of poetry around the house for casual browsing, and often carry one with me. If I feel overwhelmed or anxious it often helps me to escape into a poem at a moments notice, instant grounding.

When at a low ebb I often felt frustrated and angry for not reading all those amazing books piling up, but I understand now this was adding to the negative cycle, symptomatic of an overactive mind. Somewhere along the way I gave myself a break, and the appetite for more challenging reading returned. I have a giant pile of often dipped into and thumbed self-help books. While they have now taken second place to fiction, these too have offered comfort, support and a vital compass during more difficult times, helping me feel more connected and less alone in understanding and managing my mental health.

Lorraine Carey

I have always loved reading. I read novels, autobiographies, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, newspapers, magazines, reviews, even the back of cereal boxes at breakfast. It’s such a wonderful form of escapism to curl up with a good book and a cup of coffee, with no distractions from the outside world. Imaginations get stoked, fired up – our brain works wonders with syntax from a page conjuring up the wonderful imagery and characters from the book/s we’re reading. We’re drawn into plots, marvel at the use of everyday language to convey tone, happiness, despair and empathise with the myriad of characters alive within the pages. And escape we must, when life (for a want of a better word) is shit, when problems seem insurmountable and it’s black inside and out.

My choice of reading material is totally dependent on my mood at any time. When I’m tired/ upset I can’t really absorb heavy material ( I suppose my brain’s telling me there’s enough going on at the minute!) and I just want something light, like a magazine. I tend to read poetry after a day writing / editing my own. Of course my idea of what’s an exceptional read may not be someone else’s. Reading is very personal, a solitary pursuit – the wealth of choice is huge and that’s what’s so amazingly brilliant about the very act. We choose material according to our desires /moods, from novels to comics, biographies to psychology magazines. I loved dipping in and out of my Guinness Book of Records as a child and ingesting totally off the wall stuff – like the most watermelons crushed with the head !!! I used to reread my Mandy and Bunty comics in the shed to get away from my younger sisters, I loved Mallory Towers and Nancy Drew, Jackie annuals and Smash Hits. Most of my original Ladybird books exist, the illustrations are superb and transport me right back to childhood.

To see your child/children engrossed in a book is wonderful. Being able to read means they’ll never be alone really. Reading to a child is magical, they love funny voices and expressions. When I’ve tried to skip a few lines or a page, I was immediately berated by an astute five year old. My youngest son requested his favourite story at the time ( it’s constantly changing) The Coolest Giant in Town, every night over a period of 3 weeks. He can now recite the story to me, how cool is that !

The very act of following words across a page is therapeutic, the turning of pages signalling progress. You must concentrate, focus and be present in that moment. I’ve become totally absorbed in a book, without realising I was approaching the end of a 300+ page turner. You’re transported into other worlds, other lives, without even leaving the comfort and confines of your own home / space. What’s not to love about the magic of that?

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