When Reality Gets Tough, the Tough Get Reading

In a college literature class, a professor spoke negatively about using books as a form of escapism from reality. I took that hard, assuming he meant we should never take a break. We had to be fully engaged in reality, 100 percent of the time, or we were living life wrong.

Except here's the thing about my reality: it kinda sucks. I have depression, and that means my mind is often a fog of negativity, numbness and, sometimes, really, really strong harmful emotions. Emotions that send me spiraling into a place where all I want is to hurt myself in any way possible. 

In early April, I had an altercation with a manager at work that sent me spiraling. My depression was fierce, a fire consuming my every thought. Flames licked at my mind and agony pierced my soul, unrelentingly.

Things devolved to the point I longed for death, to the point where, as much as I was scared of dying, I wanted to kill myself. If only to end the pain.

I hid out at my best friend’s East Village apartment for a few days, requesting a sick leave from work and surrounding myself with good people, because any second I was alone with my thoughts, I spiraled into uncontrollable sorrow.

It was intense and terrifying. I found myself shaking as I cried, my fingers wracked with tremors, my heart pounding, filled with the knowledge that if left alone, I would, most definitely, hurt myself. I couldn’t escape it. 

When engaging leads to hurt, when engaging could lead to permanent damage, sometimes we need to escape...

And then, words.

I would open a book—it was A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab—or turn on Netflix to binge on Friends, and sink into comfortable nothingness. I closed my mind to my reality, forgetting the pain of my own existence, and lived in another world.

That experience taught me that escapism has a time and place. Sure, sometimes we take things too far, and forget about reality when we should be engaging.

But when engaging leads to hurt, when engaging could lead to permanent damage, sometimes we need to escape. And writing—TV writing, books, the act of penning words ourselves—can bring us to that place of sweet freedom from what’s going on in our minds. It releases us from torture. TV can do this, because the visual and performed word is an extension of the written word (after all, every episode of a TV show was once a piece of simple writing), but I’ve found that books are the best for release.

Because TV doesn’t focus as much of my mind. It leaves part of it wandering, free to wonder why I don’t have that sort of life, why my dream job doesn’t fall into my lap thanks to a rich boyfriend (looking at you, Monica) or why my hair doesn’t start a nationwide revolution (hey, Rachel).

But books, they take up all my energy. They fully immerse me in a new world, my brain working hard not only to read the words on the page but also to conjure up images, recreate emotions, visualize settings and characters. Books come alive as I read them, dancing through the landscape of my brain and freeing me from what’s going on in the world that isn't Grey, Red, White London.

And my depressive episode, it ended after a few days, and I found myself on the train, reading an advance eBook version of When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, a gorgeous and lighthearted book about two Indian teens who fall in love…and my heart soared.

I forgot about my hurt, my depression, my plan to die. I forgot about what was going on in reality. Instead, I lived in Dimple and Rishi’s moment, smiling like a little kid and ignoring, for a moment, my reality.

Escapism in this moment, far from being my ruin, was my salvation. And it was pretty much all because of a book. Books are such a magical creation, so rich and full of life, and when done well they can completely transport you to a whole new world. They make you forget your own hurt, and the beauty of it is that when you leave that world, it lingers with you.

In my experience, depression is a cyclical disease, one that comes and goes, and the trick is surviving it when it comes long enough to still be around when it goes.

Thankfully, books are there to help me get through the "coming" phase.

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Karis Rogerson

Column by Karis Rogerson

Karis Rogerson is a mid-20s aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn and works at a cafe—so totally that person they warn you about when you declare your English major. In addition to embracing the cliched nature of her life, she spends her days reading, binge-watching cop shows (Olivia Benson is her favorite character) and fangirling about all things literary, New York and selfie-related. You can find her other writing on her website and maybe someday you’ll be able to buy her novels.

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Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On August 10, 2017 - 8:48am

Pretty much going through a rough period just like this where sometimes it feels you can't cope, and what's been saving me is meditation, Jessica Jones/Luke Cage, and books. In this phase I've read The Girl on the Train (a decent, literary-lite escape), re-read Stephen King's On Writing, and about to start Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones, just for a werewolf kick. It's amazing how words can tweak the synapses and perhaps even brain chemistry.