"Remember that We can decide what to do with the things that happen to us. In doing so, we use those boulders as an advantage, as a challenge to get around, instead of believing that nothing good can ever come of it and that our story is completely ruined." - robin helget
If you are the type of person who can sit down with a fictional book and read it from start to finish over the course of however many days, umpteen hours, and a few casual minutes, then congratulations. You successfully know how a book is supposed to be read and can read it accordingly.
If you cannot, then this is for you, and even if you can read a book in a proper form, then this may be equally as intriguing simply for laughing matters or to simply feel a little better about yourself. Yes, I’m giving you permission to laugh at me.
You may read this heading and wonder what this is going to be about. Well, let me forewarn you: there’s no hidden meaning or big takeaway. It really is about how I read a book...the structure of the reading, I mean.
You would think this would be a simple action, but I happen to do it a little differently.
I first started reading stories as a small child. My mom told me she used to read to me, and though I have no specific memory of this, I believe her because I loved to read as a young kid and even now as an adult. I also have an eye for improper grammar and spelling errors, and an even bigger need to verbalize these grammatical errors in people’s posts, letters, books, emails, and what people love the most: their speaking. I have, however, throughout my twenties gotten better about letting that go...mainly because you may have found a few spelling errors thus far, and I do not want to be hypocritical. Frankly, it's quite annoying too. Besides, words are hard.
I cannot properly explain how to read a book without talking about anxiety. I have struggled with anxiety in my personal life for many, many years. I’ve called it many things: depression, boredom, nervousness, worry, dissatisfaction, and my most favorite terms that other people call anxiety: dramatic or made up. After all, we all want to spend hours surfing through the tabs in our own head finding one minor detail to focus on for hours and hours, right?
In the last five years, my anxiety escalated. The fear of the unknown and being out of control sometimes paralyzed me, made me feel stuck inside a body that wasn’t moving or doing what I wanted it to do, and my conscious mind was stuck inside screaming.
Fear of the unknown caused escalated heart-rate, not the I’m having a heart attack kind, but the holy crap, my chest is heavy and I can’t breathe kind. Reading, then, became one of the coping skills I used more frequently to escape from the inner turmoil inside my own brain. It helped putting myself into someone else’s world when I could barely manage the world in which I were living.
As I started reading more and more, I started to notice something that seemed odd to me: I was becoming more anxious while I was reading. It no longer was an escape; it became a piece of my own reality. I’d put myself into the story so much that I would get anxious not knowing how the story would end. It only took a few fiction novels, mostly Jody Picoult of course, to determine that this was not working for me. I loved reading, though. I loved finding a book I couldn’t put down--someone else’s life I could get lost inside for just a moment. I was confused and even more frustrated with myself.
My reading style went a little like this:
Pick the book.
Probably base my decision on the book cover and synopsis on the back. Yes, I'm horrible.
Let the book sit on my nightstand for a few nights.
Finally start the book.
Read the first 3-4 chapters of the book.
Get super anxious because this is when the conflict tends to happen. I now know the characters and have enthralled myself into their situations.
Stop reading the book.
Think about the book the subsequent days following.
Get super anxious about what’s happening and not knowing the ending.
This is when it hit me. The light bulb moment I needed: I should read the ending.
That light bulb moment completely changed my reading pattern. I now could get to know the story, the characters, the plot, the setting, and as the conflict builds, I would flip back to the last chapter of the book and read it. (The epilogue just quite wasn’t enough to the put the pieces together). So there I was, finding myself flipping to the last 30-40 pages of the book that was causing more stress than my own life at this point.
As I read the last chapter, I immediately feel the anxiety decrease. I feel like I knew enough of what was going to happen and that would make me okay - no matter the outcome of the story. I just needed to know what it actually was.
Maybe it's more than how I read a book...
It’s not until I write this that I actually understand there is a bigger meaning to this section.
Don’t we get the most anxiety when we do not know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next day or in my brain, ten years? Don't we get the most anxiety when the fear of the unknown encapsulates us? When the fear picks us up and throws us around with debris flying, as if we were in the middle of an F4 tornado? That’s when anxiety really takes over. If I could just know what would happen, take a glimpse into my future, I would be good. Or so I thought.
If I could read the last chapter of the book that’s called my life, my anxiety may be completely gone. If I were to be able to see that everything that has happened to me and that everything that continues to happen to me along the way will work out, and that I am going to make it, I tell myself I will be calm--that if I know that fact when experiencing these events, I’ll be fine. HOW DO WE GET LIFE TO WORK LIKE THIS FOR US?
You know this, I know this.
Our lives are not a book already written, but one where the pages are continually being formed by the relationships, interactions, thoughts, and choices we make every day. One choice today can lead to a different plot twist, different characters, and a different ending.
If we were given the book of our life the minute we were born, would it really be a fulfilling life? If we 100% knew exactly what was going to happen, who the characters were, how the story begins, lives, and ends, what would we be really even living for?
You see, our lives are more than the words on a page, just like the books we read are more than a story.
Comfort in the unknown
It's been a month since I've become aware of my reading habits. In this month, I've read three books physically and a few audibly, and I've yet to flip to the last chapter.
It may seem like a small win, but I know that this is something that helps me practice having comfort in my life that seems completely unknown. I know that I trust myself to make choices that align with my values as a human, as a woman, as a professional, as someone in relationship with others, as a believer of God. I also know that I have to be aware of these choices frequently so I can continue to keep that alignment.
When we trust ourselves in our decisions and choices, we can begin to have some peace in what the future holds and how our lives play out. There are still going to be plot twists. There will still be times when we have no idea what's going on in our own story. There will be obstacles, boulders perhaps, that stand in our way to stop us from getting where we want to go. There will be things that life hands us, heartache, loss, worry, trauma perhaps, that seem to come out of nowhere and cannot control. In these times, remember to trust. Remember that we can decide what to do with the things that happen to us. In doing so, we use those boulders as an advantage, as a challenge to get around, instead of believing that nothing good can ever come of it and that our stories are completely ruined.
The unknown is scary, and I encourage you to trust yourself enough to know that whatever that unknown is, you WILL get through it.
I'm not going to ask how you read a book. I will, however, ask a bigger question: How do you write a book? Well, we write a book, one page at a time, one day at a time, one moment at a time. Keep writing.
Robin Helget, LSCSW, CPT