I Confess: Reading Stresses Me Out

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Okay, so this is weird. Reading stresses me out.

It’s weird on so many levels.

One: Reading is one of my favorite things to do.

Two: I was an English major.

Three: I read a lot.

Conclusion: Weird.

Maybe saying “reading” stresses me out isn’t specific enough. So let’s dig deeper.

I get stressed that the books I read aren’t literary enough. I get stressed when I start a book and don’t finish it. I get stressed when I don’t like books I think I should like. I get stressed that I don’t read “enough.” And I get stressed out by the violence and conflict in books.

I also get stressed about getting stressed about books. So meta.

I first noticed this anxiety when I was pregnant with my first child. A friend from my creative writing MFA program recommended three of her favorite books. One was The Corrections, which seemed like A Book All MFA Candidates Must Like.

Meh. I got about twenty pages in preferred not to make further acquaintance.

The other two involved violence against very young children and babies. I got about two pages in and put them down like hot potatoes. (I’ve since heard from a lot of mothers that they Just Can’t Go There.)

I thought putting aside those books was a pregnancy thing. Assumed it would go away with time.

If anything, it’s only gotten worse.

It took me a long time to realize something I loved, something usually joyful, also gives me anxiety.

But on further reflection, lots of us get stressed out by lovely, fun things. Food, sex, or our bodies. Friendships, parties, Christmas or … clowns?

It helps me to remember that anxiety specializes in this kind of party pooping.

It helps—a little.

****

When I was eight or nine, my mom bought me Little House on the Prairie at a bookstore in the mall. Then we walked over to her favorite clothing store, and I sat in the corner. I sat happily.

(Ninja parenting move, no?)

I fell into that book like I fell into every book I read, only deeper. While Mom shopped, I ran alongside Laura and Mary in the tall grass, looking for prairie hens and glass beads.

I read and re-read that book and the others in the series, and the Ramona books, and the Chronicles of Narnia and Judy Blume. I read and re-read everything until I could turn to a favorite paragraph in an instant, as if navigating a map of my hometown.

Reading saved me. Reading transported me to another world where my family wasn’t ripped down the middle. Where I was not afraid and shoving down my grief. Where I did not eat alone at school and wander the playground hoping no kids would notice I was the weak one in the herd.

Reading also got me in trouble. I hid novels in my textbooks and my grades slipped. I got spanked for reading Rascal instead of doing my math homework. I would bury myself in the familiar pages in a book instead of spending time with my sister, because the characters inside were predictable and easy, and my relationship with her was anything but.

One afternoon in seventh grade, I sat at the glass table in our family room, an algebra textbook in front of me. I had My Name is Asher Lev hidden under some papers to make it less tempting, I knew if I opened Asher Lev I would disappear down a black hole, and thus would not do my homework.

I also knew that the book reminded me too much of my own family. The boy faced exile for choosing wrong, and it made me anxious. It was easier to not know what happened. All of a sudden, I hated how addicted I was to books. I hated that when I fell into them I could not get out again. I hated that they added anxiety to my life.

And so I pushed the book away, a little proud of my self-discipline.

Reading has never really been the same since.

Becoming a parent only heightened that feeling. With so little time, and so many complicated people who need me, I fret that reading will divide me from them. And the energy it takes to let myself drop off the cliff of a narrative—it feels like too much. These days I measure out my attention in coffee spoons.

This is nothing to be ashamed of, when I think about it.

But the shame sticks around, elbowing me.

Even after a few years of knowing reading stresses me out, I still feel surprised that something I love brings anxiety. I think I still have a child’s view of the world, surprised when anything pleasurable can also bring pain. Surprised at my own complicated emotions. Surprised that I’m not an easy person to know.

Given how much I love books, it has been hard for me to take my anxiety seriously.

But the more I admit the struggle, the easier it is to poke back at my fears. Is it really true that I don’t read “enough,” or that I don’t like “good books?” What would enough look like? Which books are good?

What books nourish me? Not MFA candidates, or prize-winning authors, but me?

It helps to admit to myself and others that I struggle. It helps to define my own measurements for enough. It helps to say my shame out loud, because I notice how overblown and bullying shame is.

But most of all, confession helps me give myself permission to be complex. To be multilayered and intriguing. To be full of plot twists, turns, and unexpected denouements.

Confession lets me celebrate my character, even when I surprise myself.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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