Reading and Bipolar Disorder | Tips and Advice for Bipolar Readers

When it comes to reading, bipolar disorder is definitely a mixed bag. Let me give you some background on my reading history post-diagnosis and offer some tips and advice for reading when bipolar. Reading with bipolar disorder can present an obstacle, but it can definitely be overcome.

A little personal history of reading with bipolar disorder

When I was in college, starting in freshman year, I found it so hard to read. I had such difficulty concentrating on anything, a product of the lithium and later Seroquel. I would stare at sentences, my eyes barely able to glaze over the words on the page, and ultimately retaining nothing. Student Disability Services worked with me by running the books through some kind of scanner, which would then convert the text into an auto speech-to-text so I had an audiobook version to listen to as I read. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I relied on Spark Notes all too often. What’s worse, I was an English major, with a concentration on Victorian literature—aka long, looong books by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Wilkie Collins.

After graduation, I slowly resurfaced (especially after going off Seroquel) and, with no syllabi to restrict my reading selection, read 7 books for pleasure the first year out of college (2011). The next year, 2012, I read 15 books. In 2013 I read 22. 2014 I clocked 53, my highest ever until last year, 2015, when I read 60 books, a new personal record.

The number of books I read each year was directly related to my bipolar disorder symptoms
The number of books I read each year was directly related to my bipolar disorder symptoms

My mood began to rapid cycle more in 2014 and especially 2015. Now I fluctuate between times of reading 9 books a week and days of reading 2 books a month as my mood switches around more.

How depression affects my reading

If I’m under a cloud of depression, I find it very hard to concentrate, especially on books. First of all, I experience a general sense of apathy and disinterest, even with the best books. I don’t usually cling to a book for entertainment and usually pour my energy into my personal fiction writing efforts, my blog, and cooking/baking. Essentially something that doesn’t require me to think so much on someone else’s words. So I don’t usually get a lot of books read while depressed.

When you're trying to read while depressed, the struggle is real
When you’re trying to read while depressed, the struggle is real

That said, I definitely buy a lot of books when depressed. I definitely engage in some retail therapy quite often, too often, really. Buying books on a shopping spree (or more likely, Amazon spree) lifts my mood. It makes me feel good to see the books I will read.

But then I don’t read them, and the temporary high fades, and I’m stuck with a long receipt, a dent in my bank account, and a stack of books I know I’ll never get around to reading because they are few among many crammed into every corner of our tiny house. This makes me feel worse, like a failure. So usually bipolar depression does not have a positive effect on my reading.

How hypomania and mania affect my reading

When I’m hypomanic, look out. I tear through books, practically inhaling words. That’s the best way I can describe it. It’s like I breathe the words in, like I’m on some kind of concentration drug (maybe like that Bradley Cooper movie, Limitless). The pages flip themselves as my eyes drag over the words and covert the symbols into words without ever processing it as language; I don’t sound out the words as I read them, and I don’t even hear the sentences in my mind, yet I’m concentrating and retain them all the same.

When my mood is elevated I consume books like this.
When my mood is elevated I consume books like this.

My enthusiasm for reading—and my ability to read a book in a matter of hours—feeds upon itself, and I work myself into such a state that my mood goes skyward. I check out a dozen books at the library one day and then return the next day to check out six more.

A typical library haul from a trip to the library when I'm hypomanic. (Apologies for the Wawa hoagie in the foreground.)
A typical library haul from a trip to the library when I’m hypomanic. (Apologies for the Wawa hoagie in the foreground.)

I spend $80 on books easily and add 12 pre-orders on Amazon in a matter of hours. I shelve and re-shelve my books, tearing everything off my bookshelves and then reorganizing them. I walk around smiling, practically buzzing with energy and feeling like I’m superhuman.

It’s quite simply…manic.

Tips for Reading and Bipolar Disorder When You’re Up or You’re Down

Even though I’ve gone through periods of time where’s taken me an hour to read a page of Jane Eyre, and even though I’ve definitely had reading setbacks from bipolar disorder, at the end of the day I’m able to get it done and make it happen. Partially because I have regular reviewing deadlines and simply live or die by my ability to read and write about a book by a certain time. But this is my career, so I have no other choice. Not reading is not optional.

But it’s not easy, and I know if I struggle with bipolar disorder and reading, so do others. In this MedHelp forum on Bipolar Disorder, responders talked about if they have problems reading. People talked about difficulty concentrating, restlessness, distractibility, and trouble with following and retaining plot points. For those who have bipolar disorder and those who are working with bipolar readers, check out these points.

  • If manic or hypomanic, sometimes you need to s-l-o-w it down and read more subdued books. Reading a good thriller, like Gone Girl or In the Woods, excites me. It gets my adrenaline going. I flip those pages like a ninja and suck up all that suspense, getting completely caught up in a story with life-and-death stakes. It’s an incredible high, but it can also get me overexcited, too, and spark a hypomanic mindset. If this sounds like you, I’d recommend reading books that are more subdued, but still exciting. This list from the Huffington Post contains 10 books to read during the hectic holiday season and can also be translated for bipolar readers. Personally I like reading Donna Tartt when I need a hypnotic, steady prose that slows you down so you can savor the good writing. Try The Secret History and/or The Goldfinch. Another good writer to read to slow down is Neil Gaiman. Start with The Ocean at the End of the Lane. In sum, when you’re feeling hypomanic, lay off anything that claims to be “pulse-pounding” or “page-flipping” or “adrenaline rush.”

 

  • If depressed, it’s fine to read something “easy” or “comforting” to read. When you’re depressed, sometimes it can be even more depressing if you can’t read. When I’m in a reading slump or I’m depressed, it truly does feel the same way an athlete feels when they have a broken bone or sprain or other injury that halts their ability to perform. So you can go for “low hanging fruit” so-to-speak to get you back on track. For starters, you can reread books you love. In the age of the Goodreads Reading Challenge (which I have encouraged people not to do) it’s tempting to want to avoid re-reads since Goodreads won’t count a book twice. I used to avoid re-reads for that very reason. But when you’re feeling depressed, it’s a good idea to go to your classics. I also find reading graphic novels (like any of the kick-ass ones on my list of fall 2015 new releases) helps. They engage me in a different way and help me concentrate on something that’s visual. Often the drawings can lift my mood. And I also recommend shorter books. When you’re feeling depressed, finishing a book can feel daunting. That’s why I like to read shorter books, so you feel like you’re making progress after you finish one, a tiny victory, a reading accomplishment that says you are a superstar. Check out my list of recommended shorter books here.

Those are some of my tips on how to deal with bipolar disorder and reading challenges. What is your reading experience like with bipolar disorder? What has helped you live with your illness and your love for reading? Leave a comment below.

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