Friday, 16 January 2015

To Drive The Cold Winter Away by Tess Berry-Hart

It's still winter! The bone-shaking chill of a new January with its winds, ice storms, broken healthy resolutions and humourless deadlines (tax payments, school applications, etc) can make even the bravest of us want to curl up in a cave next to a blazing fire and hibernate until spring arrives.

And to some of us who suffer from depression (episodes of persistent sadness or low mood, marked loss of interest and pleasure) either constant or intermittent, winter can be one of the hardest times. Depression being a multi-headed hydra ranging from many states of unipolar to bipolar, I'm not suggesting that there is one single type of depression; for instance not all of us are affected by the winter or weather, while some people who don't even have depression in the clinical sense might be experiencing a mild case of the winter blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Creativity is like a fire that we can stoke to drive away the cold winter (whether physical or psychological, internal or external). So I'm deep in my cave trying to work out ways that I can stoke my creativity without resorting to biscuits!

Bibliotherapy's been around for a while now, and is the literary prescription of books and poems against a range of "modern ailments" - including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. A form of guided self-help, it's not exactly a new idea - the ancient Greeks spoke of "catharsis" - the process of purification or cleansing, in which the observer of a work of theatre could purge themselves of emotions such as pity and fear through watching and identifying with the characters in a play. All of us in the modern world can attest to the feeling of connection and joy when an author so precisely describes a state that we are ourselves experiencing, and the nail-biting, cliff-hanging state of knowing exactly what our heroine or hero is going through. We root for him or her because s/he represents ourselves battling our own demons in an idealised meta-state.

But how does bibliotherapy work? According to the various proponents, it helps perpetuate a shift in thinking, so that things are not so inflexible (black and white thinking, for all you cognitive-behavioural depressives out there!) which is crucial to tackling depression. Being able to gain distance and perspective by viewing problems through the lens of fictional characters means that in real life our fixed thought-patterns which contribute to our problems can start to become unpicked.

And of course, identification isn't the only joy to be found in books; good old-fashioned escapism is surely the reason why many of us read so avidly. A new world, a new family, a new life, perhaps even new biology or physics, takes us away momentarily from the mundane world so we can return refreshed, hopefully to see our lives with new eyes.

I've obviously been self-medicating for a long time, but I always called it comfort-reading. By comfort-reading I mean a well-known book that you can plunge into at will like a warm bath or a pair of slippers. At school when I was anxious about exams or bullies I would find solace in re-reading the heroic adventures of Biggles or the magical quest of Lord of the Rings; at university it was in the dreamy memories of Brideshead and the vicissitudes of Billy Liar or Lucky Jim. When I started my first office jobs I would read 1984 or Brave New World (odd choices for comfort-reads but I think it was to remind myself that things could actually be worse!) but when I started writing my own books, I ... stopped reading for some years. I think my tiny little brain could only take so much exercise!

I started comfort-reading again when we first had our children; during long and frequently painful breast-feeding sessions my husband would read my childhood favourites Charlotte's Web and Danny the Champion Of The World to me as distraction and encouragement. And these days my prospective comfort list numbers hundreds of books; for me, reading is re-reading.

So what could I take to bolster myself against the winter chill? I've written myself a prescription but I'd be interested in hearing yours!

1) A dose of James Herriot's short animal stories, to be administered when needed (they are nice and short so you're not left hanging after a few pages) or chapters from Jerome K Jerome's Three Men In A Boat, or virtually anything by PG Wodehouse;

2) A daily dose of half an hour "joy-writing" - half an hour in the morning when I can sit down and let ideas spill out onto the page. (If it ends up with me writing about what happened last night then so be it. It can often lead to something more ...)

3) A small creative project on the horizon, easily identifiable and manageable, that I can look forward to; in this case getting a small group of actors together to read through a new draft of a play that I've written (there'll be a blog post on this soon so stay tuned!)

4) Connection with others - I'm a member of a local book group, which not only makes me keep on top of what new books are coming out, but also participating in the joy of discussion; there's nothing more frustrating than reading a good book only to realise that nobody you know has read it!)

So I think that's enough to start barricading myself up against the January snows!

But what about you? What kind of comfort-reads do you enjoy to drive the cold winter away?


Sue Bursztynski said...

I love comfort reading and not only in winter. It helps me sleep. LOTR, yes. Harry Potter. Anything by Terry Pratchett. Kerry Greenwood's mysteries, even after I know whodunnit. Josephine Tey's Daughter Of Time. Sometimes I put aside required reading, eg reviews, awards reading, etc. to do some comfort reading. As for the writing, I blog to shake my brain awake.

Sue Purkiss said...

Most of those that Sue mentions; also detective series (see my blog, A Fool On A Hill) - but almost anything, really!

Incidentally, this links up very well with Miriam's post from yesterday, though in her case it was writing-as-therapy, rather than books-as-therapy. Very timely,Tess - thank you!

Joan Lennon said...

Comfort reads - Yes to Terry Pratchett and P.G. Wodehouse, plus Rosemary Sutcliff, Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Peters and Christopher Fry (when I can't concentrate on poetry, his plays fit the bill!) Much needed, I agree!

Susan Price said...

The same names are coming up again and again! Terry Pratchett: a big yes. I re-read his books whenever I feel tired or low - his books are funny, lively and, while not being blind to humanity's faults, he is always compassionate and undertanding.
Wodehouse - he's just so funny.
Jerome K Jerome, ditto.

I am currently revelling in Kate Atkinson's 'Jackson Brodie' books, which are detective novels of a kind - but very dry, very witty, with wonderful characters.

Anne Booth said...

Definitely P.G. Wodehouse! I am also currently re-reading the Paddington books for comfort, as I got a lovely pack of them for Christmas. 'Ballet Shoes' is a favourite comfort read for one of my daughters, and any Moomin book for us as well. I love all the other recommendations. I'd have to add 'Carbonel' by Barbara Sleigh, and 'the Land of Green Ginger' by Noel Langley.

Unknown said...

Thanks for all your comments guys - I agree, reading helps wind my brain down and writing helps kick it alive again! And Joan, Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe is one of my favourite books EVER!