The Fifty-Two Books I Didn’t Read This Year

CW: Depression

Art by Sian Williams

There is a ubiquitous saying amongst writers: show don’t tell. Instead of telling you that Tony Abbott is a little bit odd, I should instead show you his lips, palpating and quivering over the skin of a fresh raw onion; I should describe the sound, as his teeth crack through the layers of nested cellulose, and I should describe the smell, warm and pungent, of his halitosis-encrusted breath drifting through the air.

When it comes to mental health, things are a bit different. I can tell you about depression, but I don’t know if I can show you depression. I can’t put you inside my head and give you the tour. I can’t transmit my feelings to you via radio waves. I can’t take your hand and make you pat the twelve-legged Lovecraftian insect that has hatched somewhere in the back of my skull, feeding me feelings of hopelessness instead of a stream of consciousness. My best hope lies in trying to describe my experience, and in hoping, somewhat morbidly, that I’m talking to someone who has been in the trenches before too.

But perhaps there is one way of showing-not-telling depression. Before I graduated, I used to make a point of reading fifty-two books a year. I didn’t always read that many, but I’d start the year with a list in mind. That way, even if I got distracted by, say, cat videos, I might get through twenty or thirty of them by the time Christmas came around. I could choose the books I was most excited about reading and finish them first. I could change the list or I could throw it away completely and just improvise. I could read miniscule books or I could read mammoth books. I could read textbooks and comic books and everything between.

The thing is, I don’t read much anymore. Imagine the things you love most in life, and then imagine that you suddenly didn’t love them anymore. That is one small part of what it was like for me to develop depression. For a lot of people you don’t need to imagine this at all – you’ve gone through this exact thing before. Maybe in your case it wasn’t reading but something else altogether, like underwater basket weaving or extreme whack-a-mole.

Perhaps it’s futile to try and pinpoint a cause, but I’d still like to try. For me, the trigger was graduation. Afters months of anticipation and grades and fancy robes, I suddenly found myself feeling more empty than I ever had in my entire life. It wasn’t just feeling down. It was waking up in the middle of the night, covered in a blistering sheet of existential dread. It was listening to the same deformed internal monologue five-hundred times a day, thirty days a month. It was seeing all my friends succeed, and feeling like meanwhile I wasn’t worth two cents.

I didn’t realise until months later that I’d been slowly developing depression. Looking back, it’s easy to make sense of what was going on. But at the time it was hard to step out of my own head. It was hard to defuse my thoughts and to say that just because I’m thinking this awful thing, doesn’t make it true.

I know a large handful of people who’ve gone through the same thing after graduation. It’s more common than you might think. I’m starting to think we should have a name for it – maybe gradupression, or depraduation. If leaving university was the best thing that ever happened to you, then I’m glad, and I hope the upwards spiral continues. But for a lot of people, leaving university just isn’t like this. For a lot of people, graduating means finding yourself stuck at the start of a long hard road, and needing a helping hand.

I’m a lot better than I was, now. A big first step was naming the Lovecraftian insect for what it was. Another step was reaching out, and another step was medication. But then again, I’m still unwell. I still don’t read much. Not every problem gets fixed, and if it does get fixed, it certainly doesn’t get fixed overnight. Sometimes it gets fixed a lot, and sometimes it gets fixed only a little.

I don’t mean to say that all this has been a waste of time. I’ve learned things about myself that I could never have learned while still at uni. I’ve learned to grow new interests, even if my old ones die out. I’ve learned how to ask for help. I’ve learned to stop believing, at least in my case, in the myth of the depressed creative – that depression is somehow a source of great inspiration and motivation, and that it should be relied upon in order to achieve great things. In my case, the exact opposite was true. I used to be productive, and then I became depressed, and I was no longer productive. The arrow did not go the other way around.

Perhaps, in the end, I am just stating the obvious. That the experience of graduating is not too dissimilar from finishing a book. Perhaps, for you, it has been a wonderful book, a terrifying book, or the most boring book you ever read. Perhaps the book often made you cry. Perhaps the book was a waste of money, and didn’t teach you anything. Perhaps you finished it quickly, or perhaps you finished it after resting it on the shelf for many years.

Now you face, inevitably, the feelings that come afterwards. For some it will be relief, knowing that you have permission to move on. For some it will be melancholy, knowing that you’ll never be a part of a story that good again. For some it will be devastation, knowing that you step now into a deep dark forest, of which you can only tell, but never show. Whichever it is, you should be proud that you read a book.