Cultivating a Habit of Reading (Bathtub Optional)

(photo via photolizer.com)

Books and water don’t typically go together, but for me it’s a match made in solitude.

With my ADHD, reading for uninterrupted periods of time can be both frustrating and frightening all at once. Where I used to sit for hours with a book open in my lap, I now spend a lot more time feeling guilty for how my disorder impacts my reading life. So, finding a place that can cut me off from most other forms of stimuli (my phone, Netflix, video games), is difficult and a blessing when I do.

One of those places happens to be the bathtub, a spot that does what any good reading spot does.

Find Your Calm

One of the most important things when working on cultivating a habit of reading is to seek out times when you feel calm and safe. Trying to read when you’re upset or out of it can put extra pressure on you. And when you live with a disorder like ADHD, that kind of pressure can worsen symptoms that hinder a person’s ability to read or fully enjoy reading. Symptoms like:

  • Distraction
  • Lack of emotional impulse control
  • Sense of acute frustration and guilt

For some, reading is a way to escape some of those negative feelings, but for many others, it can foster those same feelings. So finding a place or time that provokes a sense of calm and relaxation can be key to having a rewarding reading session. For me, a hot bath helps soothe my negative symptoms and any other issues that cloud my ability to focus on reading.

Find Your Time

Even if it’s only a few minutes, any amount of time spent reading when you want to do so is time well spent. When you want to read and feel like you’re wasting limited time it can make you shut down entirely. Then you feel like you can’t do anything at all except feel guilty about not doing anything. And the vicious cycle goes on and on, biting its own tail.

Some people say that you just have “make yourself” do it, and then you’ll be fine. But it’s not that easy for everyone, and ignoring that fact does nothing for the people who want to read and feel huge amounts of shame when they can’t.

One way to explain that inability to make yourself do something is with the term Executive Function Disorder, a disorder that boils down to wanting to do something but being unable to do that thing. For instance, most of my nights and mornings involve me wanting to go to bed or get up, knowing what I need to do, and then struggling to actually do those things for long periods of time. It all seems like too many steps that, when my brain processes them, overwhelm me to the point where I just sit there in silence, berating myself for not doing what I need to do.

The steps with reading are decidedly fewer than those required to get me into bed, but they can still put me off of the task. So I’ve found a way to kind of trick myself into going through with it. Preparing a hot bath is easy for me because my brain has connected the steps to preparing it with a sense of happiness and peace, so getting that set up is no problem. And once I’m in the bath, I really only have option for occupying my time: to read. So now I’m calm and isolated and left with a book that I simply have to open and read. And since I’ve done this enough times, reading is a reflex once I’m in the water.

For a lot of us book-lovers, reading can be one of the most rewarding and frustrating things we do. And for even more of us, it’s just one more thing that has to be maneuvered so we can do the other things that cause us frustration. So, by navigating certain avenues surrounding the act of reading, we can move toward cultivating a more rewarding and consistent habit of reading.

The Benefits and Liberation of Audiobooks

Audiobooks don’t count as really reading. I’m sure we’ve all heard that line at least once in our literary lives. At the very least, we’ve heard some variation on the old opposition to the rise of audiobooks in the literary community. People who favor audiobooks over physical books are characterized as lazy and cheaters. They’re people who don’t want to do the real work of reading the book they listen to. And I don’t imagine it would be hard to figure out why typically it’s young women and teenage girls who are shown listening to audiobooks (I mean, women and girls can’t be serious readers like the philosophical, high-brow men can, right?). But audiobooks are not a symbol of laziness in the reading community, rather they are actually things that unify people through books and make stories more accessible to people otherwise prevented from engaging with those stories.

Learning Disabilities and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

     As someone who loves books but deals with ADHD every day of my life, physically reading a book can be a real trial. I am not alone in the frustration and mental exhaustion that reading can often bring. People all over the world live with various disorders and disabilities and the issue of illiteracy that prevent them from enjoying books in the same way as neurotypical and abled people.

ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, and other disabilities leave readers with intense exhaustion and frustration when they try and sometimes fail to comprehend the words on the pages in front of them. And in a society that debases and oppresses those people, a sense of shame and guilt comes close at hand with that frustration. For people who love books and stories, those feelings can be multiplied because something you’re passionate about should be easy to do right?

In those cases, audiobooks act as tools for people who need them. Listening to readings of books and stories are ways for them to cut out some of that exhaustion and frustration. And when they don’t deal with exhaustion and frustration they are better able to engage with the story, which is the goal of writers isn’t it? To engage our readers with the stories we’ve presented to them.

Working Class Readers and a Lack of Leisure Time

     The vast majority of people in America are working class, meaning they spend most of their time at work or recovering from work. Even more people perform service jobs or manual labor, leaving them both mentally and physically exhausted. This exhaustion makes it difficult to even want to read, let alone focus on the words on the page. And when you work long hours, free time and the money to spend on physical books is hard to come by.

So audiobooks step in to help the listener relax and not worry so much about physically engaging with the text. Instead, they can focus on the actual content while letting their bodies relax and recharge. Stories have always been a way to revitalize the body and the mind, so why shouldn’t audiobooks be of infinite use to people who are constantly in need of a way to get themselves through each work day?

Audiobooks as Coping Tools and Comforters

     For people who have memories of being read to as children, the act simply being told a story is soothing to the soul. And for others it can be a tool to cope with anxiety and other disorders. It can even work as a way to lull someone to sleep who suffers with insomnia.

Personally, I go to sleep nearly every night with an audiobook playing by my bed. I always try to pick a narrator with an attractive voice, so I will not be distracted by unpleasant noise when I try to sleep. When I lie there, hoping sleep will come quickly, listening to an audiobook gives me something to focus on while not requiring a great deal of mental and/or physical effort. So I am certain that there are other book lovers out there who feel the need to defend audiobooks for what they do for them daily.

We need to erase the stigma and make audiobooks more widely accessible. Audiobooks are not lazy or cheating but ways to accommodate those who are not so privileged that reading is something they can do every day or at all. Neuroatypical, disabled, working class, and illiterate book lovers are out there and are not simply outliers that can or should be disregarded in favor of pleasing the majority. Audiobooks are liberating. Audiobooks are blessings. Audiobooks are, in fact, real books.

How Lived Experiences Shape Our Desire to Read

When I was a kid I used to read all the time. I ruined my eyes by secreting my books away to the closet at night with a flashlight in hand. I received lecture upon lecture for reading during class. I loaded down my backpack with more books than I needed just because I might want to read them during the day. I never left the house without at least two books with me.

I still take a book with me when I go out, and I still love stories and fiction. But the rate at which I read has dropped drastically since I graduated high school and entered college. Now it takes me months to work my way through a single book, if I haven’t abandoned it to one of my desk drawers already.

For the first couple of years of college this phenomenon confused me. What happened to my eagerness to read whatever I got my hands on? Did I burn out in elementary and high school? Am I just getting lazier?

The answer isn’t that easy, and it was one that I have struggled with understanding complexly for months now. But I have a better idea about why my desire to read has changed in the ways that it has. Certain experiences, regardless of how recent, can change how much a person wants to read, whether that means more or less. So let me tell you about some of those kinds of experiences. There are plenty of other reasons out there, ones that I have no knowledge of, but for the sake of this post, I’m going to speak about my personal and specific experiences.

My ADHD

Last year I was diagnosed with combined type ADHD after my therapist recommended I look into being tested. I had taken to discussing certain behaviors and thought processes that I struggled with and had become more aware of in recent months. I spent hours at a time plowing through blogs and articles and forum posts about people with similar issues, and it all came back to one thing: I might have undiagnosed ADHD.

Things fell into place as I read more about the disorder. My lack of impulse control, especially in connection to my emotions, made more sense. The fact that I had always been one of those people who bounces their leg or taps their fingers when they’re sitting down and that if I was put in a position where I had no choice but to sit still I would end up exhausted and drained. My strange and unpredictable trick of zeroing in on one thing for hours without noticing anything outside of my center of focus (hyperfocusing).

As I spent more time talking and thinking about my disability, I started recalling and realizing things about my reading habits that took on new clarity in the wake of my diagnosis. It made sense that I squirmed if I was made to sit down and read text-heavy chapters for class and that I naturally leaned toward media that could provide me with short but satisfying bursts of information (blogs, twitter, lists, etc.). But why then was I able to read so much for so long when I was younger? Wasn’t ADHD supposed to be more of a problem for kids than adults?

Not necessarily. In some cases, like mine, ADHD can get “worse” if it goes undiagnosed and unaided. I grew up taking in mountains of information faster than my peers, making classes easier for me and more boring. Since I picked up on what the teacher was explaining in just a few tries (if I was paying attention to begin with, as I sometimes did not, especially in math class), my brain automatically sought out more stimulation, fresh information.

So when I got to college, and things started getting more complicated, more discussion-based and less geared toward students copying down notes, my brain didn’t have the chance to jump at some other kind of stimulus. My attention was focused on making sure I contributed enough to class discussions, to being certain I was prepared in case I got called on in the middle of class, to obsessing over projecting a certain amount of “maturity” that had not been demanded of me in previous schools.

When I finally took the plunge and got tested, I felt this surge of relief. Finally something made sense about how I worked. But now I notice the way reading has become harder from me as my disorder has changed and evolved with age. My fidgeting gets worse the longer I have to sit still and read. I retain less and have to re-read whole passages more than ever now. I think about reading more than I actually read, simply because it’s easier to think about how great these stories probably are than it is to actually absorb those stories.

Sometimes it makes reading such a challenge that I stop reading for weeks at a time, because it is so frustrating to want to read and find out that it just is not possible for me in that moment. However, I do sometimes find myself devouring whole books in a matter of days as is the case for any of the Chuck Wendig novels I have read.

Yes, my attention span is short, but the fact that I put aside some books early in the reading process is not so much a signal that I’ve become a lazy reader. I prefer to think about the fact that there are books out there that have helped me overcome my disorder’s symptoms so I can burn through them in a short time. It is indicative of the fact that there are writers out there who know how to grab a reader’s attention and make them want to keep reading, regardless of the circumstances in which that reader lives.

Being LGBTQIA While Reading

I came out as bisexual in the first semester of my freshman year at college. Shortly after that (about a month later) I came out (mostly to myself) as genderfluid–a gender identity that applies to people who feel they alternate between identifying as different genders. These realizations brought with them their own problems of course. I felt that pressing weight of isolation in a society that constantly claimed that I was nonexistent or else sick and needed to be purged out. I still deal with these kinds of problems even as the world moves toward a more accepting stance on those of us who don’t fit the hetero- and cisnormative world.

What I hadn’t really thought about or realized when I adopted my identifiers was how narrow my reading pool would get. Where I used to be able to identify with almost any characters, I suddenly found myself searching for stories and characters who matched my own stories and being. I wanted to find a romance where someone like me fell in love with a woman or someone who didn’t identify on the gender binary. I wanted a hero who identified as a woman one day, a man the next, and some days an amalgamation of the two.

But any representation I found ended up being profoundly disappointing. I saw my identity reduced to jokes, stock characters, villains, plucky sidekicks who fit every stereotype in the book. I heard enough jokes about promiscuity and confusion from real people; I didn’t need it from my fiction too.

So I started reading less and less, or else I read and created my own ideas of what these characters were really like outside of the story. I fell in love with the concept of “headcanons,” where I could make up things about characters I loved, things that gave me a sense of actually being real. I didn’t care about “proof” or canon textual reference to the characters’ orientations or gender identities.

After all, how many characters literally tell the reader that they’re straight and cis?

Working and Reading

During the day, and often the night, I work as a barista. I make coffee, tea, ring up customers, and wish them a good day because that is my job. The work doesn’t seem difficult to people who have not worked in the service industry, but trust me when I tell you that it is painful and exhausting work.

I work about thirty-five hours a week, with my longest days being on the weekends since I also attend college during the week. So a lot of the time I’m on my feet anywhere from six to nine hours. During any given shift I am running up and down the length of the store, retrieving syrups, milk, ice. One day I clipped a pedometer to my pants and tracked how far I walked during an eight-hour shift. If I remember correctly, it came out to around six miles.

So when I say I’m tired after getting home from work at ten at night, I mean it. My first thought after finishing a shift is usually “Thank God, now I can go to bed.” In our current American society, most time spent outside of work is either spent preparing for work or recovering from work. When your job demands not only your physical labor but also the emotional labor that comes with servicing and pleasing customers, you go home drained both in body and soul.

While many people would find reading a balm to those pains, there are also those of us who find it easier and more effective to unplug from thought, to watch reality television, browse the Internet, do something that requires little thinking. And there is nothing wrong with that. If that is the kind of self-care someone needs in a society that demands more than just a pound of flesh, then that is what they should do.

For me, my chances to read often come on my days off, before my shift, or on my meal break while I rush to eat what food my work supplies. There are times, when I’m slouched at my desk and watching a rerun from a cooking show, that I want to be angry with myself, berate myself for not doing something more beneficial for my mind. But then I remind myself that this is just as beneficial for me as reading before I leave for my shift. I am surviving, and that is worthy of respect in and of itself.

Everyone reads differently. That doesn’t just go for the way a reader interprets or imagines the things they read. People simply read in different ways because of different things. Sometimes they read for hours, and other times they can only manage for a few minutes. But if reading is something that is important to them, then the only thing that matters is that they read at all.