Sunday, December 04, 2022

anxiety, reading, and the widening gyre

I have a strange confession, which is perhaps not out of nowhere exactly since I have eluded to it in the past two years. Not frequently, but occasionally.  It was a problem I hoped might shake itself out with all this at-home time, and a little bit less of a stress fraught existence, or an anger fraught existence, than the span of early 2020-late 2021 could offer. But no dice apparently. I do find myself writing a lot, not just paid work, but my own creative work. Things are sound and productive there. But  I've found I've never really recovered the novel-reading habit, the reading for pleasure kind of yearning, I used to have. 

Granted, maybe it started long before, most of my fiction reading happening on my 45 minute commutes each way, particularly at night when the lake outside the bus windows was pitch black and not all that much to look at.  I used to read more at home, particularly before I had the internet there in the 90s and early aughts. The less, esp. since I did a bulk of my reading online in general, whether it was poetry journals or news articles or other kinds of content. These formed the bulk of things I read in a day, as well as the manuscipt submissions and galleys for the press. Occasionally, I would read poetry books, but more as a sort of way to shake loose my own words, which feels far more like work than pleasure.  Ditto on non-fiction books for research purposes. 

Covid changed something, even when I went back to work.  I am not sure it actually had to deal with the virus itself, or the response, or just that it put me on high alert for anxiety (not just about getting it, but then anxiety about EVERYTHING.). If I'd been hovering around a 5, I was now solidly at like an 8. Like all the time. my bus rides were spent not in the midst of a book, but counting down the 6 million dangers I faced and the terrible things that could happen. Or I would zone out completely. I didn't feel I could immerse myself in the world of a novel. I also lost a lot of faith I had in the world being a good place.  Or even a safe place to read and let your guard down.  Even films I occasionally had to often stop, either because something was causing distress or I just was having trouble concentrating. It's like my brain changed or rewired itself in new ways that prevented the sort of immersiveneness I could achieve pre-2020.

And this did not change once my stressors lessoned and I was working at home.  The baseline was a little lower and I wasn't angry all the time, but I still could spend hours fretting over worse-case scenarios on everything from minor to major. That I'd end up hospitalized or something would happen to the cats, That there would be a fire or I wouldn't be able to pay my rent.  Something would happen to my dad (which of course happened, but even as bad as it was, was far worse in my imagination of what could have happened to him) I would literally pause movies and have a half hour freak out. In fact, that things were going so well made it worse because it felt woefully fragile.  Everything. Because it is.  Or at least it feels most like it is when things are good.

And they are, obviously barring the past month, which was not something even remotely in my control. Which of course makes it worse.  Or better. I'm not sure which. I have a stack of novels on my coffee table, both trashy and more serious far, and it would be easy to pick one up and spend an afternoon reading.  But I can't. Or when I've tried, I read a few pages and then decided I should be doing something more productive, either for money or creative reasons. My brain is on constant churn, so lodging a foot in the door seems impossible. I'm not sure it will change any time soon.

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