The Masks We Wear Over Depression and Anxiety

I am so grateful to all those who stopped by last week when I wrote about anxiety, and to those who commented with words of encouragement, told their own stories, and/or shared my post with others. The piece, to my surprise, was the most viewed post (in one day) that I have written on this blog.

Of course, me being me, I thought, Crap, I should have done a better job writing it. The topic is so vast, and my experience so entrenched, that I almost didn’t know where to start.

One thing that I have been wanting to write about – and I confirmed this after hearing the stories of friends and readers – is the mask that so many of us battling depression and anxiety feel compelled to wear. The outer us and the inside us. The visible versus the hidden.

Story after story shocked me, because never in a million years would I have guessed that these people struggled with something as debilitating as anxiety and/or depression: dedicated parents, a head of department, a published author, Ph.D. students, a passionate college instructor, a high-end New York designer, a top-ranking management consultant.

The irony is that others might say the same about me. I’ve got the elite names on my resumé to project a certain kind of image, and I’ve been described as “fierce” and as driven and confident. I’m both flattered and amused by the descriptions, unsure about their accuracy.

My self-image is distorted, of course, by my personal knowledge of my struggles. I admit to somewhat dismissing or at least downplaying my strengths and achievements because I experience, sometimes at a high level, the human emotions of insecurity and fear. Maybe we are shocked when we learn about “successful” people suffering because we believe achievement and anxiety (and depression) to be mutually exclusive, that somehow success cannot coexist with mental or emotional difficulty. We can be extremely anxious at the same time that (or perhaps because?) we are extremely competent, but in making public only the proud self we perpetuate the belief that anxiety does not exist in the happy, smart, and capable.

My friend, a teacher who once asked me to help with one of her music classes, had no idea how much internal debating I required before I could say yes. I had to look up the address of her class, enter it into Google driving directions, ascertain the 6-mile-long route to see if I could comfortably navigate it on my own, check with my husband’s schedule, debate whether it was worth pulling him from work to drive me, and check both our schedules to see if he could do a practice run with me if I decided to drive on my own. After stressing for days without getting back to my friend, I finally decided to tell her the truth and ask for a ride, even though I knew it meant adding another task to her already packed schedule.

“Sorry to be lame…”

“You’re not lame,” she told me. “I can get you.” 

In the same way, my on-line book club members have no idea how much stress I went through in the week leading up to our first on-line chat. Back and forth, back and forth I debated over whether I should cancel. I hated the way I looked on video. I worried about sounding dumb “in real life.” I did not feel like interacting live.

But I went through with it, because I knew I would feel worse about myself if I didn’t. And it turned out to be wonderful. When it was all over something in me lifted at the same time that something else – a shard of fear – fell away.

One of my readers wrote in her comment last week, ” . . . you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it.” I think I’m old enough to be her mother, and there she was giving me something brilliant to take away. And I wouldn’t have benefited from those, and so many other warm words had I never dared take off the mask. The thing about opening up is that the fear of someone’s reaction is by far more frightening than the actual reaction. The real thing – when the other person is real (and you don’t need her if she’s not) – is unexpected, disarming, and heartening. Where you expect a ditch you’re given a bridge, and an outstretched hand that says either “I’m proud of you” or “Me too.” Either way, the hand beckons “Come here,” and the arms take hold and envelope you.

 

 

 

On feeling important and valued, and a Tale for the Time Being (in progress)

I usually alternate my book posts and my “life” posts, but today I’m going to write both.

My first read of the new year is Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist, A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m still in the middle of reading (and enjoying quite a lot). It’s the story of a writer, Ruth, who finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on shore near her home on a Canadian island. When she opens the lunch box she finds the handwritten diary of a seemingly perky teenage girl, Nao, in Tokyo. She begins reading it, and learns quickly that Nao is in fact planning to kill herself. Nao recently returned to Japan with her parents after having spent her whole life in California, and she is being bullied relentlessly at school and her father is unable to find employment. Her father, thinking that he is of no use to the family, throws himself in front of an oncoming commuter train in a failed attempt to end his life.

What’s struck me so far, aside from the fact that the language is a lot lighter and funnier than what my description may lead you to believe, is the idea of feeling important. Nao writes in her diary:

“I hope you understand that I don’t think he [her homeroom teacher who participated in her bullying] was a bad man. I just think he was very insecure and could convince himself of anything, the way insecure people can. Like my dad, for example, who can convince himself that his suicide will not harm me or my mom because actually we’ll be better off without him, and at some point in the not-so-distant-future we’ll realize this and thank him for killing himself.” (page 78)

Both Nao and her dad have suicidal fantasies. Neither feels wanted. Nao feels unwanted for obvious reasons: her classmates actually hold a fake funeral for her in homeroom and make no bones about the fact that they don’t appreciate her existence. But Nao’s dad’s sense of not being needed seems more self-imposed. He’s unable to provide for his family, feels ashamed for not fulfilling his role, and believes that his family will be better off without him. (I haven’t read any evidence of his family actually rejecting him.) It’s only after he sees Nao’s devastated reaction that he realizes he was wrong in his perception of his place in the family.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of feeling entitled – to love, to owning a space in someone’s life. This theme struck me because I’ve felt both loved and not in different areas of my life, and I have known others who have felt the same. What makes us feel wanted and needed? And how do we show others that we want and need them?

For all the griping I’ve done about the often too-close relationship that I have had with my mother, she at least gifted me with a strong self-worth within my family. And because she took her role as a mother so seriously, I carried that importance with me when I became a mother too. I know I am needed, by sheer title alone. I know my place in our family, I know I have a critical role to fulfill, and I know that my loved ones would be devastated if anything were to happen to me.

That may sound obvious to many, but I mention it because I’ve been surprised and hurt to hear important people doubt their self-worth and their place among loved ones. I know that people have walked away from families, or have ended their lives, due to distorted or real views of where they stood in their loved ones’ lives. I have no answers here, only questions.

~~~

My early experiences with close friendship were not as positive as my experiences with family. The first “real” friendship that I have clear memories of was with a friend I’ll call M. She and her sister were daughters of my mother’s friend, and we used to all hang out whenever our moms played mahjong together. Then M turned 13 (I was about 11) and she suddenly became mean. She began putting me down about my clothes and my house and led her sister and a couple of mutual friends to begin excluding me, until after a year or two of on-and-off psychological bullying I stopped  accompanying my mother to their house. (And no, I never said a word of any of this to my mother…)

That early experience did define the value I held of myself in terms of girlfriends. I rarely took initiative to start friendships or to pursue them deeply. I left the ball in others’ court. Among groups of friends, I never expected to be included. Then one day during sophomore year I was shocked when a classmate invited me to join her and her friends for a movie. I remember thanking her profusely and she looked at me as if I were crazy. I honestly didn’t realize that my reaction wasn’t normal until I saw her face.

Emmy changed my life, and she gave me the confidence to find more friends like her.

All of this leads me to my next question, which is how do we show others that they are important to us? And the answer is not as forthcoming as I had thought. I am trying to think back to Emmy, and how she made me feel wanted. She was never the sentimental or affectionate type. In fact, she was pretty no-nonsense and blunt. But she included me. She listened. She waited. She always answered my phone calls with “Hey, Seal!” as soon as she knew it was me on the other line, no matter how unenthused she may have sounded when she picked up. Likewise, I think back to the other people in my life over the years who have made me feel valued, and I think about what they did to convince me of it. They included me. They listened. They waited. They were glad to see or hear from me, and they showed it.

It made me think about how I am showing the people in my life that I value them.

How often do I ask questions, and hope to get a long answer? How often do I pick up the phone, and how often do I let it go to voicemail? How often do I carve out time for others, and how often do I say “Unfortunately, I’m working” or “Hurry up!”? When was the last time I invited a friend out for lunch, instead of waiting to be invited? When was the last time I asked for help? When my mother called last time, couldn’t I have mustered a more enthusiastic tone when I heard her voice?

While I know I am important in friends’ and family’s lives, do they know how important they are in mine? I’ve had an extreme need to assert my  independence for most of my life, and in the process I’ve failed to show some of the people I care about most just how much I really need and value them.

Can you relate to any of this? Has rejection or bullying touched any part of your life? Do you allow people into your life and space easily?

Lessons learned in 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to look back on a year, but I decided to do it this year. Here are some of my reflections from 2013:

[Addendum: I apologize for my horrendous numbering system below (no 4 and 2 6’s)! I edited this post literally 15 to 20 times before hitting ‘publish’ but I completely neglected the numbers. I’ve decided not to fix it, however, since some readers cited by number the items that resonated with them. I’ll leave the list as is for reference 🙂 ]

1. The world is kinder when I change the lens.

I’ve always had a tendency to look too much into things. If someone consistently fails to say hello or respond to some of my emails, my mind reaches for the negative: I’ve done or said something wrong, or she thinks I’m a bother. I’ve been reminded not infrequently (usually by books and male friends) that when something like this happens it says more about the other person than it does about me.

This year, I began trying to give others the benefit of the doubt. The acquaintance who appears cold and does not respond in kind? Perhaps something is going on in her life right now, and she is not in a place to extend herself. My world became softer and kinder when I changed the way I made assumptions about others’ motives.

2. It does feel good to not beat myself up.

The comments were so innocuous (or regular) that I couldn’t even see anything wrong with them until a therapist pointed it out to me. Judgments like “I’m such a mess” or “I look awful” or “I’m such a bad mom,” when piled up day after day, year after year, can do a number on your psyche.

3. My child is not perfect, but he is terrific.

All my unrealistic expectations of myself trickled down to my child and I struggled this year to let go of the fear that every flaw signals potential trouble ahead. My son will make mistakes. He will forget things. He will miss answers on a test. He will be careless. He will get overly emotional. He will be tired and he will be hungry and he will be stressed and he won’t always be able to put on a happy face in these situations. The thing is, what human being doesn’t do this every now and then? I’m living proof of the damage that can be done when the bar is set to the sky, and now it’s my responsibility to bring it within reach for my son.

5. There’s a certain decibel level of my voice that no one should ever have to hear.

I would never have labeled myself a yeller, but in fact I do yell. Or I did. I am trying to make that the past tense. There is nothing in my life that warrants shouting. My son’s behavior is never so beyond the norm that it cannot be addressed by a regular or at most firm tone of voice. And even if he ever really did cross the line, I doubt that shouting would be effective or productive.

6. I need to be kinder.

Not more polite and not gentler but actually kinder, whether it’s mumbling criticisms about a waiter at a restaurant or judging someone’s behavior or arguing with my husband.

6. I want to remember the man I fell in love with. 

Twelve years of marriage and almost ten years of parenthood have turned our pre-parenting memories to black-and-white. Something triggered an old romantic memory the other day, and I allowed myself to go with it, to rewind through the last 10 years to a time when it was just the two of us. I realized that those memories are an important anchor in a family dynamic that has since changed so dramatically.

7. I deserve at least 2 hours to myself each day.

My busiest two weeks of work are ahead of me, but so far I’m holding firm to my new rule of not working at night. I am not a rescue worker and no one’s going to die if I don’t respond late at night. After Fred goes to sleep, it’s me and my books or my writing.

8. My emergency oxygen mask is this, in this order: sleep, water, exercise, a (reasonably) tidy home.

I blamed everything from hormones to depression this year when in fact what I needed was basic self-care. I need to have all 4 of the above before I can care for anyone else properly.

9. We all speak different languages.

I’m planning to write more about this in a future post, but it really hit home for me this year how certain conflicts I’ve felt have been a result of the fact that loved ones and friends and I speak different “love languages.” Example: Max shows love through actions while I show it through words. In fact, I view and relate to the world through words but I realized that not everyone does.

10. Motherhood has more than one job description.

At 4 Fred drew a series of t-shirt designs for each of us. On his dad’s shirt he drew the American flag; on his he drew a dinosaur; on mine he drew a computer. He said that it was because I liked to work.

I’ve felt guilty for almost the entire time I’ve been a mother, because I’d failed to live up to my image of the “ideal” mother. I don’t do arts and crafts, I don’t cook and bake more than I have to, I don’t enjoy playing, and I am not all-sacrificing. It was thanks to your responses to a post I’d written on the subject that I began to swap out the old picture for a more realistic one that depicts the kind of mother I actually am: a travel-loving, book-loving, word-loving, conversation-loving, thinking-loving and independence-loving mom. I realized that I don’t need to trade in who I am in order to love and raise a child.

onlyoublogwalking

Flaws and friendships

I had a wonderful, cathartic time over coffee this morning with a friend. We live close to each other but were both away most of the summer. In the intervening weeks I had met up with old friends and caught up with others on line, friends of different intimacy levels, friends who satisfy different needs. There is the friend with whom I can be freely neurotic about my child’s future, the friends who can relate on the the cross-cultural issues, the friend who has known me since I was Fred’s age and before I became the person that all my other friends know, the friend around whom I feel some pressure to show my best (most intelligent, put-together) side, the friends who don’t care if they see my worst.

Few people fit like a glove, and in any friendship there is a getting-to-know-you, a checking out of style and expectation that we try and adjust to and work with in order to ensure the growth of friendship. We don’t always fit like a glove but we try to make a good fit. It means that sometimes we learn to be friends with someone who goes against our grain, a little, or we temper something in ourselves in order to make us a little easier for our friend to take.

We give and take, and ask ourselves what we can live with and what we cannot. In doing so, I’ve come to learn that the quality I appreciate and need the most in a friend is acceptance. It’s the ability to confess that I’d been depressed, or that I’ve been feeling incompetent, or that I’d just had this horrible fight with my husband. And that is all I need – just the ability to do all of this. It means that this friend has, long before, created an environment in which I can go to her and do this – pour it, myself – out to her, and feel absolutely safe.

When it comes to friendships, our animal instincts kick in; somehow we know whom we can go to and whom we cannot. But sometimes I test the waters. I do that by seeing how much that friend tells me about herself, how she reacts when I confess something personal. It does sting when I realize, or imagine, that I am being judged. A non-reaction when you expect one, a look that says nothing, a barely traceable scowl or raising of an eyebrow. Women often avoid conflict, prefer not to say anything if they can’t say anything nice at all. Is the quiet look at the period of my sentence a look of criticism? I wish I could tell; I wish I were daring enough to ask, “What are you really thinking of me?” But that silent exchange of assumptions has just placed a solid barrier between us.

We also want to give, as friends. That a friend is willing to take from me means that I’ve earned her trust. As much as I appreciate her listening to whatever issue it is that is going on with me, it would only feel like a true friendship if she felt the same trust toward me. I have to earn this, I know, although sometimes it doesn’t come, no matter how hard you believe you’ve tried. It is difficult for some people to say, to show, too much. I don’t know if it is a matter of trust or a matter of shame, a wall that no one, no matter how well-intentioned and trusted, can bring down. I’ve been saddened by the drifting away of one friend, who’d gone from chatting with me regularly to barely responding to e-mails ever since her husband had gone from a prestigious position to something humbler. You let her know that you want to be there in the hard times, but she only wants to be seen during the good.

These may be the friends who make you think twice before you continue to confess you are merely human. If she is too ashamed to admit that she has flaws or doubts or bad days, how will she feel about yours?

I started this blog anonymously, and in many ways it still is fairly anonymous. I don’t use real names, except for my given name. I don’t post personal photos. But slowly, over the years, as I’ve tested the waters and developed thicker writer’s skin, I’ve released my blog to more and more “real life” friends, a big step because unlike in the on-line world of personal and confessional blogging, acceptance is not necessarily the modus operandi of relationships made in the larger world. But several old friendships of mine have been rekindled through my blog, and I have been heartened and grateful for that. I don’t believe that masking flaws makes us any more perfect on the outside, or any more admired, and I hope that in readily admitting mine, I am offering the kind of acceptance to my friends and readers that can make real connection and friendship possible.

A Friend of the Family: When you don’t like your child’s friend

Occasionally I will write a brief book review and connect it with a life story.

A Friend of the FamilyA Friend of the Family is a 2004 book by Lauren Grodstein about a suburban doctor and father trying to regain control of the wheel of a family life that is veering wildly off the course that he’d wanted.

The book opens with Pete isolated, teetering on the brink of familial and professional bankruptcy. A young man shouts threats at him; he has lost his long-time medical practice; he is living apart from his family above their garage; he is facing divorce. We don’t know why he is in the situation that he’s in, only that he’s done something to bring all of this upon himself.

We begin to learn about Pete’s story through flashbacks, and are introduced to the main players in this drama: his teen son Alec, his wife Elaine, his best friend Joe, and Joe’s daughter, Laura.

The crux of the story is the growing relationship between Alec – seventeen and lost – and Laura, a woman with a troubled past 10 years Alec’s senior. We learn early on what it is about Laura that bothers Pete so much, and why he doesn’t want her anywhere near her son. The story, then, is about how far a father is willing to go to protect his child from bad influences. It is also a story about how important it is for many of us parents – to our egos, to our sense of security – to force our children to conform to the dreams that we have created for them. At what point do we need to let go, and accept that our child has turned out artistic when we wanted athletic? ordinary when we wanted Ivy League? gay when we wanted straight? Why is it so hard to trust our children to forge their own life paths and to choose their own relationships?

The book was a quick and enjoyable read for me (a 3.5-4 star beach read), probably so because my own son’s adolescent years are looming and I am anxious to learn about the challenges that grip parents at this stage.

The one issue that jumped at me, of course, is the lack of control over whom your child decides to become close to, as I find myself entering this territory already with my rising 4th grader.

Pre-school, we pretty much chose our children’s friends; they were the children of our friends, or they were friendships that we had to take part in developing. With growing autonomy, Fred and his friends now develop and maintain their own friendships.

Fred has one good friend whom Max and I don’t particularly like. (I’ll call him “Jon.”) I’ve twice tried to “prevent” them from getting closer by requesting on the school’s annual student placement questionnaire to not put him and Jon in the same class, but each time they were placed together (I think I was not the only parent making this request…). Jon had behavioral problems when he was younger, being prone to aggressive/violent outbursts when things didn’t go his way. This seemed to have tamed when he got a little older, and now it’s more personality. We invited him to Fred’s birthday party once and I caught him stealthily trying to steal something. However, young children are still learning and developing, I understand, and I’ve tried to trust Fred’s judgment by finding the good in this child. Jon can also be warm and intelligent and they have many of the same interests, so among boys, shared hobbies is often the big connector.

And then I saw this e-mail from Jon over the weekend:

“Hey Fred, is your mom really strict? Do you or can you keep your e-mail private?”

We started an e-mail account for Fred as a way for him to stay in touch with his uncle, but he’s since used it with a couple of close friends. He keeps his account on my iPhone, and he knows that I look at it. (Things are still Mommy & Me with us.)

I was disappointed to see that e-mail, this early in Fred’s life. Or maybe this is normal and only feels early because I am absolutely unprepared for it. My son is clearly less precocious, more innocent. I am not sure how to handle this or what to make of it.

This year, Max and I witnessed/learned of a couple of instances at school in which Fred had risen above the mob behavior of his male classmates. One took place during a field trip that we chaperoned, and the other was an incident that a fellow mother relayed back to us. At a school event, she went up to Max and told her how grateful she was to Fred that, when her son was going through a rough period being teased and taunted by the boys in their class, Fred was the one boy who refused to take part. I teared up when Max told me this. How do you teach a child – a boy – not to fall to peer or group pressure? How do you ensure that your child has the strength to put someone else’s feelings and dignity over his own need to belong or his desire to feel powerful? I’ve followed no “formulas” in parenting once parenting became more complicated than swaddling and nursing, and so often I feel as if I am holding my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop as a result of things I did too much of or didn’t do enough of during these early years. With these  two incidents I was awash with an intense relief.

Fred calls Jon out on his bad behaviors, and distances himself when Jon becomes too much to take. When I remarked once at how polite and gentlemanly Jon was, Fred responded, “He acts differently around adults.” Fred knows. He can hold his own. And, well, I am going to need him to continue to hold his own, because going into the complex world of teen friendships, it will be my child that I will need to count on.

Have you already experienced this? How do you deal with it?

Why doesn’t she like me??

This morning at the school bus stop I ran into my neighbor, or former neighbor, I should say. She and her family just moved over the weekend but came back to tie up loose ends. I was happy to see her and told her we were going to miss her and her family, blah blah. And so we chatted for about 60 seconds before she (in my mind) made a sprint to talk to someone else…to a child.

Sigh.

In the two years that we had shared the same street I never really did connect with her despite the fact that our sons are good friends. She was very reserved, and so after a while I just let things be, not wanting to make her uncomfortable by forcing conversation. The only thing is, she seemed quite warm and friendly with some others on the street. She seemed cold or uncomfortable mainly with me.

What is wrong with me?

Of course, I’m 4x years old, not 14, or even 24, so I’m not going to waste too much time obsessing over this (just the 60 minutes to write this post) or feeling the need for everyone on this planet to like me. But let’s face it, I grew up needing to please and needing to be liked so while I won’t obsess, I will think about this, and allow this to bug me, just a little.

We face this all the time, don’t we? The neighbor who refuses to return hello’s, the mother on the playground who will chat up a storm with everyone but us. Last year my girlfriend and I went on and on about the mother of our children’s classmate, who barely ever looked in our direction whenever we said hello. What is wrong with us, we anguished; what did we ever do to her? We thought about what we could have said or done, but really, in our limited exposure to her, we really couldn’t have been anything but friendly. Our husbands, in turn, shook their heads at us. It is not our problem, they tried to convince us; it’s the other woman’s.

Yes, that may be true, if we’ve searched and searched and don’t believe we could have done anything wrong. But still we carry these accusations around with us like recycled baggage, this silent finger pointing at us that we have failed. Failed to conform to the person that the other woman would have liked.

Years ago in our 20s my closest girlfriend said something that blew me away when she found out that the guy she’d had the biggest crush on was, in fact, dating an Asian woman. She said to me, “I have this thing against well-dressed Asian women.”

Hello.

First of all, I was (am) an Asian woman. I’d considered myself not a badly dressed person, or maybe she didn’t, or otherwise she wouldn’t have made the comment. Second of all, it was just a mind-blowingly inane and racist thing to think, let alone say. But it was eye-opening because it made me realize how the basis of some people’s reactions really is grounded in nothing at all. As our husbands believe, sometimes it really is the other person’s problem.

And I am ashamed to admit that I myself have not always risen above this. In college I remember disliking this classmate simply because she was so damned perky and sure of herself, even though she was short – shorter than me – and she had frizzy hair. How dare she be so imperfect and confident at the same time?! I was so jealous. My negative feelings toward her said a ton about me, and had nothing to do with her. But she never knew that.

And so I have wondered about my former neighbor. I get along so well with all our other neighbors, but her…I was never able to penetrate. So maybe it’s because I’m Asian, I had once thought, until I saw how close she is to the Korean woman down the street. Or maybe it’s because I don’t go to church, and she and the Korean woman go to the same church, and somehow I ooze heathenism in her eyes. Or maybe I remind her of someone she didn’t like. Or maybe…maybe…

Or maybe we just don’t have that much power over other people, over their pasts, over whatever they’re going through right now, and whatever connections they make in their heads when they meet us. And it’s okay – we should believe it is okay – to let go of the need for that power.

 

Becoming a reader

I think there must be certain moments or periods in readers’ lives when they become readers. Because I wonder how many of us are born loving books, and how many fall into reading by chance, or kicking and screaming, or by choice later in life?

Do you remember when you became a reader?

I would say that I am a born again reader, having experienced both a birth and a death earlier in life.

I can’t recall any defining moment when I realized that I loved books. I just remember always spending long stretches of time in the children’s sections of book stores, and also taking longer than anyone else to make the absolute right choice whenever the RIF (Reading is Fundamental) volunteers came to our school to distribute free books. I also received a $1.50 weekly allowance, and with that I always made a bee-line to Barnes & Noble to get a novel of my choice,  devouring it well before my next allowance came. I would be 11 or so before I stepped foot into a real library for the first time, partly because my parents were new to the country and didn’t know where the library was, and partly because my younger brother and I had (allegedly) for years screamed bloody murder whenever our parents tried to get us into the dark Boston Park Street station (home of America’s first subway, and it looked it).

Stepping foot into Copley Square’s historical library and one of the largest in America, my mouth would just about literally water and I would borrow as many books as my library card allowed. At 11, I was especially interested in and worried about puberty so, pre-internet, books were my only hope of getting answers to the questions I had rather die than ask of my parents and friends.

I can still recall so vividly my favorite authors, titles, characters and jacket covers. I loved Judy Blume and Lois Lowry and I remember well and fondly Ramona, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Harriet the Spy, and the Littles. I was emotionally invested in each book I picked up and felt an unsettling discomfort whenever I was done. Circumstances were stressful growing up, and my characters’ lives were lives I escaped into. Without those places, life felt too real and uninhabitable.

When it comes to adult books I’ve loved, my mind draws an immediate blank and then begins searching, like a confused compass needle that needs to be recalibrated. During that long stretch between high school and motherhood, I had ceased to be a reader. This isn’t to say that I never picked up a book – I actually graduated college with a major in English literature – but I had lost my hunger to read.

I’d become clinically depressed during college. Without the mental functioning needed to desire, enjoy and concentrate on a good story, I simply went through the motions of reading. My mind was overwhelmed by a constant parade of obsessive and negative thoughts from which I no longer had the strength to escape. By the time my depression lifted, my energies were channeled toward my career and a new life overseas and I was more interested in living life than in reading about it. Perhaps I had too utilitarian a view on reading, that it could serve me only when I needed to run away.

It would be another 20 years before I opened myself to reading for pleasure.

The book was The Da Vinci Code, and I had just entered my second year as a mother. I had by then built a mini-library of pregnancy and childcare books but for some reason decided to pick up this novel on a friend’s recommendation.

I read The Da Vinci Code in a haze of sleep deprivation and in the midst of starting a new business while trying to keep the house under control. I read with one hand holding the book and the other hand stir frying dinner, and I sneaked in paragraphs while playing with Fred and when he had his back turned. Like exercise, I realized you really can find time to read if you wanted to.

Very slowly the childcare books gave way to “me” books, and I had to re-learn (or establish?) the rules of reading:

No self-flagellation for not reading books on child development.

No self-flagellation for not reading the classics or Booker Prize winners.

No self-flagellation for abandoning a book partway through because it fails to keep your interest.

Dare and give yourself permission to dislike a book that the critics “hail as the literary achievement of the decade,” and vice versa. 

In those early years of motherhood it was an achievement to read even two books a year. As Fred got a little older and our business began to stabilize, my reading time and mental capacity increased, and I was soon getting up to five books a year, and then ten.

And then I broke my leg this summer.

I began reading as a way to pass the copious time in isolation, but soon found myself eagerly lining up the next book before I was halfway done with my current one. My friend Shannon, a fellow mother and book lover, would give me recommendations or drop off library books for me that she knew I’d like. And I would greedily accept her lends even though I had four (or 40; where do you stop counting?) of my own in queue. She’d invite me to her house but tell me to “bring a book.” I realized this time that reading can be simultaneously an independent and shared fun experience, not necessarily an escape from which you don’t want to return.

I have two lost decades to make up for, but somehow I think I’ll make the time.

When or how did you become a reader?

And on a different note, my post What if feels like when your mom blogs about you is syndicated today on Blogher. If you haven’t read it, I’d love it if you stopped by