Someone asked me recently how I read 250 books over the past year. I gave my stock answer: speed-reader, no other hobbies, lots of audio books at 3x speed, a long bus commute every day. All true, and all, in a way, technically an answer to “how.”
But if I gave an honest answer, I would say: I read 250 books because I use books to self-medicate. Stressed? Read a book. Exhausted? Read a book. Sad? Read a book. Joyful? Read a book. Overwhelmed? Read a book. Some people use alcohol or drugs to cope. I happen to use books.
As far as socially acceptable coping mechanisms go, it works quite well. No one looks concerned if you say you read a book a day. At least, not in the way they would if you said you drank a six pack a day. It educates, and so it doesn’t seem as harmful as binge-watching TV. Finally, it harms no one, costs me almost nothing, and presents me with a daily dose of new ideas and dreams, a very positive thing.
But I think I make a mistake when I ignore how unhealthy an addiction can become, even an addiction to books. My friend called me out on this recently. I realized 250 stood within my grasp and only half-jokingly said I should make a bid for 300. 50 books in 30 days? Now there is a challenge worth taking. Except, of course, for the minor inconvenience of finals and packing to leave the country. But such minor matters in the face of true glory! 300 real books. Imagine. I so could do it.
“You don’t have the time,” my friend told me firmly. And then, when I finished two books in one day, “You better not try and reach 300! Finals come first!”
She’s right. I know it in my head. I just…don’t want to listen. I get a hit of dopamine every time I finish a book, and a larger hit every time I reach a new goal. 100 books? Done. 150 books? Done. 200 books? Done. I feel so good about myself. Even if only I know, it feels good. But it also comes with external praise. So on top of my own personal satisfaction, I receive the excitement of my friends and I feed of it. Bring on the next challenge.
The thing is, I seek that dopamine hit when I feel the most stressed and frustrated with something. If you calculate the spikes in my reading numbers, I guarantee something correspondingly stressful happened in my day or week or month. With books, I can ignore it for a little bit. I can reach for an achievable goal. I can make myself feel accomplished and worthy. The more overwhelming my external circumstances, the more I cling to things I can control. Like my yearly reading goal.
It becomes an obsession. I short-change other areas of my life. I think about books. I think about numbers. I calculate over and over what it will take to reach such and such a goal. I map out which books to read, where to find them. Fearlessly I surge forward to meet my foe and vanquish it! And then I look around for the next goal, because think what I could accomplish.
And meanwhile, while I feel good about myself and happily distracted, the reality I’m running away from does not disappear. It remains an incessant, ominous background noise to my anxious, harried attempts to forget.
Now, I’ve been blessed with great reading skills and I will naturally hit quite a few books during the year because I love reading. I do not want to pretend like any time I zip through a book, I’m running away from something. But I do realize that sometimes, especially in moments like this with finals coming up, I distract myself. And in such situations, it does not reflect something healthy. It reflects a coping mechanism. Self-medication. After all, if I finish two books tonight and those three audio books tomorrow and…