What Therapists Are Reading to Get Through the Many Crises of the Moment
Chaya Bhuvaneswar on How Books Sustain Mental Health Professionals
Nearly 600 days into the national health emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic we now face a concurrent mental health pandemic. In a recent CDC survey, 31 percent of respondents in the US claimed depression, while a shocking 11 percent reported seriously contemplating suicide within the preceding ten days. Fatal drug overdoses, reflective of both higher rates of addiction as well as suicidality, increased by 30 percent during this grief-stricken year and a half.
Given the ever-increasing need (and demand) for therapy and therapists, I spoke to several therapists about how they’re coping, in particular what they are currently reading during this overwhelming moment. Moving beyond the question of whether therapy or mental health treatment is more important than ever (it is), our conversations explored how literature and reading helps therapists in their healing work.
My experience as a South Asian-American woman psychiatrist puts me squarely in a small minority within a predominantly white field, so for this article I made sure to reach out to queer and BIPOC therapists; though many agreed to talk about their current reading, some chose not to be named, for fear of disclosing too much personal information (the standard is different for what white vs. non-white and cis vs. queer and trans mental health professionals can safely disclose about themselves, as noted here and elsewhere). What we read is a “tell”—considered by some psychiatrists (especially those hewing to orthodox psychoanalysis) to be too revealing to share, despite how literature nurtures us, how it can create a common language with diverse patients, something that traditional psychoanalysis, given its struggles to even acknowledge the impact of race, has not prioritized.
Among those very few queer or BIPOC therapists comfortable talking to me on the record was Jimmy Dagostino, a queer psychologist and therapist in Michigan who is reading Being-In, Being-For, Being-With by Clark Moustakas “which is an excellent book that covers topics such as loneliness, creativity, the meaning and nature of being different, and the struggle of being and relating.”
Acclaimed writer Shelly Oria, who was a finalist for the Edmund White award and Lambda Literary Award for her debut story collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, is a creative coach rather than a traditional mental health professional, but takes a therapeutic approach in her work with artist clients. As a writer, Oria is obviously a big reader:
“In my work as a creativity coach I often draw a distinction between our reader selves and our writer or creative selves when it comes to book preferences, since I believe it’s good practice for creatives to be intentional about what they consume in general, and the books they read in particular. With a book my reader-self loves, I’m able to lose myself to the experience, and while my writer brain never really turns off, I’m not constantly thinking of the language or the mechanics or how the writer got away with this or that… I’m able to—sort of, almost—just be a person, reading. And that is such a gift. But books that engage my writer self… They are a different kind of gift. With these books, I can barely sit still—I keep wanting to put them down so I can write.
I’d count anything by Grace Paley in this category, and Judy Budnitz’s Flying Leap, and Alice Walker’s In Love & Trouble, and Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You… And countless others. But this past year, I was extra grateful for books my reader self was able to sink into: Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life… So many more. Oh, and one book that somehow defied all logic and had both effects on me at once was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, one of the most brilliant books I’ve read in years.”
Other therapists felt able to share more freely. Pamela Enders, a psychologist, musician, and group/individual therapist in Massachusetts, says this about her reading selections:
“When I was an undergrad, majoring in psychology, I found that I learned much more about human psychology reading literature than I did from my psych classes. I am a firm believer that the best, most astute psychologists are writers of fiction.
I have studied writers like Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens (a great storyteller!), Jane Austen, and American writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway (mixed feelings), Oates, Morrison, etc. More recently, I have loved All the Light You Cannot See, Where the Crawdads Sing and This Tender Land. I’m sure others will come to mind if I think about it… Anyway, I think I wrote all this to jar my memory. Oh, I am now remembering Isabel Allende, Sue Miller, Gail Godwin, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anais Nin, Harper Lee, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and now all I want to do is re-read some of those wonderful books. But there are so many I have not yet read. P.S. I will never forget a sentence from DH Lawrence from Women in Love, where he described a boy grieving and said, ‘his blood wept.’ I may not be remembering it correctly, but that line has stayed with me. It so aptly described the deep and all-consuming pain one feels when grieving (a mother, I think).”
Thomas Gutheil, a psychiatrist in New England (and author himself, of books on keeping safe boundaries in psychotherapy, like Preventing Boundary Violations in Clinical Practice) describes reading he returns to now from years ago:
“One of the books that most profoundly affected me decades ago was Blood of the Lamb by Peter de Vries, a largely autobiographical narrative about the death of his child. Even in this tragic context, the satiric wit and sense of the absurd that is found throughout the other half dozen novels I read by that author still came through. This led me to read a collection of his short stories, which certainly lives up to that promise; they don’t call it ‘comic relief’ for nothing.”
Mark Corrigan, a North Carolina-trained psychiatrist and therapist who has led key drug development programs in pain, cancer, and epilepsy, writes:
“I just finished two very different books—When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi—quite a moving account by a talented young physician facing death head on. The second was Napa by James Conaway. It was a bit of a tome, but traced the early families of Napa Valley, the struggles to maintain agricultural space and the development of viticulture. I have always been more of an Old World devotee so this rounded out my knowledge. On my night table is The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. Sustaining me through the pandemic were some revisitations to influential works from the past—particularly Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths and Thornton Wilder’s plays.”
And me? I am a psychiatrist and therapist in private practice, grateful to combine this with my writing, as I describe here combining a pro bono practice for front line providers, including first responders, with a practice more similar to the *before-times*. My reading has several registers—to sustain myself as a writer; to learn and continue learning, as a therapist; to think about craft and criticism; and to escape, pure and simple: reading as chocolate, a bubble bath, or a luxurious journey.
I am also rereading Louise Erdrich including her short story in the New Yorker Year of My Birth, for how it illuminates so much about both white and Indigenous lives, adoption, and parent-child bonds that are often at the heart of the work of therapy. I also just read Katie Kitamura’s National Book Award-nominated novel Intimacies, which explores (in my view) some of the parallels between doing therapy and being an interpreter of sorts (brings to mind Jhumpa Lahiri’s lovely debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which I have dipped back into recently as well).
I also recently read Savage Tongues by Azareen van der Vliet Oloomi which was such a brilliant (and clinically realistic) exploration of trauma, and loved books by Venita Blackburn, the book Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez (which again explores mother-daughter bonds, as well as the mental health toll of HIV in communities of color) and (also National Book award-nominated) Matrix by Lauren Groff, whose portrayals of female rage, anxiety and dread are incredibly accurate and sharp.
To continue my learning as a therapist, I recently read The Tennis Partner, by Abraham Verghese, a memoir of his friendship and attempts to help bring to treatment a talented colleague struggling with addiction; I have also been reading, every week, new chapters of an updated addiction psychiatry textbook, cognizant of how COVID has so drastically and tragically tightened the grip that addiction has on millions of people around the world.
What does reading do for us, as therapists? I think the act of reading reminds us of how inexhaustible and infinitely varied human experience is. There is nothing that can’t happen to us. As much reason for hope, as anything.