You've seen my Twitter and Instagram posts about reading. You may have even seen my 2017 and 2018 reading lists on this blog. But do you know why I read so obsessively? It's not solely for my love of reading and learning (although that definitely plays a role)—it's because there was a point when I couldn't read.
Let's start at the beginning. I grew up with a love of reading, inherited from my mom. She read to us constantly, and I believe that is that foundation for my love of books. I could read before most of my classmates, even though I was the youngest in the class. I was embarrassed when my first grade teacher would make me read to the class for storytime, but also a little proud.
As a child and teen, I always had my nose in a book. I wore out the pages of Anne of Green Gables, and, owned nearly every Babysitters Club book, thanks to my older cousin Abigail who had outgrown them. Nights were often spent reading the Little House on the Prairie series with my mom. Books filled my birthday and Christmas wish lists.
But in my late 20s and early 30s, my eyes were exhausted from working all day on a computer. Of course, I still read, but not with the voracity that had previously consumed me. A book here, a book there. Maybe one a month, but probably less if I'm being honest. I was busy living my best life.
Then came May 2016 when I had a traumatic brain injury (TBI). I was in denial about the seriousness of it all for a long time (and sometimes I still am); more realistically, my brain was unable to process that I couldn't do the things I used to do. I was off work for a long time, and didn't understand why. I was unable to write any kind of cohesive sentence, and couldn't focus for more than a few minutes at a time.
Most devastatingly, I couldn't read. Yes, I could see the words and I knew what they meant. But I could not process more than a page at a time. The words would jump around on the page—nothing made sense. And I definitely could not remember what I had read a few paragraphs before so it would take me around five minutes or more to read one page. I don't know if you could even call it reading a page, because I would inevitably forget what I had read within minutes. This was not the brain I was used to. This was not my brain.
My doctor suggested trying books on tape. I tried, but could only listen for around 10 minutes at a time before I would lose all comprehension. Reading, even auditory "reading", was a painstakingly slow process. My ability to read quickly and comprehend easily was something I was so proud of, and I had lost that ability nearly entirely. At one point, the doctors weren't sure I'd ever be able to go back to an office job because they couldn't guarantee that my reading and writing abilities would ever return to where they were prior to the TBI.
After several months of not being allowed to work, I returned to the office. It was a painful process; I was exhausted all of the time. Using your brain, especially when it's broken, depletes so much of your energy. I would get home from work, and go to sleep within an hour or two. But, slowly, it started to get easier. I wasn't transposing words as much as I used to; my newly developed stutter was subsiding. Every day, I was able to process more and more.
I was listening to a lot of podcasts, which were easier for me to comprehend than audiobooks. Then I started listening to more audiobooks and—slowly but surely—my attention span and comprehension increased. Then one day in late 2016, I opened a book a friend had given me to read once I was feeling up to it--Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. It took me awhile to get through it, longer than I was used to. But it awakened something within me. That love of reading that I once had slowly started to return.
Once I started reading, I couldn't stop. I started visiting the library again, checking out a few books at a time, and making my way through them faster than I'd imagined. I decided I would read 25 books in 2017, but I knew I could do better. So I challenged myself to read 50; an ambitious goal, one that I knew I probably wouldn't meet, but one I was excited about. I didn't meet that goal in 2017, and was two books short in 2018. But none of that mattered to me. I was—and am—so damn proud of myself for how far I've come. To go from not being able to read a single page in mid-2016 to reading over 48 books in 2018 is an accomplishment I'll treasure, goals be damned.
I guess that old cliche is true, if you love something, set it free, and if it comes back to you, it's yours to keep. Looks like I'm stuck with books and my love of reading forever, and that's a-okay with me!
Author's Note: All of this is something I've never shared with anyone outside of my immediate family and a few close friends. It's scary to even put it down on paper, because all of the memories—the struggles, the sadness, the frustration—come flooding back; it's a place I hope I never have to return to.
What I've written today is just a small portion of the struggles I experienced with my TBI, and, maybe one day, I'll be ready to share more of the story. But, today, I'm sharing this part with you in the hopes that it helps someone else who is struggling with a TBI or a learning disorder or anything that prevents them from doing what they love. There is hope at the end of the tunnel, and things do get better. It hasn't been any easy road, but it's a road worth taking.
Megan A. Dutta