Earlier today I finished reading a book  that had a quote from author Lois McMaster Bujold that I found particularly striking and poignant regarding the course of my own life:
“It occurs to me that because books give us escape even though we may be physically trapped wherever we are, they give us a “time out” space. People who don’t have this have to stay in the pressure cooker as the pressure goes higher and higher, until they finally explode into violence expressed either externally or internally in stress illnesses. Books give readers a place to go. This is good for your health and potentially good for the health of the people around you as well. I think reading can be a form of self-medication.”
As might be expected, the subject of self-medication is one of deep personal importance. My concern with self-medication in both its extreme necessity as well as its massive dangers springs from environmental reasons given the torturous course of my life as well as my own melancholy family history. Self-medication is a matter that can easily go wrong, as most of the substances we use to escape from the troubles of our lives, or to cast away our anxieties and concerns far from us are ultimately unproductive in leading to improvement within our lives. Most of the time, our desires to self-medicate only lead us to be further trapped not only in the original problems from which we sought an escape, but from the problems and repercussions of our choice of escape.
While reading is definitely a far better form of self-medication than drugs or alcohol, far less risky (unless one has a taste for reading forbidden literature ) than sex and far less expensive than gambling (although book reading can be a very expensive habit unless one is fortunate enough to be able to receive one’s reading collection largely free of charge, which is admittedly rare, and a recent development even for me), it is not a perfect solution by any means. Many forms of reading are purely escapist, and like other forms of temporary escape they leave the original problems unresolved. As is the case with other forms of self-medication, this will not generally lead to a solution of those problems, merely a temporary break from the stress of having to deal with them.
At times, this can amount to a logistical strategy of its own, a psychological war of attrition, a test of endurance to see if the power to endure suffering and stress and difficulty is greater than the power others have of inflicting that suffering and difficulty on us. Such a strategy, itself a form of guerrilla warfare, is of necessity a very grim strategy, even a desperate one, made in the expectation that one does not have the resources to confront a problem head on but has nowhere to run away from the problem. As can be seen by the lives of those who have endured the horrors that this world has to offer, it is the sort of strategy that leaves a lot of scars on the individuals and the lands where this strategy is used. Yet it is a strategy that offers a fair chance at success even among the grim circumstances, since one side is fighting for survival and the other side generally only for power and glory.
Yet there are ways where reading can be more than a mere temporary escape or, more dangerously, the resources for a grim and desperate struggle for personal survival and integrity against the horrors that this world has to offer. Reading can serve to open up new worlds and new resources to deal with the situations of life. For example, we may read of others who have had lives and struggles like our own, and the knowledge that others have endured the same things, or had the same sorts of dreams and longings as our own, gives us hope that we will succeed likewise, and may give us not only encouragement but also practical techniques, tactics, and strategies for how to deal with our lives and the situations in them. Our reading, even if originally seen as a form of self-medication, can easily become part of a conscious and directed effort at gaining resources and allies in our common struggles.
It might be easy for some people to question the need for self-medication. After all, we tend to associate self-medication with a form of cowardice, with an image of someone running away from their problems or with the image of a drunk lingering too long at the bar, hoping another round will be enough to still the fears of an anxious mind or bandage the wounds of a broken heart or spirit. Yet at times self-medication is necessary for our own survival. A child cannot easily escape abuse or fighting at home, or bullying at school or within his neighborhood, and may not even know how to communicate what is going on to other people, if they even cared in the first place. Yet a hunger for knowledge and a vivid imagination can provide at least some safe place that is secure even from the most terrifying realities or nightmares that one may have to face, as well as the resources to build a better future and repair as best as possible the damages we have to deal with in the present.
It is entirely understandable that many people would not wish to dwell on such unpleasant matters. Yet many people have no choice in the matter. Nor is the need for escape a problem that is going away. On the contrary, our society is full of the repercussions of failed forms of self-medication, whether it is the explosion of alcoholism, sexuality problems, drug abuse (including the push to legalize marijuana), and the destruction of family and community. The absence of hope for a better future, the refusal to accept present pain in order to help provide for a better tomorrow, the denial of personal responsibility for the externalities of our individual and collective behavior, and the ever-present search for scapegoats for our problems are not merely the problems of a small group of people or even one society but a global problem.
Such massive problems overwhelm all of us, and whether our awareness of these problems comes from painful personal experience or merely some sort of vague lack of pleasure or joy in life, we face the constant pressure to self-medicate. Given the options that are available, there are only a few options that have the potential to improve matters, and all potential solutions have their tradeoffs. Even solutions such as prayer and fasting and meditation are merely the initial steps of an ongoing process of recognizing that which is beyond our control, and giving that to God, and what is within our domain of responsibility that we must figure out how to deal with as best as we can. This is where reading comes in handy as a form of self-medication that also allows us to recognize kindred souls and discover unknown resources, tactics, and strategies for coping with life successfully. The stakes are massive, but fortunately, so is the amount of what is available to help us in our quests to slay the dragons we encounter along the twisty and serpentine course of our lives.