“Have you ever heard of anhedonia?”
I was sitting in my therapist’s office when he asked me that question. I was 19, and just out of a mental hospital where I’d landed after a depressive episode.
I might have heard the word before, but I was half-asleep, and trying to identify the song my therapist was half-heartedly strumming on his beat-up guitar. So I said no, and he explained it to me: the feeling of not being able to enjoy things you used to love.
It struck a nerve. My life at the time had revolved around reading and music, but I couldn’t bring myself to open a book or CD case. I was doing a lot of staring at walls and writing terrible poetry, all of which has been, mercifully, lost to history.
I got better. I returned to books by my favorite authors — Michael Chabon, Scott Heim, Toni Morrison — and discovered new ones. I left college and eventually became a book critic, which has been my job for years now.
Then, 24 years later, my depression came back, and brought anxiety along with it. Last October, my mental health declined steadily, and culminated in a complete breakdown.
I got help, but help takes time. For weeks, I would work as long as I could, then go back to bed, Googling mental hospitals and help hotlines from my phone.
I couldn’t do much in those weeks. But miraculously, I could read; this time, depression didn’t take that away from me. I could still find beauty in books. I’d been afraid to try, but I forced myself to pick up the latest book from Ander Monson, “Predator,” about his relationship with the 1987 movie he’s seen scores of times. Monson had a hard life, and I could almost hear him telling me through the pages that I wasn’t alone.
One morning, not long before Thanksgiving, I noticed a novel sitting on a bench in my bedroom: “One Night Two Souls Sent Walking,” by Maine author Ellen Cooney, which I had reviewed three years before. I’d been blown away by the novel, which follows a hospital chaplain and a dog that’s possibly a ghost. I flipped through it, eventually coming across a passage that had resonated with me, a plea from the chaplain to a patient: “Please imagine what hope is, and please then have it.”
I’ve had my life saved by paramedics, doctors, therapists, family, friends. I exist in a perpetual state of gratitude, and always will. But I’ll probably never be able to properly thank Cooney for that one sentence, which found me again when I needed it most.
I’m not suggesting that books are a panacea for mental illness; they’re not. But when you dedicate your life to reading, sometimes what you read can end up saving you. It saved me.
Michael Schaub is a writer in Texas and a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle.