Therapy has been one of my favorite topics for the last couple years. The taboo is starting to melt at the edges and I love to see it. I started therapy in 2021 and even though I think I’ve made no progress (I’m stuck, I’m working on it!!!) I’ve reached the point where my therapy session is one of the highlights of my week and I’m a bit sad when I or my therapist have a conflict.
It took me a long time to get to the point of finding my own therapist – I was first recommended by my doctor one back in 2013, but I had no insurance and no time and no idea where to start. Instead, a spent a lot of time trying to “figure it out” on my own. I think I first became aware of bibliotherapy around that time, but not in a formal way. I’ve always been a reader, and I have always freely admitted that losing myself in books and finding characters dealing with things that plagued me has always been a kind of therapy.
Very Well Mind defines bibliotherapy like this:
When dealing with conditions such as anxiety and depression or coping with grief, sometimes it can be difficult to make sense of what is happening in your mind and body, especially if you don’t have any other experience to compare it to. Bibliotherapy aims to bridge this gap by using literature to help you improve your life by providing information, support, and guidance in the form of reading books and stories.Sara Lindberg, M.Ed, Very Well Mind, August 29, 2021
If you’ve never heard of bibliotherapy, don’t be surprised. Since therapy itself is still a thing folks don’t like to talk about, these supportive methods wouldn’t be in conversation unless you’re a trained professional in the psychology field, your own therapist suggested it, or you stumbled upon it. That said, it’s not a new approach. According to Good Therapy, the use of literature in healing dates back to ancient Greece, where libraries were perceived as “sacred places with curative powers”. Greek physicians have been noted to use poetry alongside more traditional medicine when treating patients. Aristotles’ work was noted as having healing properties, and Ramses II had a specific section of his library noted as a “House of Healing for the Soul”. Modern doctors and therapist may consider this more as a homeopathic treatment.
Bibliotherapy does not replace more traditional methods of therapy, but I’ve always found it helped. Especially when the characters were struggling with the same feelings or situations I found myself facing. For example, let’s talk about Tess of the Road. You all know I love this book. I’ve talked about it a couple times. Yes, I love Tess Dombegh and of course I love the journey of discovery, but Tess of the Road hit a different chord for me because of Tess’s depression, infant loss, and suicidal ideation. If I had read it a a different point in my life, I probably would not have felt so connected to Tess, but when the ARC landed in my NetGalley account, all these things were fresh and potent in my mind.
When we talk about books we felt were written for us, books like Tess of the Road come to my mind because it was like the author plucked my feelings from that tangled mass in my chest and built a story around it. Through Tess of the Road, Rachel Hartman helped me navigate my pain and helplessness. She helped me see the way Tess surrendered to being an avatar of herself rather than giving herself permission to grieve. Her life had ended, and the road allows her rebirth. It was what I needed. It was bibliotherapy, and I didn’t even know it.
Tess of the World is not the only book I have connected to in this way, but it is by far the strongest. There is a kind of magic to being seen by a stranger, to reading your feelings on a page. To watching a character struggling like you are overcome their struggles and knowing there is hope. My love of literature is deeply tied to this feeling of being validated, but it has only been recently that I’ve truly understood the therapeutic purpose of books goes beyond escapism and into personal validity. I’ve often felt guilty I favor fiction so intensely over non-fiction, but when you look at literature from this perspective, these “silly little stories” have so much power.
In a traditional therapeutic environment, a mental health provider would likely offer a list of books relevant to their patient’s struggles. Sometimes, though, we stumble upon these things. It’s a beautiful thing to find healing through words on a page. Empathy goes a long way, and stories often provide more of that than the people around us.