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Reading to Help Navigate Addiction

Reading fiction in order to navigate life.

Key points

  • Reading simulates life experience, allowing readers to inhabit an experience vicariously.
  • Book clubs are a community experience in which readers can discuss difficult issues with some psychic distance.
  • The social novel can allow readers to nurture empathy and develop personal resilience.

Addiction can include waves of loss and trauma that go well beyond what the person with addiction experiences. As a school and family counselor, understanding the ripple effect of addiction, and considering the perspective of the people who care for and about those who struggle, has been part of my work for some time.

It’s also true that some people find it too overwhelming to discuss what’s happening inside their own family. It’s safer to begin to examine the impact of addiction on family members by inhabiting a story not their own.

That’s where book club fiction comes in. Research shows that reading fiction—neurologically speaking—positively impacts our emotional state. Reading trains our brains to work more efficiently, to see problems more clearly. And better brains lead to stronger hearts, and thus more compassionate action.

Exploring our fears and insecurities also requires energy and insight—and in order to reflect deeply, we need to feel safe to do so. Novels allow readers to do all of this work at a remove. When you explore the mental health issues in children, or the impact of addiction on marriage, in a high stakes, fast-paced novel, you can learn so much about what you think and how you feel about the subject matter, and the way it plays out in your own life.

The novels I love most allow readers to grapple with some of life’s biggest challenges from the point of view of fictional characters who feel real, and who make choices I can relate to. Well-crafted stories don’t make difficult questions easier to answer, just easier to ponder.

When it comes to writing my latest novel, it was my goal to invite readers to inhabit the lives of women caught up in the caretaking. In The Dangers of an Ordinary Night, in addition to writing a compelling narrative about marriage and parenting, it was my intention to add to the ongoing conversation about the continuum of mental health from healthy resilience to severe impairment. And to help caregivers focus their efforts on the action steps of support.

When you choose your next novel for book club, use this opportunity to discuss the variables that put someone at risk for mental health issues. We all experience stress that can be can be positive and motivating. Yet it’s the kind of stress that is stronger, longer, and regular that impacts our ability to cope well and make responsible decisions.

We read fiction to learn about things we do not understand. We read it to imagine lives unlike our own—or to commiserate with lives exactly like the ones we are living. When you discuss a novel focused on mental health issues, consider engaging your book group in a discussion about the mental health continuum and where the main characters fall. What behaviors and experiences tell you this? Who seeks help and who ignores the symptoms of mental health issues? Why do some of the characters ignore the warning signs? In themselves and in others? Who takes positive steps to seek support?

Your book club meeting is also a wonderful place to share resources in your local community. If any story you read raises concerns about yourself or the people you love and care for, consider reaching out to mental health professionals for support. Here are some national organizations that can help:

  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 (24/7, free and confidential)
  • SAMHSA Disaster Distress Hotline: 1-800-985-5990 (24/7, free and confidential)
  • National Parent Helpline: 1-855-427-2736
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 (24/7, free and confidential)
  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (24/7, free and confidential)
  • To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.