Not Enough Spoons: Life as a Book Empath

There are certain situations that require spoons, a measured amount of energy and mental wellness to get you through a span of time, an experience, a conversation, a phone call, just anything that occurs on a daily basis. Sometimes, you feel mostly tired. You have the energy to text instead of call, so you have a teaspoon left to give than a tablespoon. It’s best to recognize this when making healthy boundaries for yourself. It’s best and perfectly okay to recognize when you have no spoons left in the drawer at all and need to just say “Sorry, We’re Closed” to any new requests or pop ups.

Me and one of my best friends use this phrase a lot. That one family member attempting to call at the end of a long work day, kids whining about dinner not being cooked “right,” or those personal projects and hobbies staring us in the face when we get home and all we want to do is fall into a coma on the couch.

Sometimes, I get this way with reading, too. I’m sure my family would think something is seriously wrong if I were to admit, “I have times where I can’t pick up a book, even a fun read. I just don’t have the spoons right now.” Every family sports watching event, family road trip, boring adult gathering, just anything growing up I always brought a book with me to keep myself entertained. I was that kid who needed a bag to go to and from the library. Give me a book and I will “disappear” for as long as I’m reading.

So why need a reprieve from reading?

Because some writers are too good at their jobs, and I take on every emotion and energetic rollercoaster as the protagonist. I seriously sit there for a while drowning in whatever mood or tone the scenes were set in. And it wasn’t until recently that I even understood why.

When I was in eighth grade, I read the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson, books about teenage kids who were created in a lab to have bird wings and fly. They were always on the run, on edge, and wary to be attacked as the scientists attempted to track them down and kill them. For an eighth grader in Oklahoma, I was very paranoid and always alert to my surroundings as if I expected the same scientists to be lurking nearby, waiting to kidnap me and complete horrific science experiments on me.

No, I don’t have wings, so there’d be no reason for this, but that was what entertained my bored brain all through middle school in a small town. It was just how I saw reality for a while.

At university, I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte for a literature class. I truly devoured that book, but it took a hard toll on my psyche: after each reading session, I had to go for a walk. I had to mope and feel the dark cloud that hung over me as if I was going through the same emotional torment and violent thoughts as Katherine or Heathcliff. The walks around my campus helped ground me again; I was at school, in a dorm, and not in Yorkshire in the 1800’s. No mysterious fever was going to take me to an early grave, but I was in a depressed fog as if it was coming on anyway.

Over time, all of the best books did this: I took on the emotional weight of the characters and held it as my own without second thought. It was natural and happened without trying, much like other empathic moments I have; if someone near me cries, my eyes well up instantly as if I’m their mirror image. I don’t even have to know why we’re crying, it just happens (I remember it was worse when I was a child, like if I saw my mother crying or if another kid on Halloween got so scared and began to cry, my face crumpled and tears began to flow).

Book characters are, apparently, not an exception to this.

Romance stories are the worst! I will be reading about some love-tortured couple, kept apart or held at arms length due to miscommunication or outside forces, and then my poor husband comes home and I look at him with lovestruck and heartbroken eyes. He’ll get caught off guard and say, “What happened? Did someone die?” And then I’m offended; how could he not know?!

But I didn’t even know. I just knew that from time to time, the idea of reading anything made me mentally cringe; it can be tiring to take on the fictional burdens of a fantasy character. Characters seeking justice and vengeance push bitter anger and resentment onto me. A rebel’s cause (such as a Mockingjay’s) becomes my own and I wonder how I can apply it to my real life situation (I think we all may do this, especially with how things are going in the world right now). Heartbreak wedges itself into my chest, and a character’s loss materializes like real grief.

Sometimes, I just have to sit a while and let the feelings flow through me until they, and myself, are drained entirely.

I love reading and find it to be one of the healthiest of hobbies, but that doesn’t mean it can’t stress you out, even when doing it for fun. When fun things are anything but, it’s okay to take a break. Hence why my library may seem me a number of times for weeks and then I ghost them for a month (a ghost in a library, see I could do that for eternity).

I reach out for any other book empaths out there. Comment below on what books truly struck home for you or if this has happened to you without realizing it. Do you find yourself pretending to be your book’s protagonist? Even as an adult?

Let me know below!

-A.R.

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