Reading to Enhance Mental Health: Bibliotherapy

Reading as a Healing Experience

Most of us become readers at an early age and discover the wonders of a good story. We learn to interact with books in order to learn and grow. Characters come alive to us as we relate to their experiences. Sometimes reading is for pleasure or escape and other times it is for the disciplined acquisition of information. No matter what, our engagement with literature and written word has the potential to change us, calm us, inform us, inspire us and heal us. In its most simplistic form, this is known as bibliotherapy. Exposure to books, poetry, writing, and even film and videos can be therapeutic and beneficial in helping us process our own life experiences. In other words, literature can be used to help us figure life out, heal emotional traumas, and change thoughts and behavior. Reading can be a healing experience.

As I was learning to adjust to vision loss, I was drawn to read books about blindness and books written by authors who were blind. I found it very helpful and motivating to enter the narratives of others who were sharing their own stories of vision loss. Some books were informational, some humorous, and others deeply moving. I realized that the cumulative affect was that I understood more about blindness and my feelings about it were changing. Reading books on blindness, memoirs and biographies of blind writers has had a very positive influence on my ability to adjust and cope with vision loss.

Reading Books on Blindness

It has long been understood that literature “heals the soul” and the use of bibliotherapy has evolved to become quite complex in its application to psychiatry and health care. Consider a bit of reading therapy for yourself as a way to deal with vision loss. With the help of the Peer Advisors at VisionAware, I  put together a reading list of books for this purpose. It is not exhaustive by any means but meant to get you started. Most of these titles are available through the National Library Service in audio or braille formats. Newer titles are not yet available through the NLS. Many are available in e-book formats through your favorite booksellers. (Kindle, Nook, etc.) Another way to find such books on blindness is to search the NLS collection using “blindness” as a key word. Whether you are using your eyes, ears or fingers to read, may it be a rewarding and therapeutic experience.

If you are interested in learning more about the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and the Talking Book Program, go to: hhttp://www.loc.gov/nls/index.html

24 Books on Blindness

  1. Touch the Top of the World by Erik Weihenmayer- e-book, NLS
  2. Cockeyed: a memoir by Ryan Knighton- e-book, NLS
  3. Blindness: What it is, What it Does, and How to Live with it by Thomas Carroll-NLS
  4. Lessons I Learned in the Dark by Jennifer Rothschild- NLS
  5. Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness by John Hull- NLS
  6. Living on the Edge of Twighlight by Doug Green- e-book
  7. Now I See You: A Memoir by Nicole C. Kear- e-book
  8. Mobility Matters: Stepping Out in Faith by Amy Bovaird- e-book
  9. Out of the Whirlpool: A Memoir of Remorse and Reconciliation by Sue Martin- e-book,NLS
  10. The Adversity Advantage by Erik Weihenmayer and Paul G. Stoltz-  e-book,NLS
  11. Thoughts on Blindness: One Spouse’s Perspective on Losing Vision and Living Life by Becky LeBlanc-The Carroll Center Books on Blindness
  12. Ordinary Daylight: Portrait of an Artist Going Blind by Andrew Potok- e-book, NLS cassette
  13. A Matter of Dignity: Changing the Lives of the Disabled by Andrew Potok-NLS
  14. ROCKS:The Blind Guy at the Lake by Thomas P. Costello-Amazon print, The Carroll Center Books on Blindness
  15. Focus by Ingrid Ricks- e-book
  16. How Do You Kiss a Blind Girl by Sally Wagner-NLS
  17. The Way We See It: A Fresh Look at Vision Loss – anthology from Vision Loss Resource-print, e-book available at http://www.visionlossresources.org
  18. Do You Dream in Color? By Laurie Rubin-NLS
  19. And There Was Light: Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance by Jacques Lusseyran-NLS
  20. Not Fade Away by Rebecca Alexander
  21. The Unseen Minority: a social history of blindness in America by Frances A. Koestler-NLS
  22. Self-Esteem and Adjusting with Blindness: the process of responding to life’s demands by Dean and Naomi Tuttle-NLS
  23. Shades of Darkness: a black soldier’s journey through Vietnam, blindness and back by George Brummell-NLS
  24. Undaunted by Blindness: concise biographies of 400 people who refused to let visual impairment define them by Clifford Olstrom, Perkins School for the Blind-NLS

Share Your Favorite Therapeutic Book

Is there a book you have read that helped you adjust to vision loss? How did the book help you? Or is there a book about a blind person that was encouraging or motivational? What about books written by a blind or visually impaired author? Share your favorite reads below.

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A Piano Concert: Pure Joy!

I attended a piano concert at Spivey Hall this weekend. Now I am a total novice when it comes to music of such caliber. But I do love music of all genres and enjoy the way it can influence my mood, inspire my thoughts, and elicit sweet memories all at once. That is indeed the power and magic of music and I have always wished that I could make music and understand it more fully. Though I am no musical connoisseur or musician, I was moved by the pure pleasure of this experience.

keyboard of a Steinway grand piano

keyboard of a Steinway Grand Piano

Richard Goode, a classical American Pianist, was phenomenal. We had 2nd row seats and I could see his outline as he entered the stage in his black suit and snow white hair. He seemed to have a commanding posture and bowed deeply to his audience. Then he got right to the business of stroking and caressing his beloved keys. Immediately, I was in awe and drawn into his music. He played a variety of classical pieces each with its own story, mood and interpretation, for which he is known. He is a true master and it was a privilege to be there.

black Steinwas Grand Piano

Steinway Grand Piano

I found myself closing my eyes so that I could “hear” the music better. And paradoxically, I could “see” the music better too. I got lost in it as each note, each piece rang out crystal clear in the perfect accoustics of this fine hall. I imagined some notes as fairies dancing on moonbeams, lithe and whimsical. Others were complex and booming like a thunderous storm in the night. In my mind’s eye, I followed each story as it unfolded in layers. The music appeared as light and gave me a sense of knowing.  I could hear, see and feel each piece in a way I have never experienced before. Is this part of losing one’s vision? Is it a function of being more attuned to my senses? Was it the sheer pleasure and appreciation of exquisite music? I do not know for sure but I can say with certainty that it was beautiful and haunting and it left me wanting more. 

Music notes with Light in the background

Music is Light…

Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. ~Ludwig van Beethoven

Yoga Anyone?

Making the Committment

In my retirement, I have been exploring new ways to be physically active. I have always walked for exercise with my guide dog. We mapped out several routes in my neighborhood and enjoy this special time together. But walking just didn’t seem like enough and I was experiencing changes in my balance, muscle strength, range of motion, and stamina. As a visually impaired person I had become less physically active and I didn’t like the way I was feeling. I have put on weight and have been suffering with low back pain. I needed to move all my muscles and joints and strengthen my whole body. As I age, I want to be able to rely on my body to allow me to do the things I want to do. If we give our amazing bodies what they need, they will perform what we ask of them. So now that I have time on my hands, I am investing in my health and well-being.

Getting Started 

I discovered the “sports and fitness” channel on TV and began to do Pilates, dance, and yoga programs in my living room. This proved to be a great place to start and helped me loosen up and get back into regular exercise. These programs are “on demand” selections and there are hundreds to choose from with a wide variety of workouts. Though I was sore at first, it felt so good to be moving again. After a few months of these home workouts, I wanted more. I considered joining a gym, though in the past that didn’t always work out since I do not drive and have to find rides. There happened to be a new gym opening up in our area and we checked it out.

Joining a Gym

Sophie and I working out at the gym

Sophie and I working out at the gym

 It turns out that this new gym offered a great deal; affordable pricing, no contract, and no sign up fees. In addition, the membership allows for a free guest with each visit. This was perfect — I could invite friends to drive me and stay to work out for free. And so for the last few months, I have been able to visit the gym consistently and explore all that it has to offer. The management and trainers were very helpful in orienting me to equipment and welcoming to my guide dog Sophie. I learned the weight machine circuit and how to set the different cardio machines, carefully navigating the maze of equipment with Sophie or my white cane. When I first joined, I mostly took advantage of the water aerobics classes which were easy on my lower back problems. My back improved as I strengthened my core muscles. Then it was time for a bit more challenge. I stepped up my game by adding 30-45 minute workouts on the elliptical, treadmill and stationary bicycle, alternating. And I began doing the weights twice a week as well. The gym recently added Pilates and yoga classes, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

Trying New Activities

My yoga instructor-Namaste!

My yoga instructor-Namaste!

Yoga has been such a surprisingly delightful way to move and work my body. It involves posing in ways that stretch and engage your muscles, heating them up and fatiguing them. Breathing technique is also important when practicing yoga, I am learning. My instructor AJ has a wonderful way of leading us “baby yogis” through the poses, giving verbal cues and tips on how to get the most out of the movements. As she talks about “creating space” within our bodies, I am aware of new sensations and movements of which my body is capable. When my muscles shake in the “hovering cat” position or burn as I hold a balancing pose, I know I am doing something healthy for my body. As AJ says, “It feels so yummy!” It is a delicious experience being anchored to the earth and unifying your mind and body as you go through the routine, interspersed with moments of relaxation in “child’s pose.” My favorite part of class is doing our “oms,” which AJ calls a massage of our central nervous system and a chance to project our voice. This is followed by the “corpse pose” when we are challenged to rest, empty our minds, and breathe deeply for two minutes…heavenly! What a wonderful feeling I have when I leave the class, ready to take on the day!

Enjoying the Benefits of Exercise

I have already seen many changes and benefits to my body as a result of these new activities. My balance has improved, I am losing weight, my clothes fit better, my moods are stable, and I am sleeping soundly. My lower back and joint pains are improving too. Another benefit of going to the gym has been making new friends and being inspired by the environment. Our bodies are incredible machines and require motion and maintenance. Give your body what it needs and it will give you what you want – quality of life.

If you are doing nothing in the way of exercise, do something! If you are doing something, do more! Enjoy your body in motion!

Wise Old Trees

A sign which reads "Cathedral Grove-enter quietly"

Muir Woods, a sacred place

As a cellular and developmental biology major, I was fascinated by the diversity of life on this planet Earth. My fascination began in childhood as I roamed the fields and played in the creeks on our farm in Michigan. I loved to collect leaves and bugs, climb trees, watch ants, catch frogs and study flowers. I spent hours outdoors, communing with nature and it was always a spiritual experience for me. I am in awe of the variety of shapes and colors; species and phyla found in the plant and animal kingdoms. And beyond that, the fierce determination to survive and the ability to adapt are impressive. Take the majestic sequoias in Yosemite and their cousins the coastal redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument, where these ancient trees are protected.

It was a privilege to visit these special places. Even with my diminished vision, I was able to sense the grandeur as I entered Mariposa Grove and Cathedral Grove. I walked among trees that were as old as 2000 years, as tall as 379 feet, and as wide as 40 feet. Talk about behemoths! I felt very small and inconsequential; my life but a momentary breath in comparison. The forest’s gauzy shafts of light, swirls of purple shadows, melodious songs of birds, earthy herbal fragrances, and gurgling sounds of streams all intermingled to create an ethereal effect. Indeed, this is a natural cathedral, serene and solemn, commanding a hushed respect. These redwoods have stood for eons of time, against the forces of natural disasters, man and change. Sadly, they are the lone survivors of their species, now protected from the chaos and clamor of the outside world. I gratefully received the gifts of peace and tranquility they offered. And I came away with a few lessons from these wise old trees.

Ranger Lucy in uniform standing with me and my guide dog

Ranger Lucy, Muir Woods

Ranger Lucy from the Muir Woods park service gave a tree talk to visitors. She had 5 lessons we can learn from the redwoods:

  1. Stand Tall and Proud– redwoods are the tallest living thing on earth. They have survived fires, droughts and other hardships. They bear scars and cracks which testify to their struggle to live. Wear your scars of survivorship proudly and stand with dignity.
  2. Live in a “Cool” Place-redwoods grow best in the cool temperatures of the fog belt in California. They flourish in this moist environment. Find your special place in the world where you can thrive.
  3. Support Your Community-redwoods have a disproportionately shallow root system for their size. Their roots extend widely to tangle with other near-by trees in order to anchor themselves securely. Reach out to your community to establish connections with others.
  4. Grow a Thick Skin-redwoods have very thick, spongy and fibrous bark, rich in tannic acid which makes it resistant to fire, insects, and fungi. Allow your skin to thicken so you can resist the assaults of life.
  5. Surround Yourself with Family-redwoods have the ability to reproduce by sprouting burls and forming tightly grouped “family circles,” giving them a survival advantage. Stay close to family so they can fortify and strengthen you.

I am always looking for what nature can teach me. We live in such an exquisitely designed and spectacularly intelligent world. When we stop to observe and listen, we learn great secrets and truths. These sacred experiences teach us to respect and appreciate the beauty and gifts of the Earth.

A group of trees forming a family circle

Cathedral Grove, a family circle of redwoods

            

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

John Muir

 

Rags to Rugs: a Homespun Art Form

When I retired, I began a mission to fill my time and avoid boredom. I was not really ready to retire and actually feared it immensely. Now in my sixth month of retired life, I cannot even imagine how I ever had the time to work! It has been so enjoyable exploring new interests and establishing a new kind of “busy-ness.” What do I do all day? Well, I do many things that I never had the time for when I was working. I have always been a crafty type. In the past, I have dabbled with quilting, cross-stitching, lace net darning, basket weaving, paper making, stamping, and scrap-booking. Over the years as I lost vision, I gave some of these activities up. But I have never given up on my need to have a creative outlet and am always in pursuit of the next craft I can do with limited vision.

 
I discovered making rag rugs out of old sheets. I taught myself by watching YouTube videos. There are several ways to make rag rugs. I settled on learning how to make Amish Knot, or toothbrush rugs and crocheted rugs. It is a large and tactile craft, so I can do it with very little visual input. I set about collecting bed sheets from the thrift stores in all colors and patterns. My husband helps me tear them into strips, using a technique from Aunt Philly’s YouTube video in which the whole sheet can be torn in just minutes. I use Aunt Philly’s toothbrush tool which I bought from amazon.com for the Amish Knot rugs and a Q hook, available at Walmart, to crochet rugs.

 
At Christmas, I made rugs for all of my family and friends. I made round, oval, rectangle and half-circle rugs of all colors. For my son’s rug, I used an old Ninja Turtle sheet he used as a child for a special touch of nostalgia. I am obsessed with this new endeavor and am perfecting the art of mixing the colors and learning new techniques and designs. I love the homespun charm of this eco-friendly craft. The slubs and imperfections give character to each rug. There is no pressure to create a perfect rug…at the end of the day, it is a rug and will be walked on.

 
Recently, I attended a bluegrass festival called “Bear-On-the-Square” in Dahlonega Georgia. All the vendors had to display handcrafted and locally made products. I came upon a booth named Rena’s Treasured Gifts and to my great excitement, met a fellow rug maker! Her rugs were beautiful and there she was, working on another one in her lap. We chatted like old friends and swapped tips and ideas. Rena helped me with a few problems I was having and demonstrated how to fix them. I returned home, inspired to make more rugs. Maybe I too will sell them one day.

Rena's booth at "Bear-on-the-Square Festival

Rena’s booth at “Bear-on-the-Square Festival

 

women and her handmade rag rugs

Look at those beautiful rugs!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

handmade colorful rag rugs

A few of my own rugs

 

 

  When my kids complained they were “bored,” I always said “Boredom” is a choice. Find something to do or I will give you something to do.” It seems I have no problem finding things to do in my retirement. Between exercising, cooking, crafting, volunteering, yoga, reading, spending time with friends, writing, blogging, walking and playing with my dogs, the days fly by! (Notice I did not include cleaning in the list-I do as little of that as possible). Life is GOOD…

                                                                    

            “Busy Hands Make Happy Hearts”

 

 

 

The Miracle of Seeds

Do you remember the sheer delight of planting a bean in a handful of dirt in a Styrofoam cup and watching it grow as a child? There is nothing quite as wonder-filled as a seed. The variety of color, shape, fragrance and flavor contained within that tiny package is a miracle. It is spring now and miracles await to delight, inspire, feed and calm the soul.

“In every gardener there is a child who believes in The Seed Fairy.” ~Robert Brault

I remember the first time I planted my own vegetable garden. Enthralled with the simplicity of the seeds, I lavished them upon the tilled ground with great enthusiasm. Imagine my excitement as they burst forth in varying shades of green, tender shoots. Honestly, I was astonished and thrilled at the power I discovered in my own hands to cultivate. And I was humbled by the earth’s desire to give me such beautiful and useful gifts. Daily, I would “walk the plantation” and assess the new growth in my garden. As the summer wore on, I was blessed by more tomatoes and beets than anyone in my family wanted to eat and a mammoth pumpkin vine that threatened to swallow the house. Soon, I realized I needed to learn how to preserve the generous bounty of my over-ambitious garden. At harvest, the kitchen was abuzz with the activities of canning and freezing the colorful, fresh vegetables. And I was hooked on the yearly ritual of placing the diminutive, surprise parcels into a bit of dirt and waiting for the anticipated joy of new life.

“Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.” ~Author Unknown

It is well-accepted that gardening has a therapeutic effect on humans. Many an author and poet have extolled the benefits and special powers that plants have on us. There is even such a thing as horticulture therapy, which is used to rehabilitate people. There is something very calming and soothing about the process of playing in the dirt in the warm sun and nurturing plants to grow. Throughout my life, I have dabbled in all kinds of gardening. It seemed that I was always happiest when I was planting, growing, and caring for plants. When I lived in a rural setting, it was a large vegetable garden. Then, I studied perennials and herbs and planted them for their different uses. I even had an indoor garden of over 20 African violets for years. I used to say to my kids “Look, the violets are all blooming! That means momma is happy!”

“At the heart of gardening is a belief in the miraculous.” ~Mirabel Osler

Over the years, due to my vision loss, I have scaled back my gardening. But I always have something growing to remind me of the miracle of life. Now, I have a small herb garden in an antique bathtub on my patio. I maintain large pots of annuals that spread their cheer in spring and summer. I love to plant sunflowers for their big, bold blooms and seeds to feed the birds. At Christmas, I like planting an amaryllis bulb in a pot. My children used to measure the daily growth and marvel. Indoors, I keep several easy-to-grow plants that add color and oxygen to the sunroom. I will never be without my plants. They are such simple pleasures.

“Plants give us oxygen for the lungs and for the soul,” ~Linda Solegato

So, if you are in need of a little joy, pleasure, sunshine, surprise, inspiration, or stress-relief, consider plant therapy. Start small. Start with a seed and a Styrofoam cup. A world of wonder awaits you.

Edible Spring Greens  Garden-in-a-Bag

Edible Spring Greens Garden-in-a-Bag

*Here is an idea I came upon for a simple way to make an edible, low-cost, low-maintenance, container garden of salad greens and herbs. (Facebook/ North Texas Vegetable Gardeners/Fun Facts and Tips for Everyone):
1. Buy a large bag of potting soil like Miracle Grow (2 cubic feet)
2. Gently break up the soil in the sealed bag. Poke lots of holes for drainage on the back of the bag. Place it label side up on a smooth surface where it can drain, such as a raised rack or table.
3. Cut out the front of the bag, leaving a 4 inch border all around to hold in the dirt. Fluff and rake the soil evenly.
4. Mix salad greens seeds such as lettuce and arugula in an old spice bottle with cornmeal. Sprinkle evenly over the soil. (cornmeal helps you to see that the seeds are distributed evenly) Cover seeds with a dusting of dirt.
5. Plant spinach, radishes, or herb seeds in rows at the recommended depth on seed package.
6. Spray mist the seeds and young plants until well established. Water more vigorously when the plants are mature. Keep the soil moist, but not wet.
7. Harvest the leaves by cutting what you need with scissors. The plants will continue to produce new leaves. Enjoy your “greens”!

From Personal Loss to Personal Growth

Blindness is a thief of much more than just vision. It robs you of many things and the impact is life changing. In the early stages of adjustment, loss is its anthem and grief is its mantle. Often depression is a close companion of vision loss because the losses pile up and overwhelm one’s ability and internal resources to handle them. This was my experience.

In the beginning, I was not even aware of all the losses that would come as a result of my vision loss, which served to protect me. There are many kinds of losses to catalog. There is the actual sensory loss of vision; losing touch with the physical world and missing out on information, colors and beauty. Shattered dreams are another significant loss. There are material losses caused by blindness like the loss of a job, car, home, or relationship. And there are internal, personal losses suffered such as self-esteem, confidence, social standing, identity, security and purpose in life. Indeed, blindness is a greedy thief that seeks to destroy…if you let it.

The task is to learn to accept, adjust, cope, and reaffirm life as a person who is visually impaired. The process is a long farewell to who you once were and how you used to do things. It is a tall order but the point is you can learn to adjust, limit your losses, and reclaim your life. Adjustment to blindness is a process; it takes time, training, and courage. It does not submit itself to a timeline or linear progression. According to The Hadley School for the Blind, there are 7 stages of adjustment to vision loss:
1. Physical and Social Trauma
2. Shock and Denial
3. Mourning and Withdrawal
4. Succumbing and Depression
5. Reassessment and Reaffirmation
6. Coping and Mobilization
7. Self-Acceptance and Self-Esteem

The Hadley course entitled “Self-Esteem and Adjusting With Blindness”, suggests that adjustment to blindness is an ongoing process as it calls for continually learning new techniques, revisiting issues of loss, reliving seasons of depression and reassessing goals and dreams. (I found this course to be very helpful.) Somehow it comforts me to know these stages. It gives me a roadmap and milestones to anticipate. There is much about the experience of “loss and grief” that is universal and it has been well-studied. It is reassuring to know that the myriad of powerful emotions I experience are all within the “norm” for a grieving person. And that eventually these emotions will give way to positive growth and progress. You never quite finish adjusting. This is also true of personal growth. We are always growing as a result of our experiences and life stressors. We are always adjusting to what life brings us; new stages, crisis, joys, challenges, set-backs and losses.

There was a time when I was not “adjusting” very well to my vision loss. I was angry and felt that life was unfair. I was afraid of the future. And I was depressed. In short, I was “stuck” and it affected every aspect of my life. Eventually, I sought counseling and began to understand the impact and implications of my vision loss. I learned about depression; that there was no shame in it, which freed me to address it. Through cognitive therapy, I learned that our emotions come from what we are thinking; negative thinking results in negative feelings. This seemingly simple concept was a key to turning my depression around. With my counselor, I worked through a book called “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by Dr. David Burns. This book proved to be a toolbox full of tools to deal with negative emotions which I have used over and over in life. It changed my thinking and perspective on my vision loss and many other things in life. It taught me to “reframe” the negatives, correct distorted thinking patterns, and find the good and positive side of things.

Joining a support group was an important step that helped me adjust to my vision loss. Meeting others who have successfully navigated through life encouraged me. It empowered me to hear their stories and learn from their experiences. It inspired me develop new plans and reach for new goals. It was the beginning of learning everything I could about my disease and what to expect in the future. Knowledge was an effective therapy and it moved me forward.

Another turning point for me was when I reached out for rehabilitation services. Just the process of learning new skills like walking with a white cane and reading with a video magnifier gave me hope and restored my confidence. It was hard to accept the reality that I needed help. I hid my vision loss for so long and it was frightening to go public with it. But in the end, getting rehabilitation services has been liberating on many levels and the payoff has been well worth it. My adjustment to vision loss continues.