Guided by Books

How stories map the way during my darkest times.


Almost exactly five years ago, I found myself in the emergency room overwhelmed with panic. Nothing specifically hurt; my brain just kept sending signals that something was wrong. As soon as the attending physician stepped into the room, I burst into uncontrollable sobs and couldn’t explain what was the matter.

A few days prior, I’d suffered my first panic attack. I grew up not really hearing about mental health issues or knowing how to deal with my emotions. In fact, it wasn’t until that ER visit — and the subsequent care it took to pull me out of my anxiety and depression — that I learned some of my family members suffered from mental health issues, too. 

I still consider myself brand new to therapy, self-care, and the practice of setting boundaries and acknowledging burnout. Which is why, every summer around this time, I feel my mind returning to — and reliving — that moment of intense panic. Just like it returns to the grief of the following summer (and the one after that), when I watched a loved one succumb to cancer.  

So, summers are tough, yet through each one, I’ve gained new insight into coping with my mental health and identifying the parts of myself that need kindness and caring. And one of those parts, an important one, is my reading self.

And that’s why I rejected my initial impulse to make this month’s column about “The HOT Summer Books You Should Be Reading!” It just wouldn’t be an honest reflection of what summers are like for me.

I don’t spend these long, sunny days contemplating beachy page-turners. I spend them remembering past darker days and invoking the strength to cope with future ones. I spend them reading out loud to myself to pull my brain back from panic. I spend them box-breathing and counting breaths while I read. I spend them listening to audiobooks. I spend them finding new scenic spots for reading.

I do these things because I know reading has always been there for me. Through books, I’ve learned how normal it is for a body to experience anxiety. I’ve learned how different grief can look and feel from one day to the next. Characters in novels have helped me accept my own experiences as natural and valid; memoirs of mental illness have left me feeling less alone. 

To say reading has saved me would be an understatement. It has lifted me in ways I never imagined. In that vein, I leave you here not with a list of “hot summer reads,” but with some of the books that helped rescue me from negative spirals. If you’re struggling, I hope you’ll let them help you, too. And remember: You’re not alone.

Lupita Aquino — better known as Lupita Reads — is the co-founder and current lead of LIT on H St. Book Club at Solid State Books. She is a passionate reader active in both the local and online book community through her Instagram blog, @Lupita.Reads. You can also catch her tweeting about books over at @lupita_reads.

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