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Books That Heal On the Road

Following up on a previous post On the Road: Bibliotherapy for Hungarians Abroad, I’m sharing what can be gleaned from a full semester bibliotherapy group session with fellow Hungarians living abroad. The first rule of fight clubs (i.e., don’t talk about fight clubs) applies to bibliotherapy groups too. Joking aside, the confidential setting is a powerful and liberating arrangement to ensure privacy and trust.

For this particular bibliotherapy program, reading and writing tasks discussed in biweekly, closed zoom meetings connected eight participants over the course of three months. The underlying purpose was to work on issues shared by those living abroad, often in an environment unwilling to embrace foreigners or, more broadly speaking, anyone who is different. All participants (as well as the moderator) have lived outside Hungary for various periods of time, or are getting ready to move very soon.

Relocating within your own country can come with challenges such as changing jobs, adjusting to a new climate, settling into a new house or apartment and helping kids adjust to new schools in a much bigger or smaller place. Add changing countries, languages, cultures, or even continents to the equation and the number of challenges grow exponentially.

The first surprise was to find out was the similarity of the issues that we are facing, whether people live 500 or 5,000 miles away from their home country; whether we relocated two years ago or twenty-two years ago. The “odd-one-out” feeling never goes away, even after working on coping strategies for a long time. In a group setting like this, it was eye-opening to observe people at different phases of their lives and careers still trying to decipher and navigate these nuances.

Intentionally working on issues, often alone, may not help us sail through the different stages of culture shock. We all found that the honeymoon phase was over quickly, whereas frustration can be rather prolonged. The desired progression into phases of adjustment and acceptance happens inadvertently. Adapting to the new culture and environment coincides with the evolving new person we have become in our journey since leaving the motherland. The new environment can contribute to our personal growth in unexpected ways.

What connected us the most was the language: not only as our common first language, but the ease of communication. One didn’t need to explain every single reference and allusion in a sentence, whether cultural, literary, culinary, etc. because we were able to rely on shared experiences. Language was the main tool in these sessions, for both reading and writing outside the session, as well as for talking and sharing thoughts and feelings during the session.

Just like in any other bibliotherapy sessions, the text itself served as a vehicle to provoke thoughts, evoke feelings, and start a discussion, harnessing the power of reading something together or listening to the moderator reading for us. It’s always amazing to witness the feelings and emotions a text can bring about one week compared to a very different feel the following week. The same applies to writing our own texts, especially using free writing as the main technique. This could vary week by week, largely depending on each person’s current perceptions and understanding.

The novelty of this program was the balance of reading and writing designed for therapeutic purposes through reflections and soul-searching. Writing prompts provided by the moderator insured that the thought-provoking effect of the text discussed during the live session lasted until the next meeting. It did more than just lasted, if one followed the instructions. Whether our “masterpiece” was willingly shared or not, the potential of some deep revelations about ourselves and our current status was inherent in the process, if one was not afraid to get lost in their own thoughts.

For about three months, this program offered weekly opportunities to contemplate and dig deep, alternating discussions in live zoom meetings with at home writing assignments. Those of us disciplined enough to follow a schedule and to use the regular meeting time or no-zoom weeks to do the homework also benefited from the program in other ways: it helped develop habits of practicing self care.

Perhaps this was the most important takeaway from this structured bibliotherapy program – set up a schedule and take care of yourself. Put the method or program you have chosen for your own wellness purposes on your calendar, whether it’s running, reading, writing, or getting together with a friend. Give yourself the gift of forming a new habit working toward a less stressed you.

In other words, you should make your own well being a priority. It was also the biggest lesson the pandemic taught us all over the world.  Once you make this decision, it is worth the time you spend exploring and finding the vehicle for your own journey. There is so much out there to fulfill the eight dimensions of wellness. Bibliotherapy is definitely one of them.

Remember that “accidental bibliotherapists,” a.k.a. librarians, are also on standby, willing to help you find the next book that can heal.