It has been a while since I’ve bought a physical, paper-and-ink book but when I saw Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive in the book shop, I had to have it. A memoir of his battles with depression and anxiety, Matt has crafted a combination of narrative stories and thoughts on depression into a great read. So great, in fact, that I read it in two sittings.
It is full of insight; conversations between then-Matt and now-Matt in which he offers words of encouragement to his past, depressed, self are wonderful – words that can only come with the distance of hindsight. He beautifully sums up the desperation that a depressive feels when they are deep in the pit and can’t see the light (in fact, Matt summarises this situation as akin to being in a tunnel where both ends are blocked; it is dark and you are trapped). And he offers hope to those in that darkest of situations; the book features a list of things he wishes someone had told him at the time, including my favourite: So what, you have a label? ‘Depressive’. Everyone would have a label if they asked the right professional.
That is a powerful statement and oh so true of the way the mind works. When you are experiencing any disturbance of ‘normal’ thought patterns, you feel as though you are the only one in the world struggling through life. The reality is that you are not alone. Statistically one in four people will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year. Being an illness that affects the way the mind works, even more people will be touched by mental health problems through being friends with, family of or co-workers with those effected. Having said that; it doesn’t automatically make it better to know that you are not the only person in the world in the pit. It does, however, give some perspective on your situation – people have come through this and are on the other side living normal, happy and contented lives.
Matt isn’t afraid to tackle the big subject of suicide either. He understands what it is like to be so desperate to feel nothing that one would end their own life. In summarising the depths of feeling, Matt neatly states that zero is worth more than a negative number to the mind of someone suffering depression. The mind doesn’t see the green grass on the other side of the struggle; it just wants to not feel so awful. There is no wishing for happiness, no desire to feel pleasure. Instead there is a need to wipe the slate clean, to get back to ‘zero’. Further chapters on the subject seem to reflect how I’ve felt in the past. The way one is so desperate to feel nothing that they wish they’d never been born, for example. Death is scary, contemplating choosing it is scarier still.
But Matt believes in the power of words. Mental illnesses effect so many people worldwide and yet we still sweep it under the rug like it is a dirty secret – like we should be ashamed that we are unwell. We are making progress by speaking out. Books like Reasons To Stay Alive are starting to break down the stigma associated with those with mental health conditions; and I say let’s add more and more voices to the cause until we are impossible to ignore. I am not afraid to say I have an illness. Are you?