Reviewed by Victoria
If I ever get to meet Matt Haig, the first thing I would like to do, now I’ve read his book, is give him a hug. I’m a little worried that this might provoke a panic attack, so I’ll try and give him fair warning first. But the honesty, openness and kindness with which he writes his book about battling depression is immensely moving, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to find yourself drawn into his narrative and feeling care and concern for him as if he were a friend.
As a chronic fatigue sufferer myself, I related closely to him, for though I’ve not experienced much depression, I have a lot of trouble with anxiety, its sibling state. For anyone who suffers from these or other related conditions, you know how much they dominate your life, and how shameful it can feel to talk about them. Books like the one Matt Haig has written do such valuable work, firstly as an act of solidarity, secondly as an education, and thirdly as a way of removing the stigma that attaches itself so readily to any kind of invisible trouble that afflicts us. We live in a highly judgmental society, and we all need to work together in the name of compassion.
Matt Haig was twenty-four when he experienced a serious breakdown. He was living and working in Ibiza with his long-term girlfriend, Andrea, when he moved into a state of hellish panic and anxiety that resisted all control and effortlessly became suicidal. Doctors prescribed diazepam, which only made things worse. Eventually they returned to England and moved in with Matt’s family, and thus began a long, dark journey through the underworld of the soul.
Depression, for me, wasn’t a dulling but a sharpening, an intensifying, as though I had been living my life in a shell and now the shell wasn’t there. It was total exposure. A red-raw naked mind. A skinned personality. A brain in a jar full of acid that is experience.
In retrospect, he could see that it was a state that had been gradually building over the years, from his childhood feelings of alienation, through heavy-drinking days in university to the time spent in Ibiza, where he felt he was avoiding adult reality. Much of his experience was so normal, indistinguishable from the usual growing pains of humanity, but there was an edge to it and a sense that something damaging was being carried along without resolve.
I kind of disintegrated around people, and became what they wanted me to be. But paradoxically, I felt an intensity inside me all the time. I didn’t know what it was, but it kept building, like water behind a dam. Later, when I was properly depressed and anxious, I saw the illness as an accumulation of all that thwarted intensity. A kind of breaking through. As though, if you find it hard enough to let your self be free, your self breaks in, flooding your mind in an attempt to drown all those failed half-versions of you.
Like I said, I’m an anxiety sufferer, and I really related to that particular description. If you don’t know what Matt means by it, just be thankful. Anyway, pills did not work as a solution, but with the love and support of his family and his girlfriend behind him, he did what most depressives are forced to do: he sat it out, until slowly and almost imperceptibly at first, his condition relented. For minutes and moments at a time, and then longer periods, eventually whole days and weeks. This process isn’t portrayed as a conventional narrative. This isn’t an orthodox memoir; it’s much funnier and more idiosyncratic than that. The story is split up into very short sections, and interspersed with lists (‘Things depression says to you’, ‘How to be there for someone with depression or anxiety’ ‘Things you think during your 1,000th panic attack’), conversations between the old Matt and the present Matt, even tweets from readers who had shared their reasons for staying alive, despite the demons. This makes it very fast to read, and reduces the amount of reading anxiety that might potentially be generated by inhabiting the head of a depressive for the duration.
Funnily enough, the further I got through the book, and the more positive the story became, the more I found myself with tears in my eyes. Is there anything more moving, I wonder, than the return of the spirit, after a long, cold absence? Matt finds all sorts of resources that can be co-opted into his recovery – books, for instance: ‘Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself.’ And perhaps the most valuable wisdom of all: the ability to alter perception in helpful ways: ‘Nothing makes you feel smaller, more trivial, than such a vast transformation inside your own mind while the world carries on, oblivious. Yet nothing is more freeing. To accept your smallness in the world.’
This is a beautiful book, full of courage and acceptance, never preachy, never reliant on the kind of easy bromide that makes you feel worse rather than better. Matt Haig has a wonderful narrative voice, completely unpretentious, sincere, funny, and it is the easiest thing in the world to follow wherever he takes you. Which is this case is on a journey towards the light. If you know someone in the depths of suffering right now, get a copy of this book and press it into their hands. It’s the most helpful thing you could do.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Matt Haig, Reasons To Stay Alive (Canongate: London, 2015) 978-1782115083, 272 pp., hardback.