Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

Books like this are so important. Let me tell you why.

Depression is isolating, so very isolating. When you’re in the middle of it it can feel like you’re the only person in the entire history of the world who has ever felt that way. You tend to isolate yourself from the rest of the world when you feel that bad, because who would want to be around such a worthless, pathetic, [insert put down of your choice here] waste of space, right? So you’re not exactly in much of a position to find data that doesn’t support your position.

Enter: books.

There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping.

Books have the power to provide insight, reassurance and the sometimes lifesaving knowledge that not only are you are not alone but there is hope; things can get better. A lot better. And depressed person bonus points: you don’t actually have to interact with another human to find that hope. Yes, I am aware that contact with other humans is helpful but sometimes you just don’t wanna.

In the meantime, books. Now if you’re depressed you may not be able to concentrate all that well, which is one of the reasons I love the short chapters in this book. It’s bite sized portions of hope and ‘I’ve been there too and I can guarantee that you will not always feel exactly the way you feel right this second’. It’s easy to brush off the well intentioned words of people who don’t get it but when the person who’s doing the talking has walked the walk, well that’s someone you might want to pay close attention to.

THEN ME: Why would I stay alive? Wouldn’t it be better to feel nothing than to feel such pain? Isn’t zero worth more than minus one thousand?

NOW ME: Listen, just listen, just get this through your head, okay – you make it, and on the other side of this there is life. L-I-F-E. You understand? And there will be stuff you enjoy.

Did I learn a whole bunch of things about depression and anxiety that I didn’t already know from countless other books? Not really. Did it matter? Not really. Why not? Well, there’s a few reasons.

It doesn’t matter how many facts your brain has accumulated about a topic. There’s something cathartic about hearing someone else express thoughts that you assumed were unique to you when you first encountered them.

I wanted to be dead. No. That’s not quite right. I didn’t want to be dead, I just didn’t want to be alive.

Someone who’s not you may come up with a visual that describes an experience in a way that makes you stop and go, ‘huh, why didn’t I come up with that?!’, one that you want to memorise so you can use it to explain the experience to someone who is fortunate enough to not understand.

If you have depression on its own your mind sinks into a swamp and loses momentum, but with anxiety in the cocktail, the swamp is still a swamp but the swamp now has whirlpools in it.

Or

anxiety is an illness that wraps us up in our own nightmares.

I loved the concept of the “bank of bad days”. I’ve done this myself, gotten through a bad day by reminding myself I’ve already survived worse, but I didn’t have a cool name for it before now.

Once upon a niggle: I probably sound like a broken record at this point but in the past couple of years I’ve come to the realisation that the language we use to describe suicide is important. This book, like so many others, uses the term “committed suicide”. I much prefer the term “died by suicide”. People can and do die as a result of mental illness, just as they can as a result of physical illness, but I associate the word “committed” with criminal acts and don’t want to contribute to the stigma that already surrounds it. Having said that, this book was published several years before I personally began to seriously think about how we use language when we talk about mental health.

On the flip side, I absolutely adored the author’s discussion of “despite” versus “because”.

People often use the word ‘despite’ in the context of mental illness. So-and-so did such-and-such despite having depression/anxiety/OCD/agoraphobia/whatever. But sometimes that ‘despite’ should be a ‘because’. For instance, I write because of depression. I was not a writer before. The intensity needed – to explore things with relentless curiosity and energy – simply wasn’t there. Fear makes us curious. Sadness makes us philosophise.

While I can understand the wish for someone else to tell you (in detail, with step by step instructions) what your specific reasons for living should be I’ve been assured by mental health professionals that this is something you need to figure out for yourself. Someone else’s reasons may not resonate with you and vice versa. However I do believe that everyone has value and something unique to them that they bring to the world. Cliché or not, you are the only you that will ever exist in the entirety of humanity, past, present and future. You are important and we need you.

I think life always provides reasons to not die, if we listen hard enough. Those reasons can stem from the past – the people who raised us, maybe, or friends or lovers – or from the future – the possibilities we would be switching off.

I found a new (to me) word in this book – chiaroscuro – and I plan to now find ways to include it in everyday conversation until someone threatens to buy me a dictionary so I can come up with a new favourite word. Once I learn its correct pronunciation, that is.

Content warnings include mental illness, suicidal ideation and mention of methods people have used to die by suicide.

P.S. If you’ve ever experienced depression, here’s something vitally important that you need to know.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

I want life. I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it. I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt. I hate depression. I am scared of it. Terrified, in fact. But at the same time, it has made me who I am. And if – for me – it is the price of feeling life, it’s a price always worth paying.

Reasons to Stay Alive is about making the most of your time on earth. In the western world the suicide rate is highest amongst men under the age of 35. Matt Haig could have added to that statistic when, aged 24, he found himself staring at a cliff-edge about to jump off. This is the story of why he didn’t, how he recovered and learned to live with anxiety and depression. It’s also an upbeat, joyous and very funny exploration of how live better, love better, read better and feel more.

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