Reasons to Stay Alive: author Matt Haig speaks about depression
Matt Haig was 24 when he was struck by a crippling depression. Since then, he’s written eight novels and three children’s books. Haig’s latest book is a work of non-fiction, Reasons to Stay Alive, a book of advice for people with his illness. Lynne Malcolm meets him.
These are just a few of the pieces of advice writer Matt Haig has given himself since he hit rock bottom as a young man.
At the age of 24, Haig’s world fell apart and he couldn’t see a way to go on. He’s now the author of eight novels, including his bestselling The Humans, and three children’s books. Still, he was blown away by the reaction to his latest book, Reasons to Stay Alive, which is a memoir of his own emergence from chronic depression and anxiety.
In his early twenties, Haig was living with his girlfriend on the Spanish island of Ibiza and like lots of young men he was doing a lot of heavy living: late nights, drinking and some drug use. He’d had a series of unrewarding jobs and two weeks before he was to return to the UK he fell ill. During his morning run he had a panic attack— his heart started to race and all sorts of strange sensations were happening inside his brain. He was worried the feeling might never pass.
‘I was like that for about a week,’ he says. ‘When that was over, when the adrenaline had run out, I was in this sort of new reality which I didn’t really know had a medical term, because at the time—it sounds so melodramatic—I literally thought no one had felt like this on earth before. Which is, ironically, a very common feeling of depression, because it’s nothing like you’ve ever experienced, so you therefore think no-one else has experienced it.’
It literally makes you feel like you’re not real, it’s a very hard thing to explain. It’s partly physical, as well. It’s like you’re kind of invisible, even though you can see yourself.MATT HAIG, WRITER
It was so scary and alienating that he thought of throwing himself off the beautiful limestone cliffs into Mediterranean. It wasn’t that he wanted to die, but he felt he could hardly bear the pain and terror he was experiencing. This close call led him to realise that while depression is a universal condition, suicide is preventable. Rates of suicide vary so much between genders, ages, nations, and different cultures.
Haig has reflected on the nature of the depression and lucidly describes the characteristics of the illness as he experienced it.
Depression, he says, affected his relationship with time.
‘Depression gives the bleakest world view imaginable. So it convinced me I wasn’t going to be alive to see my 25th birthday. It totally convinced me I’d never have a sort of successful long-term relationship, I’d never have kids, I’d never be worth anything. And, you know, you live to see 25, you live to see 30.
‘This year I’m going to be 40. Every time you disprove depression, the next time a bout of depression happens, you’ve got a little bit of armoury. Whereas the first time it happens you actually believe that stuff. You know, people will tell you it’s going to be all right, but you don’t necessarily believe them, because they don’t know.’
Depression is also smaller than you. Always it’s smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you. You don’t operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but if that’s the metaphor, you are the sky. You were there before it and the cloud can’t exist without the sky. But the sky can exist without the cloud.
Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive
Another symptom of Haig’s depression was what he calls ‘de-realisation’.
‘It literally makes you feel like you’re not real,’ he says. ‘It’s a very hard thing to explain. It’s partly physical, as well. It’s like you’re kind of invisible, even though you can see yourself. You look at yourself in your mirror and you don’t really relate to that person and everything feels like you’ve been cut and pasted from some other reality, and it’s very alienating.’
Alongside his depression, Haig also suffered from anxiety, a combination he calls the ‘most common mental illness cocktail’.
‘It’s like a fast-forward depression—you’re having a lot of racing thoughts. It was never boring, it was horrendous but it wasn’t that slow, flat plane which you think of as the archetypal case of depression.’
Whilst Haig acknowledges that pharmaceutical medication is extremely effective and beneficial for many people with depression and anxiety, it didn’t work for him. He thinks he may have been prescribed the wrong thing, and when it didn’t work he became scared of medication. He’s cautious to underline that everyone needs to use the support that best work for them, however.
‘I had to go the long, hard way round, basically,’ he says. ‘And in a weird way, I’m thankful I did that, because I wouldn’t want to live through that again. But the fact that I did live through it meant that I was so in tune with my pain that I’d know anything that made me feel worse or anything that made me feel better.
‘Over time you learn little tricks. I worked out that physical exercise, running, worked for me, diet, all those sensible general healthy lifestyle things affect your mind.’
Whilst he didn’t have formal therapy, Haig feels therapy can be beneficial because it’s a way of externalising a very internal experience. For him, writing played that role.
‘I don’t think I’d have the impulse to write if I hadn’t had depression, because writing was one of my ways out of depression,’ he says. I think anxiety actually gives you curiosity.
‘If you’re in a tormented state you become naturally more questioning and curious and all those things needed to write—when you’re literally putting yourself in another world and focusing your mind in a way that you wouldn’t do in everyday life. I think just that simple process has been very beneficial.’
How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe.
Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive
Reasons to Stay Alive is Haig’s first work of non-fiction and had been on the backburner for years. It took him by complete surprise when it became a bestseller.
It is a self help book, but it’s also a gritty personal account of his journey of recovery from depression and anxiety. In it, he shares a long and detailed list of things he’s found important to remember when he feels himself sinking.
So, in a nutshell what are Haig’s reasons to stay alive now?
‘Well, people mainly, and all the big things like love and culture and art and the unknown, basically. What I’d say to someone who is actively suicidal, is to say, “You’re not killing your present self, you’re killing every future version of you, so you’re killing a lot of yous in that one act.”
‘There are so many very different experiences to have in life. We change. I’m nothing like the person I was when I was 17, the person I was when I was 24. Now I’m 39, I’m sure by the time I’m 50 I’ll be someone completely else again.
‘We change, life is change; we don’t have the same mind forever. We change with our interactions with society, with other people. We change depending where we are in life, if we’re a parent, if we’re in a relationship, if we’re not in a relationship. We’re constantly becoming new people.’
If you or someone you know needs support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Be gentle with yourself. Work less; sleep more.
Listen more than you talk.
Look at the sky, remind yourself of the cosmos. Seek vastness at every opportunity in order to see the smallness of yourself.
Be aware that you are breathing.
Understand that thoughts are thoughts. If they are unreasonable, reason with them, even if you have no reason left. You are the observer of your mind, not its victim.
Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive