I Finally Read Reasons To Stay Alive By Matt Haig

So, I was having a particularly difficult day and I found myself online, reading articles about depression and looking for insight. I even found myself googling ‘reasons to keep going,’ not in a suicidal way but because I was in the midst of all these overwhelmingly huge, complicated, and awful feelings and I felt like I needed some clarity, a straight answer to a very big question. You probably won’t be surprised to know that I didn’t find one but I realised that I was essentially searching the title of the book that was sitting on my bedside table: Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig. I’ve had it on my to-read list for months but I haven’t had the concentration or motivation to actually read for about a year. Maybe I was finally desperate enough that I was able to push through that. Maybe it was influenced by my recent change in medication. Who knows. We don’t live in a vacuum. Everything affects everything.

I have to admit that I have very mixed feelings about this book. There was so much hype around it and everyone I know who’s read it has recommended it to me. I expected to love it but like most things in life, it wasn’t that simple. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Oh god, she’s going to criticise the crap out of this and I don’t wanna know,” please give me a chance and hang in there a little bit longer. These are just my thoughts, good and bad and different. Hopefully I’ll have something useful to add to the discussion around the book.

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The first thing is that I love Matt Haig’s writing. I find it easy and natural to read but also powerful and evocative. And there were parts that made me laugh; I found the continuing comparisons to having various body parts on fire very amusing. He’s a very engaging writer. I like the way he talks about depression, frank but empathetic. Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

  • “There’s no right or wrong way to have depression, or to have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are.”
  • “If your leg is on fire, it is not selfish to concentrate on the pain, or the fear of the flames. So it is with anxiety. People with mental illnesses aren’t wrapped up in themselves because they are intrinsically more selfish than other people. Of course not. They are just feeling things that can’t be ignored.
  • “The main thing is the intensity of it. It does not fit within the normal spectrum of emotions. When you are in it, you are really in it.”
  • “Depression can be exacerbated by things being all right externally, because the gulf between what you are feeling and what you are expected to feel becomes larger.”
  • “People say, ‘take it one day at a time.’ But, I used to think to myself, that is all right for them to say. Days are mountains. A week was a trek across the Himalayas. You see, people say that time is relative, but it really bloody is.”
  • “Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people cope is by not thinking about it too much. But some people are not going to be able to do that.”
  • “I stared at a cherry tree and felt flat. Depression, without the anxiety. Just a total, desperate flatness.”

I think that descriptions like these would be particularly helpful to those who haven’t actually experienced depression but are trying to understand what it’s like for someone they know or someone they love.

And in a similar vein, I think he describes the seriousness of depression incredibly well: “Depression is a disease so bad that people are killing themselves because of it in a way they do not kill themselves with any other disease.” We all talk a lot about how serious depression is but it’s not often that someone can so succinctly get the message across.

This, I think, is my favourite quote from the book:

“Most of the time we do not feel the near-infinite nature of our physical selves. We simplify by thinking about ourselves in terms of our larger pieces. Arms, legs, feet, hands, torso, head. flesh, bones. A similar thing happens with our minds. In order to cope with living, they simplify themselves. They concentrate on one thing at a time. But depression is a kind of quantum physics of thought and emotion. It reveals what is normally hidden. It unravels you, and everything you have known. It turns out that we are not only made of the universe, of ‘star-stuff’ to borrow Carl Sagan’s phrase, but we are as vast and complicated as it too. The evolutionary psychologists might be right. We humans might have evolved too far. The price for being intelligent enough to be the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe’s worth of darkness.”

I’ve described depression as having a black whole in my chest and this quote reminds me of that. When I’m deeply depressed, it feels like ‘a whole universe’s worth of darkness.’ It does. It’s that strong and overwhelming.

I also like the format of the book. Having not done much reading (because depression – and quite possibly my medication – dulled all the parts of me that made reading a book possible or enjoyable), reading a whole book was a very daunting challenge so having short, succinct chapters made it feel much more possible. It may well be a good analogy for how we tackle depression: trying to fight it as a huge, indistinct is such a difficult, exhausting task. Breaking it down into manageable steps seems like a better idea.

Now, onto the more difficult stuff. I have to say, I found the book pretty upsetting. There were several major differences in our experiences of depression and while I know, of course, that this is his experience of depression only that he’s writing about (which is absolutely his right), I ended up feeling like we have struggled with entirely different illnesses. That, I think, made it much harder to connect to the book. I mean, I’ve just talked about how much I liked his descriptions of depression and I do but while we have both really FELT depression, our actual experiences and the circumstances around having depression are completely different. I don’t think I’m explaining this very well. Let me give you the analogy of dog breeds: they’re all essentially dogs – they all have dog DNA – but they appear in hundreds of different ways. That’s how this feels to me. We’ve both had the DNA of depression, but where his is bulldog, mine is a German Shephard (I’m not gonna lie – trying to find two different breeds of dog that are very different without belittling either of our experiences by comparing one of them to a dachshund or a Chihuahua was a challenge).

The biggest thing for me was that I felt like there was this inherent implication that, after being depressed, you will never be that low again. Because you lived through it, because you survived it, or whatever, that you have this new perspective on the world that will somehow protect you from depression. It’s a belief that many people have but for me that is just not true. Each time I think I’ve reached the lowest point I can possibly survive, there’s always more. There’s always worse.

On a similar theme, he references another common idea, that feeling the good stuff is worth feeling the bad stuff: “You know, before the age of twenty four I hadn’t known how bad things could feel, but I hadn’t realised how good they could feel either. That shell might be protecting you, but it’s also stopping you feeling the full force of that good stuff.” Let’s say that’s true. What does that matter if the bad to the good have odds like 364 to 1? Is it worth it? I’m not sure. In my experience, the bad stuff is so much more devastating than the good is good. I’m not attributing this idea to Matt specifically but I feel like it’s worth commenting on. This idea equates the strength of good and bad emotions (something that is practically impossible), and suggests that it’s acceptable (and even expected) to feel really terrible, simply because you’ve had some good moments. I’m just really wary of anything that justifies struggle and trauma.

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About halfway through the book, he talks about how he overcame his separation anxiety when his partner needed him to, because she had to go to the hospital with her sick mother and someone had to be at the house. I found that really hard to read, because a lot of the time, for a lot of people, that’s not the case. For me, that’s not the case. Anxiety, depression, mental illness… they don’t go away just because you need them to. I wish they did and, if I’m honest, it just made me feel more pathetic. I can’t help thinking that it would’ve been more helpful if he’d mentioned some of the times it hadn’t been like that and then said something like, “I don’t know why it was different this time.” Just to represent that problem, to give it context. I mean, I’m making an assumption that there were moments where he couldn’t overcome his anxieties but I think it’s pretty safe to say of anyone who’s struggled with severe anxiety for an extended period of time.

The chapter ends with, “needless to say, they came back,” in reference to his paralyzing anxiety that something would happen to his partner and her parents while not in his sight. This is something that I struggle with on a daily basis but my fears not coming true hasn’t ever dulled those fears. Instead I feel like my time – my run of good luck – is running out. You can only throw heads so many times, you can only be lucky so many times before the inevitable bad thing happens. In my experience, anxiety isn’t rational and can’t be managed as if it is.

He goes on to say, “I had reasons to force myself to be strong…” which, I have to say, irritated me. We know that depression and anxiety and so on are illnesses and are therefore out of our control. It’s not logical. You can’t reason with it or simply will yourself out of it. In my experience, my reasons keep me going for a while, get me through what I need to get through, but then I crash, often lower than before. It’s great and important that he found that motivation and I don’t want to take away from that I just don’t think it’s as straightforward as that.

“…To put myself in situations I wouldn’t have put myself in. You need to be uncomfortable.” I hear this expression all the time and I HATE it. I hate it enough to put the word hate in capital letters. I am ALWAYS uncomfortable. I cannot remember the last time I was comfortable in anyway, whether it be emotionally, mentally, or physically. Maybe my ASD makes it impossible to be comfortable. Maybe there’s another explanation. So, how does that fit into this formula? I don’t know the answer. And what if there’s no good in it, no purpose? What if that’s all there is? I don’t know the answers to those questions either.

“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/what-ever. But sometimes that ‘despite’ should be a ‘because.’ For instance, I write because of depression.” I don’t disagree but I’d like to propose an addition: and. So-and-so did such-and-such and they have depression/anxiety/OCD/agora-phobia/whatever. I have struggled with identity stuff for a long time – probably from my BPD and the late diagnosis of ASD (which obviously does affect everything I do as it is something I was born with) – but I’d like to think that I am not who I am solely because of my mental illnesses. A lot of people say that their experiences with mental illness have made them kinder, more compassionate and thoughtful people and that’s amazing but I don’t think they give themselves enough credit. Everything we become we were always capable of becoming and the circumstances and coincidences that start those chain reactions shouldn’t get all the glory.

Despite the parts of the book that I struggled with, there were parts that really spoke to me. There were several quotes that I related to so strongly that my chest physically hurt when I read them:

  • “The weird thing about depression is that, even though you might have more suicidal thoughts, the fear of death remains the same. The only difference is that the pain of life has rapidly increased.”
  • “In a world where possibility is endless, the possibilities for pain and loss and permanent separation are also endless. So fear breeds imagination, and vice versa, on and on and on.”
  • “So, if [the universe] catches you smiling, even fake smiling, then – well, that stuff’s just not allowed and you know it, so here comes ten tons of counterbalance.”
  • “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.”
  • “He was looking at me like I was my former self. How could he not see the difference?”
  • “I was scared of the quiet. I was scared, I suppose, of having to slow down and soften the volume. Scared of having nothing but my own mind to listen to.”
  • “And we are scared of our own crumbling, and the crumbling of others.”
  • “If the stone falls hard enough, the ripples last a lifetime.”
  • “Feeling. That is what it is all about.”

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Ultimately I have mixed feelings about this book. I can see why people love it and why people find it helpful. And I think, had this been my first experience of depression, it would’ve helped me too. I would’ve found it inspiring. But I struggled to connect with it and I found that very upsetting. Maybe it’s my fault for reading it when I did; maybe I was too depressed for anything to help. Maybe, if I’d read it when I wasn’t feeling so completely hopeless, I would’ve had a different experience. Maybe I would’ve felt the differences less and the similarities more. I’ll never know. But regardless, I’m really glad that it’s helped people. Having your struggles and your experiences validated can change everything. As Matt says in the book: “There is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength.” That, right there, is why I write this blog.

I hope this was interesting and I hope I’ve managed to represent my emotions about the book (reading it was a very emotional experience), rather than blindly praising it or bluntly criticising it. Despite struggling with the book, I love Matt Haig’s writing and he is one of my favourite people to follow on social media; I have great respect for him. I’m really looking forward to hearing him speak on Tuesday and to reading Notes on a Nervous Planet when it comes out.

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