Posted on July 1, 2018
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Posted on January 7, 2018
Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Turtles All The Way Down by John Green. This is not so much a book review as it is a collection of my thoughts about a particular book so I will be talking about the characters and the storyline in some detail. Hopefully it will make sense. If you’ve read the book or don’t mind spoilers, read on but if you want to read the book (which I highly suggest you do) and watch the events unfold, go and do that first. And then maybe you can come back and read this…
As I said in my post about New Years Resolutions, I really want to get back into reading. When I was a kid, I inhaled book after book after book and I have so many memories of forgoing sleep, just so that I could finish whatever story I was in the middle of. I really loved to read. It was my favourite thing. But somehow, with university and my mental health and the rollercoaster that has been my life for the last few years, reading sort of fell off my radar and I really miss it so one of my New Years Resolutions is to try and get back into reading. I want to rediscover what I loved about it. This was the perfect book to start with, even though it hit me with a tidal wave of emotions and I’m still recovering a couple of weeks later. But I think that’s how reading is for me, at least for the moment.
From the moment I heard that John Green’s new book was about a girl with OCD, I knew I wanted to read it and knowing that he has very personal experience with OCD made me even more excited about it. I’ve read several of his books (I especially loved The Fault in Our Stars) and I’ve always really connected to the voices of the main characters. And that was what made reading Turtles All The Way Down such an emotional experience. I read it in one sitting (apart from the first chapter – I realised I was going to read it in one sitting and so I needed to plan for that). I don’t think I’ve ever related so strongly to a book, which is a really big deal since I’ve been struggling to find a book I relate to at all. I found it to be a really true, really full account of dealing with a mental health problem. I’ve always struggled to work out where OCD fits into the mosaic of my mental health so I found this book really helpful in that sense. It shifted a few things in my brain and helped me understand myself a bit better. I’m very grateful for that.
The story is narrated by sixteen-year-old Aza. She’s quiet and thoughtful, trying to manage friends, school, and planning a future, all while struggling with constant anxiety about bacteria, infection, and dying from Clostridium Difficile Infection (also known as C. diff). She describes the anxiety as ‘thought spirals’ or ‘invasive thoughts’. She feels like she has no control over her thoughts, describing them as “not a choice but a destiny,” and often the only way to control them is to check and clean a permanently open cut on her finger, proving to herself that she doesn’t have C. diff.
I love Aza and I really, really related to her, to how she thinks, how she navigates the world. I’ve always thought of my thought spirals as black holes but the descriptions match up pretty closely. And I swear, some of the things she says could’ve been pulled from my own thoughts:
We struggle with a lot of the same things, from the littlest things to the biggest things. Like me, she struggles with her sense of identity; she talks about her “irreconcilable selves” and describes her search for her self as opening Russian dolls, looking for the final solid one but never finding it (I can definitely relate to that, although my current metaphor is a house of mirrors). Like me, she’s untidy, something that flies in the face of a huge OCD stereotype. And like me, she struggles with her body, with having a body: “I disgusted myself. I was revolting, but I couldn’t recoil from my self because I was stuck inside of it.” Finding all of these things in a character feels like such a big deal. I don’t think you can really know how important it is to have a character you relate to until you can’t find one.
The book could easily fall into the cliché of ‘girl with mental health problem meets boy and suddenly everything is better’ but fortunately, it doesn’t. I was so, so relieved. Aza and her best friend, Daisy, find themselves investigating the disappearance of Russell Pickett, the father of Aza’s childhood friend, Davis. Aza and Davis become very close very quickly but that only makes things more difficult for Aza. He means a lot to her but, as she says, the “actual mechanics of it” are really hard for her. Touching and kissing send her into a panic, a spiral that tightens and tightens. And that’s really hard for her: “I can’t have a normal life if I can’t kiss someone without freaking out.” As much as she wants to be with him, as hard as they try to make it work, her mental illness is just too much. It might sound strange but that is incredibly comforting. Despite the fact that we all know a relationship can’t magically reset your mental health, there still seem to be so many stories where that is exactly what happens. Maybe it’s because the writers want to believe that, for themselves or for someone they care about. But it’s not the truth. To know that there is one story – one more story – out in the world that demonstrates that is a relief to me. I know that my mental health prevents me from being in a relationship regardless of all other factors; seeing someone else experience the same thing helps me, even if that person is fictional. Whether it’s just for now or forever (“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to.”), that makes me feel a little bit less alone.
The real love story is in Aza and Daisy’s friendship. I fell in love with Daisy and their friendship from the first mention. I loved that she knew when Aza was struggling and just how to help her: “She’d straightened something inside me.” I was almost giddy with excitement to find such a supportive friendship. But then they both get into relationships and they start to drift. Aza’s mental health also starts to drop. The ritual of cleaning her finger becomes less and less effective. The spirals tighten, the voice of her OCD gets stronger, and her desperation increases, leading her to drink hand sanitizer in the hope that it will prevent her from getting sick. Driving home from school one day, she and Daisy get into a vicious argument during which Daisy calls her “extremely self-centred”. I found all of this really upsetting; my stomach kept twisting, so much that it hurt. I was so attached to their friendship that seeing it crumble was really painful. It results in Aza hitting the car in front and at the hospital later that night, the feeling of being surrounded by bacteria is just too much for her and the thought spirals overwhelm her. I don’t want to go into too much detail because you should really just read it. It’s so well written and I related to it so strongly.
After that, Aza has to spend a lot of time and energy on recovering from that. It’s scary and difficult and she feels very fragile but slowly, things do change. She and Daisy rebuild their friendship and while it’s so similar, it’s also very different to how it was before. They talk and they talk properly; those conversations are some of the best in the book.
But as wonderful as that is, it doesn’t solve Aza’s struggles. “Everyone wanted me to feed them that story – darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it too.” She still has thought spirals; she’s still so terrified that she can barely talk about it. Her life – and her future – feel suffocated by her anxiety: “I could never become a functioning grown up like this; it was inconceivable that I’d ever have a career.” This process feels so real to me. I’ve hit breaking point after breaking point and I always expect to feel better, or lightened, afterwards but then all the problems are still there and that can feel devastating. Accepting the reality of her mental health is one of the biggest and most difficult struggles: “I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon, because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life.” But, despite all of that, you can see the evolution in her thinking. She manages to say yes to things that scare her, she has good days, and her relationships get stronger. It’s subtle but her self worth improves too: “You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.” That is so much more important than if she’d made massive strides because it’s so real. That progress is slow and subtle and sometimes we don’t even see it happening. But when it’s written out on paper, you can see it and it’s a really good reminder that it’s there. It gives me hope.
Her relationship with her Mum is another thing I really liked in the book. They have a close relationship (“I could always feel my mother’s vibrating strings.”) and she’s a good mother but she says the wrong things sometimes and her concern can just feel like another layer of pressure for Aza. Over the course of the story, they get better at communicating and she learns what helps and what doesn’t, and Aza gets better at telling her. That’s such an important process and I think it sets a really good example: mental health problems can be really hard to understand, on all sides, and we don’t always get it right. Getting it wrong doesn’t make you a bad person; you just have to learn from the mistakes. And communicate. Towards the end, they have a really important conversation where Aza says, “I can’t stay sane for you…” and I really want to highlight that moment. I had a very similar conversation with my Mum. I think that people in our lives ask us to do things for them, thinking that they’re helping you, motivating you, giving you something to live for, when in fact they’re just adding more pressure to an already difficult situation. It’s not their fault – they’re just trying to help – but it can make things worse and they won’t know that unless it’s explained to them. So I think that was really good to have in this book.
Something else I related to was the fact that Aza’s father died several years earlier. When it comes to the events in the story, it’s not particularly relevant but at the same time, it’s very relevant (bear with me). It’s a massive part of who Aza is (it’s interesting that, from an outside perspective, we have a stronger sense of her identity than she does). She keeps her Dad close, driving his car, holding onto his phone to look through his pictures, talking to him… “I thought about how everyone always seemed slightly uncomfortable when discussing their fathers in front of me. They always seemed worried I’d be reminded of my fatherlessness, as if I could somehow forget.” My god, I relate to that. I can’t forget, not for a second. It’s painful but at the same time, I treasure it. I don’t want to forget. It’s part of who I am: “To be alive is to be missing.” It’s one of those before and after moments in your life; it changes you. It was comforting to see my experience (“And the thing is, when you lose someone, you realize you’ll eventually lose everyone.”) reflected back to me in someone else. As I’ve already said, it means so much to me to find a character I relate to so strongly. It makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel more real. “I remember after my Dad died, for a while, it was both true and not true in my mind… My father died suddenly, but also across the years. He was still dying really – which meant, I guess, that he was still living too.” Words like these are such a comfort to me. Aza imagines the moments they should’ve – or could’ve – had and they’re so clear that sometimes she forgets they didn’t happen. I can definitely relate to that.
Something I love about John Green’s writing is how he brings attention to things that are often overlooked or taken for granted: “It’s a weird phrase in English, in love, like it’s a sea you drown in or a town you live in. You don’t get to be in anything else – in friendship or in anger or in hope. All you can be in is love.” He weaves little things – or the little links between little things – into his stories that make the world more intricate, more real. The characters talk about the stars and Kurt Gödel. They have revelations about turtles and intersecting tree branches. Those things, for me at least, mean as much to me as they do to the characters. I mean, I am a space nerd and at least seventy percent of my thoughts are about metaphors but these things, these connections create so many layers to the story. As Aza says, “The world is also the stories we tell about it.”
After seeing what a huge impact this book had on me, my Mum read it, also in the space of a couple of days:
This story has also given me so much. It has helped me to better understand the feelings and anxieties my daughter lives with, and more importantly, another context to talk with her about them. (After reading this I realised that all the quotes she has chosen to include, are ones I have found particularly helpful too). I feel indebted to John Green for this story, for the hope I see it bring to her, and hopefully others too, for the understanding it can give parents and others supporting those with mental health issues, and for giving her a reason to read again. The way he closes the story also give me hope, for the future I wish for her.
It surprised me, how much she loved the ending since I’m still not sure how I feel about it. But I’m so glad she loved the book and that she got so much out of it.
This book means so much to me and I’m really glad it’s the book I chose to get back into reading. It’s definitely one that I’ll hang on to, carry around… It was always have a place on my bookshelf. There’s so much in it, multiple storylines that blend into each other. There’s elements of mystery, elements of romance, family and friendship, identity, loss… And it shows how everything affects everything else. The language is beautiful and brutal and real. I related to so much of it and it put so many of my thoughts into words. I love how he describes everything: he uses phrases like ‘swimming up from the depths’ and ‘sensorial planes’ when talking about thoughts spirals which is just so true, in my experience at least. There will be criticisms – there always are – but this is the book I needed exactly when I needed it and I will always love it for that.
There is so much more I could say – there’s so much I haven’t even mentioned – but I’ll stop there. So I’ll leave you with a quote from Aza’s therapist, who reminds me a lot of my own therapist. She says a lot of good and important things throughout the book but this is my favourite, and my favourite of the book:
“In some ways, pain is the opposite of language… And we’re such language based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with. Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify.”
“It often dwells in cliche, but only as pop songs and epic poems do, mining the universal to create something that speaks to the familiar rhythms of the heart. At one point Aza thinks about how the string from one musical instrument can cause the string of another to vibrate, if it’s the same note. That’s what this novel does. It will pluck the strings of those in tune with it. It will resonate with, and comfort, anxious young minds everywhere. It might just be a new modern classic.” – Matt Haig, excerpt from his review of Turtles All The Way Down for The Guardian (x)
Hey! I’m Lauren Alex Hooper. Welcome to my little blog! I write about living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as a number of mental health issues. I’m also a singer-songwriter so I’ll probably write a bit about that too.
My first single, ‘Invisible,’ is now available on iTunes and Spotify, with all proceeds going to Young Minds.