Matt Haig’s book on how to manage and outgrow mental health problems has been an international bestseller since its publication in 2015. Reasons to Stay Alive is divided into five sections: Falling, Landing, Rising, Living and Being and it is reviewd here by our reviewer, Paul Behan
The book is part manual, part memoir, part literary criticism and fully readable. It can be read consecutively or dipped into sporadically. Either way, the reader is guaranteed an insight into, and practical advice on, living with that toxic cocktail of anxiety and depression. In fact a casual reader is guaranteed an uplifting and life-affirming experience.
At the start of this millennium, at just 24, and after 3 days sunk in a deep depression, Matt Haig set out to throw himself from a cliff on a sun-soaked day in Ibiza. Fortunately he relented. With the help of his partner Andrea he survived the dark tunnel accompanied by the realisation that the darkness was a lie fed to him by his condition and there was light at both ends of the tunnel all along. The difficulty with debilitating thoughts is the close association with the self. With a bad back you can say I have back pain. But your thoughts are your own. They are you. The pain and the self become one. And that seems to be especially true of men. Men are up to 5 times more likely to commit suicide than women, yet women are twice as likely to be depressed. (Interestingly, only in China and Hong Kong is this trend reversed.) Suicide is the leading cause of death amongst men below middle age. Why? Haig suggests one reason is that women, in contrast to men, seek treatment for their illness; “where talk exists, so does hope.”
The warning signs of mental unease are generally physical unease. Fatigue, sweating, racing heart, loss of appetite often associated with low self esteem and sudden introversion. Haig found his weapons against this were their exact opposites : exercise, eating well, absorbing yourself in a meaningful task, yoga, being with people who love you. Our vast, yet vastly incomplete, knowledge of the brain suggests that the brain cannot abide gaps. If a story or image is needed to make sense of something the brain will construct it. And so it is with fear. If you have nothing to be scared of, your brain will supply you with something. One technique for continued good mental health is to guard against this tendency of our brains. Another one he discovered was running. Haig feels that running apes many of the physical symptoms, but gives you a reason for them. Each run is a mental vanquishing of “I can’t go on” to a feel good affirmation of “I can go on”.
His debt of gratitude to his partner Andrea is unsentimental and often touching. The contrast in personality is one reason they worked so well. Another major salvation has been reading books. Haig has found stories give shape to his life and help create a map which has destinations you discover as you read that like our expanding universe, create new spaces into which a stronger mind can move, leaving behind the older fragile mind. “There is an idea that you read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping.” He emphasises throughout that his better health grew out of his ill health. The combined anxiety and depression cannot be eradicated but it can be managed. Abraham Lincoln by the age of 32 already had two nervous breakdowns. He learned to live with it and grew resolute from it. Eventually. One theme consistently emerges from this book. Mental health problems and its symptoms are not the exclusive property of the brain. Any proper resolution must come from a holistic, whole body, whole life approach.
Anxiety disorder with its panic and manic thoughts duelling each other, can often be fuel injected by modern life’s always on environment. Haig suggests we slow down, practise mindfulness, go for long walks with a friend, don’t channel surf, do something selfless for someone else, read. Anais Nin described anxiety as “love’s greatest killer.” After his experience Haig makes a very strong case for the converse. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer. One of the key things for him is being around people he loves and who love him. Love is an attitude to life. Depression forces you into thoughts that cannot be ignored. Love’s gaze forces you into a healthy outward expression of feelings.
The book ends with How to Live (40 pieces of advice I feel to be helpful but I don’t always follow). Amongst them : Be kind. Sip, don’t gulp. On the aimless use of TV and the internet he says “unchecked distractions will lead you to distraction”. Three in the morning is never the time to try and sort out your life. If the sun is shining, and you can be outside, be outside. Books are possibilities, each one can be a home for an uprooted mind. When you feel you have no time to relax, know that this is the moment you most need to make time to relax. Listen more than you talk.
Matt Haig has written a wonderful, tough and thoughtful book, which takes a very short time to read, but packs a punch way beyond its weight. In a section entitled Self-Help, he writes:
How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe.
Pick up the book at any point and you will find sparkling gems urging you gaze at them just that little bit longer.