So I read the book by Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive quite early on in my recovery. It was published in December 2015 and it was Bryony’s interview with him on the MadWorld podcast series that reminded me of what a great book this is.
You can read an extract from it here.
And here’s an interview with Matt from The Guardian when it was published:
Why did it take you 15 years to get the courage to write about depression?
I was meant to be writing a blog for the Books Trust, as their writer in residence, about novel writing but ran out of things to say and was starting to repeat myself. So I thought: OK, I’ll write about depression, this thing I had always had inside me and wanted to get out. And I got an incredible response, not because the blog was great but because I’ve noticed when anyone talks honestly about depression, it breeds a warm, sincere response from people. Everybody has a story about depression yet, for decades, we have been silent about it.
Is writing a way out of depression?
Writing is not the way but it helps. In February 2000, I was in the depths of depression. I was 24 and back from Ibiza, living at home in Newark [Nottinghamshire], in my childhood bedroom. I started writing bits and pieces – unreadable, angsty stuff. Articulating what is in your head is therapeutic. Words are a shared thing – depression lends itself to melodrama: you believe you’re going through something no one else has been through. At 31, Abraham Lincoln wrote: “I’m the most miserable person now living.” That is the drama of being a young man. That is the drama of depression.
How did you recover?
I still get bouts of depression but I am a lot better than I was. Staying sane and well is a complicated, never-ending process. The critical thing was that I had people I could talk to around me. My solution was never medical. What ultimately helped me was time. Depression told me I wouldn’t make my 25th birthday, then I made my 25th … and then I made my 30th.
One of the surprises is how speedy you make your experience sound, saying that adding anxiety to depression ‘presses fast-forward’?
Most people have depression with anxiety. They overlap in complicated ways. Mine trickled over into OCD and panic disorder. One of the main symptoms of anxiety is racing thoughts.
Why were you living in Ibiza?
I was a party person at university. I went to Hull, then Leeds. I used to drink a lot. (In one fell swoop, I gave up drinking and smoking. I became scared of anything that could alter my brain chemistry). Anyway, I met my partner, Andrea, early on and we went on holiday to Ibiza. After another winter in Hull, we thought it would be nice – probably against our parents’ wishes – to try and get work in Ibiza. I was selling tickets, doing a bit of PR. Andrea got the good job – running the office for the island’s largest party. Ibiza contributed to depression in that I was run down: we weren’t eating well, there had been heavy drinking, no sleeping, a lot of unhealthiness.
How worried were your parents when depression struck?
It happened suddenly so they had to be aware of that. I wasn’t mad or delusional but I was worrying about things too much. I knew who I was. I could hold a conversation, there was nothing obviously wrong with me. My mother had experienced postnatal depression but that made it harder for her because it brought it all back. Unlike with physical illnesses, there is always with depression, I believe wrongly, guilt and blame attached.
Your dad is quoted telling you to pull yourself together …
I feel guilty about that but you can’t write what is vaguely a memoir without betraying someone. I wanted the main person I betrayed to be myself. My mum has only just read the book…
How did she react?
Long, emotional texts that said it was hard for her to read but she thought it was brilliant and that it made her understand depression better.
Is depression different for each person who experiences it?
I don’t know. I’ve only ever been me.
Is it safe to generalise?
It is dangerous not to – despair is universal.
Is technology a contributing factor?
I became ill in 1999 and didn’t even have a mobile phone. Facebook and Twitter provide a Samaritans culture: people are there to chat to 24/7. That said, the addictive aspects of the internet, comparing yourself against other people, is negative for mental health.
Your most unexpected message is that depression can be a force for good?
If you took away all pain, if everyone lived for ever, everything would be bland, flat and boring, there would be no reason for art, music, newspapers, love because we would all be in a mono state of happiness. You cannot belittle depression yet a lot of people would not undo that side of themselves because it changes your thoughts. It makes you appreciate things you would not have appreciated before: like just being alive. Thinking about death makes you analyse what life is. Anxiety makes you curious and curiosity leads to understanding. I wouldn’t be a writer without depression.
Did becoming a published author boost your self-esteem?
It gave me a sense of identity. I had the confidence to write a novel and send it off which I wouldn’t have had before. We were in debt which gave me this ridiculous drive. I wrote a book about talking dogs – a reworking of Henry IV Part 1 – and ended up in more debt! Being published gave me that sense of: that is what I am here for.
What does Andrea make of your writing about depression and her role in helping you?
She is a shy person and we are both a bit antsy because it is your life and people are going to be disbelieving. She and I used to write side by side. Her books were – she hates the word – “chick lit”. When we had kids [now 5 and 7], she stopped but is now writing again, she has some ideas for children’s books.
Do you worry about your children inheriting the depressive gene?
Yeah. It is a confidence thing – if there is a link between how you raise a child and the adult. We try not to be unreasonably critical but I’m of the grim belief that each generation corrects its parents’ mistakes and then makes new mistakes of its own.
You once worked in a cabbage factory warehouse. That could bring on a depression?
Strangely, I don’t get depression in adverse situations. Hard work can be therapeutic. I hated the cabbage factory but it wasn’t capital D depressing.
You suggest we’re losing sight of what matters in over-affluent lives?
Yes, absolutely. I’d feel worse in shopping centres. Adverts, designed to make you feel bad, depressed me – they create a void. It’s easy to lose your priorities and think: I’ve got to have this sort of job or earn this amount of money. It would be lovely to live in a culture where calmness was the aim.
What is the single most important thing to tell someone depressed?
However much in the foreground depression feels, you are separate to it. This is going to sound cheesy but I’d say: You are the sky. A cloud comes and dominates the sky. But the sky is still the sky. Depression tells you everything is going to get worse but that’s a symptom. Don’t give depression power – constantly discredit it.
Giving up alcohol was a major part of Matt’s recovery in the earlier years and you can hear him talk about it with Bryony here:
Like Bryony I loved his lists in the book. Although this is written about depression it could so easily be about alcohol dependence too (excerpt taken from his blog):
7. Ignore stigma. Every illness had stigma once. Stigma is what happens when ignorance meets realities that need an open mind.