When I first read Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, it was last year at the end of a long summer. Some sudden life changes had caused a dip in my mental health, and so like a moth to a flame, I was drawn once again to literature that could stand by me in the valley. As I was scouring library selections on mental health, Matt Haig’s memoir popped up and I gave it a try. Reasons to Stay Alive immediately drew me in and kept me company during the dip down.
Reasons to Stay Alive, published in 2015, was the author’s first dive into the realm of non-fiction. It was, more importantly, the first time he had told his story about anxiety, depression, and a breakdown that had happened when he was 24 years old.
From the first chapters of the book, we see why Haig is writing: because he believes sharing stories can be a method of healing for those that struggle with mental illness. He has found that writing and reading have been invaluable friends along his journey and he wants to pass the torch along. “Where talk exists, so does hope,” Haig writes, and this has been my experience, too.
The British author begins his tale by recounting his breakdown in Ibiza, Spain years before, and then leads readers through the arduous years of healing that follow.
This book draws you in with its easy-to-read, digestible chapters and the down-to-earth language that Haig uses when weaving sentences about tough subjects. This is neither textbook nor lecture. It is not revolutionary or earth shattering. But it is someone else’s story, and it reminds readers that mental health is as “down-to-earth” as it gets. It’s day in, day out. There are peaks and troughs, as Haig writes. It’s about support systems, sunshine, rainy days, conversations, knowing yourself and your symptoms well.
Referencing the famous Sylvia Plath quote, “Is there no way out of the mind?” Haig responds that the way out for him included the world of literature. To encourage his audience along this path, Haig includes a long list of fiction and non-fiction pieces of literature that helped him on his journey.
“If there is a way out, a way that isn’t death itself, then the exit route is through words,” Haig writes. “But rather than leave the mind entirely, words help us leave a mind, and give us the building blocks to build another one, similar but better, nearby to the old one but with firmer foundations, and very often a better view.”
Some negative feedback on the book were directed at Haig’s uneasy feelings towards anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. I found this to be liberating. Haig makes it clear what worked and didn’t work for him, and encourages readers to find out what works for their own brain. Sometimes medication is what works, sometimes it’s not. For him, it was exercise, reading, travel, family. The point of this book is to remind readers to think through what works for them, what their own reasons to stay alive are.
Reasons to Stay Alive creates an accessibility around mental health that is vital in our culture today. Even if you aren’t struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other number of mental health disorders, this book is still one to keep in your library for those in your life who do struggle. Gift it. Recommend it. Reference the chapter titled “How to be there for someone with depression or anxiety”… “Be patient. Understand it isn’t going to be easy. Depression ebbs and flows and moves up and down. It doesn’t stay still. Do not take one happy/bad moment as proof of recovery/relapse. Play the long game.”
Haig ends the book with a chapter titled “Things I have enjoyed since the time I thought I would never enjoy anything again.” The list is funny, beautiful, poignant, real… “Laughing. Yes. Laughing so hard it hurts. Laughing as you bend forward and as your abdomen actually starts to hurt from so much pleasure, so much release, and then as you sit back and audibly groan and inhale deeply, staring at the person next to you, mopping up the joy.”
Haig’s list prompted the beginning of my own last summer, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader to be inspired by this simple step of defiance.
When reading this book in the midst of a valley, it’s hard to pin down what was the most helpful aspect for this reader. Simply put, Haig wrapped words around my thoughts that I couldn’t. That is always a weight lifted. His lists of things depression can do and say to you, combined with lists of joys depression cannot take away had my head nodding along in agreement. His statements are simple, but they are true… “Keep reiterating, again and again, that depression is not something you ‘admit to,’ it is not something you have to blush about, it is a human experience” and “Remember that the key thing about life on earth is change. Cars rust. Paper yellows. Technology dates. Caterpillars become butterflies. Nights morph into days. Depression lifts.”
But just as important was the reminder about the ever-present stigma swirling around mental illness that does not find itself attached to other physical illnesses. Haig does his best to expose this lie. Depression, he writes, is a disease of thoughts. Its symptoms are often invisible, but not invalid. Since suicide is now a leading cause of death in places including the US and the UK, he concludes that perhaps we should be working harder to fight against one of the most deadly diseases on the planet: depression.
Since it is a disease of thoughts, there often feels like no escape from it… “When you are in it, you are really in it. You can’t step outside it without stepping outside of life, because it is life. It is your life. Every single thing you experience is filtered through it. Consequently, it magnifies everything.”
This stigma is what keeps many of our stories silenced. Haig’s breakdown occurred in 1999, yet he didn’t feel comfortable sharing about it until its 2015 publishing.
Because Reasons to Stay Alive opened the door to many vital conversations regarding mental health and received such positive feedback along the way (in his native England, it became a Sunday Times bestseller and stayed in the British top ten for nearly a year), Haig followed his memoir up with Notes on a Nervous Planet in 2018. I’ve yet to read it, but it’s next on my list! In it, Haig’s collection of observations on the culture around us explores options for keeping ourselves sane in a stress-ridden, fast-paced environment.
Other books by Haig include his successful children’s novels such as To be a Cat and his Christmas trilogy. Adult novels such as The Humans and How to Stop Time again address themes of anxiety, adjusting to our present culture, and finding happiness.
I may be biased, but I’d say to start with some refreshing Reasons to Stay Alive.
***Reasons to Stay Alive does contain strong language at times, so please be aware that this may not be appropriate for younger ages.
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Author Bio: Anna Barton works as a reporter for a local newspaper, but dreams of one day writing about mental health instead of local politics. Some of her Reasons to Stay Alive include (but are not limited to) foggy mornings that turn into sunny days, cat snuggles, riverside sunsets, hugs from her nephews and nieces, birdwatching with a cup of coffee, and planting garden beds with friends. She likes to blog sometimes at www.thememoryhoardergirl.wordpress.com.
Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.