Depression is a highly misunderstood condition of the mind. People who suffer from it often have to deal with the ignorance of those around besides the condition itself. They are often told to “cheer up”, “think about something else” and “look on the bright side” instead of seeking professional help because their very real illness is mistaken by many to be an attitude problem. The truth is, depression is a severely debilitating, even fatal, condition that affects hundreds of millions of people across the world.
British novelist Matt Haig was one of those people. At the age of 24, he fell prey to depression and suffered through a grueling period of misery, hopelessness and suicidal tendencies. Nearly two decades have passed and today, Haig has not only recovered but also built himself an admirable career as an author. In his award-winning memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, he tells the story of how he made it through such a difficult time.
If you have ever been depressed in your life, or if you have supported a loved one through a dark phase, you might know that a person who is suffering from the condition is not always open to advice. Their mind might be so clouded with misery that they might dismiss the idea that relief is possible. They might steadfastly refuse help and choose to stay in the darkness. Or they may simply feel that they are misunderstood by everyone around. When they are in such a frame of mind, even bestselling self-help books may not have an impact on them.
This is where Reasons to Stay Alive differs from your regular self-help book. Divided into sections namely Falling, Landing, Rising, Living and Being, it sketches the author’s path to recovery in a very informal, free-flowing manner. Haig reflects on his own experience with a touch of wry humour. In an honest yet not-so-grim style, he narrates everything from the time he was fired because of his depression to his attempt to kill himself.
The author calls a spade a spade and paints an accurate portrayal of depression. Yet, there is less negativity and more hope in the pages of this memoir. Multiple chapters in the book are presented in the form of a dialogue between the author’s depressed self and the recovered, future self. The depressed Haig talks of his fears and expresses his feeling of hopelessness, while the recovered Haig assures him that things are bound to change. Dwelling on the possibility of a future version of himself that is healthy and happy gave him hope, the author later reveals.
One section of the book actually lists out reasons to stay alive—responses the author had received from people on Twitter who have experienced anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies. Love, sunrise, bacon rolls and yoga are just a few of the very interesting reasons on the list. The author himself then lists out things that kept him going during those difficult days. Running, writing and reading Emily Dickenson’s poems feature on this list.
Haig did not resort to medication to get over depression. Infusing art, mindfulness and physical activity into his life helped him get his mind back in his control. However, he doesn’t refute the need for psychiatric help that scores of depressed people across the world feel. He simply says that such an approach did not work for him, so he had to look for relief elsewhere. This is an important clarification, as there is plenty of misinformation surrounding medication for mental illnesses today.
Indeed, depression is a dark monster. It can bring a person’s life to a standstill and leave them gasping for breath. But there is always hope for recovery, a new life, and new things to look forward to, Haig says, through this easy-to-read memoir. His light-hearted approach to the serious subject makes us wonder if the key to recovery is, after all, to not take ourselves too seriously. Perhaps, by distancing ourselves from the illness and seeing our worth and capabilities as separate from the negative experiences we’re subject to, we can begin to recover.