For some people, depression means a numbing of the senses. But for writer Matt Haig, it’s quite different.
“Depression, for me, wasn’t a dulling but a sharpening, an intensifying, as though I had been living my life in a shell and now the shell wasn’t there. It was total exposure. A red-raw, naked mind. A skinned personality. A brain in a jar full of the acid that is experience.”
Haig came close to committing suicide in his early 20s, but he stopped himself from jumping off a cliff. “Reasons to Stay Alive” is equal parts self-help and memoir. It’s a quick, witty and at times profound take on an illness many people suffer from, but sometimes can’t bring themselves to talk about. By writing about it, Haig turns his own experience into an argument for why life, no matter how deeply depressed you might be, is worth living. With profound pain comes profound joy. And let’s not forget that there are books to read — so many books!
“If there is a way out,” Haig writes, “a way that isn’t death itself, then the exit route is through words. 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.”
Reading is one thing that saves him from a debilitating, paralyzing depression. Running and yoga help, too. And while at times this book can seem a little overly earnest, with obvious proclamations such as, “We are essentially alone,” Haig’s tone is like that of a close friend sharing hard-earned advice over a cup of coffee. A friend doesn’t have to be profoundly literary or say something we’ve never heard before. He or she just needs to be supportive enough to remind us that everything is going to be OK.
Written in brief chapters, this is a book for the social media age, for people who want words of wisdom delivered in short but poignant nuggets. There’s even a section in which the author shares advice from his Twitter followers. Some parts of the book are simply lists: “Things that (sometimes) make me better” include “Reading Emily Dickinson’s poems,” Making burritos” and “The smell of bread.”
We all are essentially alone, as Haig says, but we’re also not. Depression is seen as an invisible illness, he argues. But it’s also an illness that one in five people struggles with. “Depression makes you think things that are wrong,” he writes on the first page. “Reasons to Stay Alive” shows how easy it is to feel crushed by darkness, but the light we’re looking for is inside us. It always has been.
Michele Filgate is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and lives in Brooklyn.
Reasons to Stay Alive
By: Matt Haig.
Publisher: Penguin, 256 pages, $15.