An informal review of Matt Haig’s book _Reasons to Stay Alive_

So I finally got around to reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive. I follow him on Twitter, and a friend sent me a couple of quotes from him at important moments. I like that he continues to speak out about depression, and I definitely want to read his book The Humans.

Like any book about a very complex and personal illness, it was hit and miss for me. Some things were so true that I felt I’d read them before, though that could have just been that I’d thought them before, myself, many times. The chapters are short, and sometimes they felt too short; I wanted more description, to be shown where he went, perhaps so I could compare it to where I have been. I really liked, however, that it is a book that’s part memoir, part exploration of the topic of depression, and part self-help. He wants to tell us his experiences, but also give us a context and some tips. It’s a generous-hearted book, which didn’t surprise me at all.

What did surprise me were the places I marked. I didn’t start marking up the book until the last third, and here’s what struck me (page numbers are from the paperback version):

—The list of books Haig read during his depression. What a wonderfully diverse list! I especially loved what he said about The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. “I had been through no war and yet I related to that feeling of pain contained in every new day, as ‘Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.’ It fascinated me how depression and anxiety overlap with posttraumatic stress disorder. Had we been through some trauma we didn’t know about? Was the noise and speed of modern life the trauma for our caveman brains? Was I that soft? Or was life a kind of war most people didn’t see?” (p. 137) I loved this mention of the evolutionary psychology theory of depression, which comes up again (p. 173, 181, 218) and is one of the books he lists under Further Reading at the end. (p. 247) And the question format was poignant and resonant for me, because I think we often ask these questions of ourselves and the world; and questions open up possibilities and new ways of thinking, inviting the reader to collaborate.

—His suggestion that we actually force ourselves to do what we fear. “When you are depressed and anxious your comfort zone tends to shrink from the size of a world to the size of a bed. Or right down to nothing at all.” (p. 141) I personally get into bouts of self-pity during my depression, and that makes me think I should be treated with kid gloves, and treat myself that way. But there’s a difference between negative self-talk and pushing yourself, and I like that Haig shows how pushing himself actually helped beat back the depression at times. I felt inspired to take action by this suggestion, and that surprised me. It didn’t say, “Stop pitying yourself,” it just said, “Push yourself and it may help.” So now my own task is to figure out the precise ways I make my world feel smaller, and push out against those boundaries.

—The Rumi quotes on p. 148. “Rumi wrote in the twelfth century, ‘The wound is the place where the light enters you.’ (He also wrote: ‘Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.’)” I knew the Leonard Cohen quote, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I didn’t know he’d taken the basic idea from Rumi. I like that this thought echoes through the centuries. And I like the admonition to a fearless life, from someone who lived so long ago.

—Haig’s idea that sometimes depression makes us who we are in good ways. He writes, “For instance, I write because of depression. I was not a writer before. The intensity needed—to explore things with relentless curiosity and energy—simply wasn’t there. Fear makes us curious. Sadness makes us philosophize.” (p. 170) More, he talks about Abraham Lincoln and quotes an article about him: “’Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.’” (p. 170) Every self-help book in the world seems to shout that if you fix all your problems, you will be a great success. But some problems are not “fixable,” and really, we’re not broken. Some problems are complex and pernicious and recurrent, perhaps even essential parts of who we are. To turn our backs on our experience is to discount any wisdom we’ve gained from it. I was so very heartened to read this idea, because I can too easily list the things I didn’t do because of depression. I never thought to list the things I did, and can, because of it.

—His honest assessment of outside factors that contribute to depression for us all, including capitalism. “The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an antiaging moisturizer? You make someone worry about aging…How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own nonupgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.” (p. 181)

—The quick trip into mindfulness. “Understand, for instance, that having a sad thought, even having a continual succession of sad thoughts, is not the same as being a sad person. You can walk through a storm and feel the wind but you know you are not the wind. That is how we must be with our minds. We must allow ourselves to feel their gales and downpours, but all the time knowing this is just necessary weather.” (p. 235) He says in the book that he’s not a Buddhist because it’s too restrictive for him, but of course I personally think that must have been just one of the Buddhist sects. There are others that aren’t restrictive, and the basic philosophy of Buddhism is very much one of mindfulness. I guess I feel like it’s possible to agree with the philosophy without considering Buddhism a religion that must be officially joined and all the “rules” followed.

—Three of the 40 pieces of advice. Not that the others weren’t smart, but three struck me as fresh or especially resonant. “6. Kurt Vonnegut was right. ‘Reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found.’” (p. 238) Oh, yes, every reader and writer loves to hear this. And thinking of them as forms of meditation is really fascinating. I have to sit with that for a while.

“8. Don’t feel guilty about being idle. More harm is probably done to the world through work than idleness. But perfect your idleness. Make it mindful.” (p. 238) That is definitely balm for the depressed soul, to mute one of the inner critic’s most seemingly justified criticisms. Sit on the couch, ok, but actually be there. Watch the tv show, think about it, instead of letting that inner critic just go on and on until you’re not even really resting or watching anything.

And then “28. If someone loves you, let them. Believe in that love. Live for them, even when you feel there is no point.” (p. 241) Yes. My incredibly sweet husband embodies this every. single. day. He’s a saint. I don’t tell him that there have been times I mainly stayed alive for him, but he has persuaded me—through repetition—to believe in his love.

I think it is useful to read about depression when you struggle with it yourself not only to see that others have survived, but to give your endlessly thinking mind new routes. Your old routes, good or bad, become so familiar that, like the drive home from the grocery store, you hardly notice them anymore. New routes—alternate ways to the same place, new stops, unfamiliar landscapes, even just new signs—wake you up. I want to be awake, be aware, no matter what else is happening in my life or in my mind.