…once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
Haruki Murakami, ‘Kafka on the Shore’
When he was 24, Matt Haig nearly jumped off a cliff.
Reasons to Stay Alive is his powerful account of his experience with crippling depression and anxiety. It’s part memoir, part advice for those who live with someone suffering from depression and anxiety, and part gentle, uplifting encouragement for those suffering that things will indeed get better.
Many books discuss depression academically, scientifically, personally or socially, but few come with as much authentic advice for both sufferers and those who love them:
“Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations:
‘Come on, I know you’ve got tuberculosis, but it could be worse. At least no one’s died.’
‘Why do you think you got cancer of the stomach?’
‘Yes, I know, colon cancer is hard, but you want to try living with someone who has got it. Sheesh. Nightmare.’
‘Oh, Alzheimer’s you say? Oh, tell me about it, I get that all the time.’
‘Ah, meningitis. Come on, mind over matter.’
‘Yes, yes, your leg is on fire, but talking about it all the time isn’t going to help things, is it?’
‘Okay. Yes. Yes. Maybe your parachute has failed. But chin up.”
THEN ME: I want to die.
NOW ME: Well, you aren’t going to.
THEN ME: That is terrible.
NOW ME: No. It is wonderful. Trust me.”
As I’ve written about before, I’ve been through bouts of depression, anxiety and panic attacks myself, and I found myself nodding along regularly while reading:
That’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything. So if it catches you smiling, even fake smiling, then – well, that stuff’s just not allowed and you know it, so here comes ten tons of counterbalance.”
I particularly resonated with Haig’s words on how books helped him. Books for me are a form of connection with others, a way of experiencing others’ joy and pain, an act of empathy:
And most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself.”
Reasons to Stay Alive is ultimately optimistic, a triumphant celebration of life, of emerging out of the darkness and being able to reconnect and re-experience joy and wonder:
I feel the sheer unfathomable marvel that is this strange life we have, here on earth, the seven billion of us, clustered in our towns and cities on this pale blue dot of a planet, spending our allotted 30,000 days as best we can, in glorious insignificance.”
The book culminates in his list, How to live (forty pieces of advice I feel to be helpful but which I don’t always follow).
The full list is reproduced below:
- Appreciate happiness when it is there.
- Sip, don’t gulp.
- Be gentle with yourself. Work less. Sleep more.
- There is absolutely nothing in the past that you can change. That’s basic physics.
- Beware of Tuesdays. And Octobers.
- Kurt Vonnegut was right. ‘Reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found.’
- Listen more than you talk.
- 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.
- Be aware that you are breathing.
- Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind.
- Hate is a pointless emotion to have inside you. It is like eating a scorpion to punish it for stinging you.
- Go for a run. Then do some yoga.
- Shower before noon.
- Look at the sky. Remind yourself of the cosmos. Seek out vastness at every opportunity, in order to see the smallness of yourself.
- Be kind.
- Understand that thoughts are thoughts. If they are unreasonable, reason with them, even if you have no reason left. You are the observer of your mind, not its victim.
- Do not watch TV aimlessly. Do not go on social media aimlessly. Always be aware of what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Don’t value TV less. Value it more. Then you will watch it less. Unchecked distractions will lead you to distraction.
- Sit down. Lie down. Be still. Do nothing. Observe. Listen to your mind. Let it do what it does without judging it. Let it go, like the Snow Queen in Frozen.
- Don’t worry about things that probably won’t happen.
- Look at trees. Be near trees. Plant trees. (Trees are great.)
- Listen to that yoga instructor on YouTube, and ‘walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet’.
- Live. Love. Let go. The three Ls.
- Alcohol maths. Wine multiplies itself by itself. The more you have, the more you are likely to have. And if it’s hard to stop at one glass, it will be impossible at three. Addition is multiplication.
- Beware of the gap. The gap between where you are and where you want to be. Simply thinking of the gap widens it. And you end up falling through.
- Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.
- No drug in the universe will make you feel better, at the deepest level, than being kind to other people.
- Listen to what Hamlet – literature’s most famous depressive – told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
- If someone loves you, let them. Believe in that love. Live for them, even when you feel there is no point.
- You don’t need the world to understand you. It’s fine. Some people will never really understand things they haven’t experienced. Some will. Be grateful.
- Jules Verne wrote of the ‘Living Infinite’. This is the world of love and emotion that is like a ‘sea’. If we can submerge ourselves in it, we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
- Three in the morning is never the time to try and sort out your life.
- Remember that there is nothing weird about you. You are just a human, and everything you do and feel is a natural thing, because we are natural animals. You are nature. You are a hominid ape. You are in the world and the world is in you. Everything connects.
- Don’t believe in good or bad, or winning and losing, or victory and defeat, or up and down. At your lowest and at your highest, whether you are happy or despairing or calm or angry, there is a kernel of you that stays the same. That is the you that matters.
- Don’t worry about the time you lose to despair. The time you will have afterwards has just doubled its value.
- Be transparent to yourself. Make a greenhouse for your mind. Observe.
- Read Emily Dickinson. Read Graham Greene. Read Italo Calvino. Read Maya Angelou. Read anything you want. Just read. Books are possibilities. They are escape routes. They give you options when you have none. Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.
- If the sun is shining, and you can be outside, be outside.
- Remember that they key thing about life on earth is change. Cars rust. Paper yellows. Technology dates. Caterpillars become butterflies. Nights morph into days. Depression lifts.
- Just when you feel you have no time to relax, know that this is the moment you most need to make time to relax.
- Be brave. be strong. Breathe, and keep going. You will thank yourself later.