Reasons to Stay Alive is by Matt Haig, a popular author with a whopping 243K followers on Twitter (including me). I believe this was his first book that delved into his own mental health; he has since followed up with Notes on a Nervous Planet (affiliate link). He explains that one of his aims with this book is to show people that the depths of depression never provide the greatest perspective.
There are some excellent descriptions of depression. Haig writes that as far as other people can tell, depression “sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.” He likens depression to being ejected from a protective shell: “It was total exposure. A red-raw, naked mind.” He also writes about the moment he realized life was available to him again, which I thought was an excellent way to capture the transition into recovery.
The author discusses his personal conclusion that medication was not right for him. He explains that experiencing the agony of depression without medication made him more in tune with himself, and allowed for “an alertness I know from myself and others can be lost via pills, eventually helped me build myself up from scratch.” He’s clear that medication is a useful option for some people, but I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of concern.
It’s interesting how with mental illness, probably more than any other kind of illness, there’s a fine line to walk when it comes to sharing opinions on medication. Meds certainly aren’t the right choice for everybody, but since there is so much stigma around psychiatric medication, wording choices become extremely important to avoid scaring off people who might be greatly helped by medication. This didn’t seem to be Haig’s intent at all; still, I worry it could potentially be misinterpreted by people sitting on the fence about medication.
There were a few statements in the book that made me raise a figurative eyebrow. The author writes “Things aren’t going to get worse. You want to kill yourself. That is as low as it gets. There is only upwards from here.” I don’t know that it’s quite that simple. While having thoughts of suicide is low, there can still be a ways down to go before rock bottom. Haig also writes that everyone would have a mental illness label “if they asked the right professional.” While labels may sometimes get tossed around a bit haphazardly, that doesn’t mean the diagnosis is inherently flawed. It also doesn’t mean that everyone has a diagnosable mental illness. I understand what Haig is trying to say about labelling being arbitrary; I’m just not sure that was the most effective way to say it.
Stigma is a major theme in the book. Haig offers a list of things that have garnered him more sympathy than depression has, including living in Hull in January and working in a cabbage-packing warehouse. This will probably sound quite familiar to readers with mental illness, but eye-opening to those who haven’t lived through it.
One thing that I found interesting was Haig’s use of the term depressive, i.e. “I am a depressive.” It’s not a term that you see often these days; certainly far less than phrasing like “I am bipolar.” It doesn’t bother me that he used the term; I was just a bit surprised there wasn’t more of an explanation around that choice of language.
Although I do think this is a good book, somehow I just didn’t feel like I connected much with it. Maybe that has something to do with differences in our illness journeys. It may also be related to where I was at in my own head while I was reading the book. Regardless, I see it as a disconnect on my end rather than a shortcoming of the book. I suspect the conversational tone would probably appeal to a lot of readers, and I think it would be quite useful to help those who don’t know a lot about mental illness to better understand what it’s like.
Reasons to Stay Alive is available on Amazon (affiliate link).
You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.
Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle.
24 thoughts on “Book Review: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig”
My daughter ( who was 18 at the time) was recommended this book by her psychologist when she had suicidal thoughts. She said it helped her. I read the book too and I liked it. But it is just someone’s story and what worked for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for another.
I’d raise a figurative eye brow at that too, because feeling that you want to kill yourself isn’t necessarily rock bottom. I know better than to ever say now ‘things can’t get any worse’ because physically and mentally that theory has been proven wrong when I’ve said or thought it. That said, I quite like the theory behind the book and it sound like interesting reading, even if it doesn’t quite gel right in terms of your/our own thoughts and experiences. Thanks for sharing as I hadn’t come across this one!
Yeah, it’s all too true, no matter how much something can feel like rock bottom life can still find something worse to throw at you.
I read this book about a year ago and I absolutely loved it! For me, I really connected with it and it encouraged me to seek help about anxiety. But I understand that it may not be helpful to everyone. I definitely think it deserves recognition though – it’s really brave to put your voice out into the world, not knowing how others will react
That’s great that it resonated with you.
I loved the book also! It really resonated with me as well, as I love his writing style personally. Nonetheless, always good to keep the mental health conversation going and to hear unique perspectives on individual journeys.
I’m glad you liked it. It seems like a lot of people did.
I’ve thought many times about suicide, but never actually attempted. If I attempted, I would imagine THAT would be rock bottom!
Yeah that makes sense.
Yeah, writing about medication is a tricky issue because it is so heavily influenced by personal factors that aren’t necessarily going to apply to the particular reader. I think it’s part of a broader issue with autobiographical books on mental health of trying to balance simply telling your personal story and recognising that you’re going to be taken as an example whether that is the intention or not.
I agree, that’s a tough balance that everyone writing that kind of story will have to deal with.
I’m currently reading notes on a Nervous Planet and enjoying it. I haven’t read this one yet.
Yes that one is on my list of books to get to.
I read this a long while ago and then again more recently, at first reading I was unimpressed and didn’t gain any benefit from reading it but after seeing a review on here I was tempted to read it again and judge it on what he wrote rather than on what I got from it. This is what I posted on goodreads alongside a 3 star rating “A very readable book telling of the author’s experience with mental illness. I think I expected more from it than it delivered, and having read it twice I fail to find the epiphany of reasons to stay alive. But saying that it delivers a strong message that life is worth living for, I guess you just have to find your own reasons. Worth a look.”
I think I also had the issue with high expectations, and it just didn’t end up being the book I was expecting to read.
Great and honest book review 💕 I loved to read it. I heard so many good things about this book as it’s so popular. I don’t know if I would relate to it as well while having anxiety. I can understand your point of view. For me medication is really important and for others too.
Thanks! And I agree, medication is really important for a lot of us.
The choice of “I am” vs. “I have” language is such an interesting one. I default to “I am ADHD,” but I have for other diagnoses. I guess maybe because ADHD at least partially might be me, or maybe that “owning neurodiversity” acceptance movement. But, then, shouldn’t we own all of us, including depression and PTSD? I don’t know. I’ve meant to write a post on that language at some point, but probably have to work out if there truly is a rhyme or reason before I claim there is! It always could just be unexamined habit…
I think our word choices usually have complex reasons, perhaps more complicated than we realize until we start looking at it more closely.