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).