Today’s post is on the third book I’ve read as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2016 – the First Book You See in a BookShop – Matt Haig’s highly praised Reasons to Stay Alive.
I saw this piled high in Oxford’s Waterstones, piled high up and occupying an entire display window for the first week or so in January. An appropriate time, I’m sure, as people struggle in the doldrums after the highs of Christmas, the parties, the excitement and the anticipation. January is always a depressing month – dark, insolvent, and full of Stoic promises to eat less, drink less, exercise more and become holier-than-thou. People manage it for a few days, or even a week or two, but then give in and feel guity.
The thing about depression is that it’s not a temporary sadness or that well-known ‘let-down’ feeling after excitement. It’s a persistent state that often feels as if it physically occupies both body and mind. A kind of heavy weight or ball and chain that follows you wherever you go. Haig’s book conveys this well, and reading his observations about it felt familiar and comforting … at first. It was such a relief to read that someone else had felt emotions that non-depressed people might think are atypical of the disease (and it is a disease, or condition, not just a temporary state of mind). One that particularly resonated was a strange feeling of detachment from everyday life – you’re not necessarily crying your eyes out or tearing your hair out or acting hysterically. Sometimes you just sit there observing the world though a distorted lens. You’re calm, unreactive even. You make up a system of logic that makes sense to you even though others think it’s crazy.
Unfortunately I’m one of the one in five adults in the UK who is affected by depression. It’s been a near lifelong struggle and I’ve now found ways to cope. Like Matt Haig, exercise does marvellous things, as does any activity that occupies the mind entirely. Puzzles and games on my iPad are brilliant, but I also enjoy anything that really makes me think. Of course, losing myself in a brilliant book is fantastic therapy ;-). It stops the gremlins from creeping in, and the doubts.
However, I am also taking ‘happy pills’ and will be for the rest of my life. This is where Haig and I differ. He explains that part of his illness was a fear of taking any medicines at all, after taking valium and experiencing strange, disconnected panic attacks on them. He pulled himself out of the worst of his depressive state without chemical help and continues along that pathway. He is sceptical about the belief that depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance – which is my diagnosis from several GPs, every time I try to wean myself off the SSRIs and fall back into that dark place. So we have to beg to differ there. As my GP reassured me – “If you had diabetes and had to take insulin to live well and healthily you wouldn’t feel guilty for taking medicine. So why do so for depression? It’s just another illness.” I guess it’s a case of finding whatever works for you, and not feeling guilty in the process.
Haig’s book interweaves his own experience of the ‘black dog’ with lists and musings on depression generally. His main experience harks back to a stay in Ibiza where he woke up one morning, apparently out of the blue, feeling like he couldn’t go on. He nearly walked off a cliff to end that feeling but had the presence of mind, or perhaps fear, to stop himself. I found myself wondering if there had been other warning signs though. Depression tends to cement itself in place gradually rather than immediately.
I’d kind of hoped for a more of a memoir-approach to his experience. The jumping between personal episodes and summaries of NHS-listed symptoms of depression made it hard to relate to his own situation. I can look up what the symptoms, the ‘cures’ and ‘what not to say to a depressed person’ on the internet. I bought Haig’s book to understand his perspective.
I can see that this book would be helpful for people supporting loved ones or friends with depression. It gives you everything you need to know about the condition in one little volume and the personal anecdotes really support what Haig is saying about how hard it is to pull yourself out of such a deep, dark hole. I had a mixed reaction while reading it as a fellow-sufferer (I hate that word!). At first, I wanted to recommend it to everyone I knew who had at any time been depressed. Midway through, I started to actually sink into that sad place, psychosomatically I am sure. I wondered if reading about someone else’s depression was actually beneficial. By the end, I adopted a path midway between the two.
In the past, no one admitted to having depression. It was seen at best as a weakness or at worst a dangerous thing. Nowadays, it’s losing its stigma, though I worry that it is in danger of becoming parodied because it is the celebrity malady du jour. Not because of Haig’s or his book, I hasten to add. Reasons to Stay Alive is open and honest and will benefit many who, perhaps, struggle to come to terms with their own depression or that of someone else.
I’d love to hear other people’s reactions to the book – or any others they have read on this subject.