I bought Reasons to Stay Alive having never even heard of Matt Haig, on the back of a handsome hardback book cover. I’m very glad I did.
This book stands out from others I have read on the subject of depression and/or anxiety. It is easy flowing, brutally honest and so very, very personal. It is a personal account of an ongoing battle with mental illness, and happiness in spite of it, rather than a series of regurgitated how-tos on how to feel better written by people who have only ever studied mental illness.
Reasons to Stay Alive does still contain the usual suggestions of ‘things to try when you’re feeling low’, such as good diet or exercise, but Haig mentions these in relation to himself and how he dealt (and continues to deal) with his experience. Because, as he readily points out, while many things can help you feel better by increments, sometimes nothing will help. Yes, Haig would love to tell you how to fix your depression, your anxiety, but he can’t – likely no one can. What he can do is give you an honest account of what he went through, what helped, what didn’t, the highs and the lows, and – most importantly – tell you that you’re not alone.
Depression looks different to everyone. Pain is felt in different ways, to different degrees, and provokes different responses. That said, if books had to replicate our exact experience of the world to be useful, the only books worth reading would be written by ourselves.
There is no right or wrong way to have depression, or to have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are. Misery, like yoga, is not a competitive sport. But I have found over the years that by reading about other people who have suffered, survived and overcome despair I have felt comforted. It has given me hope. I hope this book can do the same.
I really loved the format of this book: very short chapters (many just a page or two long) in different forms. Some chapters are straight narrative, other ones lists of books or songs, others tweets, others imagined conversations between Haig as he is now and Haig as he was when he thought there was nothing more he could glean from life.
The tone of the book is so easy and conversational that reading it feels like speaking with someone who understands how you feel and the things you’ve thought. It may not be exactly the same – no two experiences are – but it’s still exceptionally useful.
In the spirit of summarising, here’s why it’s a fabulous book:
- Easy to read with short chapters (bite-size chunks for when you feel empty of motivation. ‘Just one more page’)
- Well-written (entertaining, upsetting, melancholic, funny, hopeful)
For those with depression, anxiety or similarly spectral condition, this is a hopeful narrative of someone who’s been through the proverbial valley of death and emerged, perhaps not unscathed, but emerged nonetheless.
For those who know someone who is suffering, it’s a window into a pain and state of being that is not visible. It’s easy to lose patience with someone when they don’t seem to be exhibiting the traditional symptoms of being unwell, and reading this book can be a gentle reminder of a very real struggle.
I would encourage everyone to pick up Reasons to Stay Alive, because we can all do with a little more understanding.
The edition of Reasons to Stay Alive reviewed here was published by Canongate on 5 March 2015, ISBN: 9781782115083. (As an aside, this is a beautiful edition of the book.)