51 Things Matt Haig Teaches Us About Mental Illnesses

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The reason I am putting together this article is that I think our awareness of mental illness is a)limited and b)crucial. Matt Haig’s masterpiece Reasons To Stay Alive comes from harrowing personal experience and is a beacon of beautiful light in the shadows of mental illness, but it doesn’t come without its warnings. Haig makes aware that in Britain the leading cause of death in men under 35 is suicide. In the UK and USA suicide accounts for 1 in 100 deaths. Make no mistake, mental illness is a killer: “It kills more people than most other forms of violence – warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime – put together.”

So. Mental illnesses kill people. So does cancer, malnutrition or meningitis. If you suffered from one of the latter, many people would tell you what you could do to help yourself. To not die from it. Yet for so many suffering under the cloak of depression or anxiety there is no way out, and this is why Reasons To Stay Alive is so important: it offers that way out. It warmly bathes the mud off you after a long mountainous trek. It soothes you into a warm jumper and hot chocolate after a severe cold. Haig not only explains the steps to healing, but explains the processes and complications of dealing with a mental illness in a way we can all understand.

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Personally, I have experienced severe depression. Recently a close family relative took her own life as a result of mental illness. And yet few talk about it in the way they should: openly, honestly and in a way that addresses the deep-down gut of it all. That is, except Matt Haig.

The following are all important quotations from Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive.

Part 1 – Explaining Mental Illnesses

If you haven’t suffered with mental illnesses, here are some misconceptions about depression and anxiety Matt Haig illuminates to help you understand what others go through:

  1. One of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future. Far from the tunnel having light at the end of it, it seems like it is blocked at both ends, and you are inside of it.
  2. If you have ever believed a depressive wants to be happy, you are wrong. They could not care less about the luxury of happiness. They just want to feel an absence of pain. To escape a mind on fire, where thoughts blaze and smoke like old possessions lost to arson. To be normal.
  3. …Weirdly, depression didn’t make me cry that often, considering how bad it was. I think it was the surreal nature of what I was feeling. The distance. Tears were a kind of language and I felt all language was far away from me.
  4. The illness that you have isn’t the illness of a single body part, something you can think outside of. If you have a bad back you can say ‘my back is killing me’, and there will be a kind of separation between the pain and the self. The pain is something other. It attacks and annoys and even eats away at the self but it is still not the self. But with depression and anxiety the pain isn’t something you think about because it is thoughts. You are not your back but you are your thoughts.
  5. From the outside a person sees your physical form, sees that you are a unified mass of atoms and cells. Yet inside you feel like a Big Bang has happened. You feel lost, disintegrated, spread across the whole universe amid infinite dark space.
  6. Jack Gladney in Don DeLillo’s White Noise …. is tormented by the concept of masculinity and how he measures up: ‘What could be more useless than a man who couldn’t fix a dripping faucet – fundamentally useless, dead to history, to the messages in his genes?’ And what if, instead of a broken faucet it is a broken mind?
  7. …Now we have this strange separation where the mind is operating the rest of us, like a man inside a JCB digger. The whole idea of ‘mental health’ as something separate to physical health can be misleading, in some ways. So much of what you feel with anxiety and depression happens elsewhere. The heart palpitations, the aching limbs, the sweaty palms…
  8. We use ‘depressed’ as a synonym for ‘sad’, which is fine, as we use ‘starving’ as a synonym for ‘hungry’, though the difference between depression and sadness is the difference between genuine starvation and feeling a bit peckish.
  9. Fame and money do not immunise you from mental health problems. .. we can never be told too many times that it can actually happen to anyone. Take Lincoln… Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.(The words of Joshua Wolf Shenk) … even if the depression is not totally overcome, we can learn to use what the poet Byron called a ‘fearful gift’.
  10. One of the things depression often does is make you feel guilty. Depression says ‘look at you with your nice life, with your nice boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/kids/dog/sofa/Twitter followers, …..actually, depression can be exacerbated by things being all right externally, because the gulf between what you are feeling and what you are expected to feel becomes larger.

Part 2 – This is what depression feels like

  1. It only takes a doubt. A drop of ink falls into a clear glass of water and clouds the whole thing… Doubts are like swallows. They follow each other and swarm together.
  2. I felt like I was trapped in a cyclone… Always relentlessly and oppressively fast.
    You don’t have a second. You don’t have a single waking second outside of the fear. That is not an exaggeration.
  3. (A former friend) … He was looking at me like I was my former self. How could he not see the difference?
  4. 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.

Part 3 – Why do mental illnesses exist?

  1. Maybe looking at a specific part of chemical in the brain is only ever going to give a partial answer. Maybe we should be looking at how we live, and how our minds weren’t made for the lives we lead.
  2. Human brains.. are essentially the same as they were at the time of Shakespeare. They are not evolving with the pace of change. Neolithic humans never had to face emails or breaking news or pop-up ads or Iggy Azalea videos or a self-service checkout at a strip-lit Tesco Metro on a busy Saturday night. Maybe instead of worrying about upgrading technology and slowly allowing ourselves to be cyborgs we should have a little peek at how we could upgrade our ability to cope with all this change.
  3. It is said that insanity is a logical response to an insane world. Maybe depression is in part simply a response to a life we don’t really understand.
  4. Evolutionary psychology states that it is a collision between an ancient mind and a modern world.

Part 4 – Food for (ill) thought

‘…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

Part 5 – Take-aways (the good kind) if you are still suffering

  1. You are no less of a man or a woman for having depression than you would be for having cancer or cardiovascular disease or a car accident.
  2. It is not you. It is simply something that happens to you.
  3. All we can do, for the moment, is really all we need to do – listen to ourselves. I suppose, in the absence of universal certainties, we are our own best laboratory.
  4. Chiaroscuro means a contrast of light and shade. In renaissance paintings of Jesus, for instance, dark shadow was used to accentuate the light bathing Christ. As Emily Dickinson said, ‘That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.’
  5. Depression is also smaller than you. It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but – if that is the metaphor – you are the sky. You were there before it. And the cloud can’t exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud.
  6. You can walk through a storm and feel the wind but you know you are not the wind. That is how we must be with our minds. We must allow ourselves to feel their games and downpours, but all the time knowing this is just necessary weather.
  7. You are the observer of your mind, not its victim.

Part 6 – Follow these steps. They may lead to your recovery

  1. Misery, like yoga, is not a competitive sport.
  2. I soon discovered the act of talking is in itself a therapy. Where talk exists, so does hope.
  3. Ignore stigma. Ever illness had a stigma once. We fear getting ill, and fear tends to lead us to prejudice before information. Polio used to be erroneously blamed on poor people, for instance.
  4. The pain won’t last. The pain tells you it will last. Pain lies. Ignore it. Pain is a debt paid off with time.
  5. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.
  6. Simply doing something that I had dreaded – and surviving – was the best form of therapy. If you start to dread being outside, go outside.
  7. When you are depressed and anxious your comfort zone tends to shrink from the size of a world to the size of a bed. In a familiar place, your mind focuses solely on itself. There is nothing new it needs to notice about your bedroom. No potential external threats, just internal ones. By forcing yourself into a new physical space, preferably in a different country, you end up inevitably focusing a bit more on the world outside your head.
    It helps give a sense of perspective. We might be stuck in our minds, but we aren’t physically stuck. And unsticking ourselves from our physical location can help dislodge our unhappy mental state. Movement is the antidote to fixedness, after all.
  8. ..There was too much Matt Haig in Matt Haig. Anything that lessens that extreme sense of self, that makes me feel me but at a lower volume, is very welcome.
  9. Put myself in situations I wouldn’t have put myself in. You need to be uncomfortable. You need to hurt. As the Persian poet Rumi wrote in the twelfth century, ‘The wound is the place where the light enters you.’
  10. Running as a natural high – so while I was running I wouldn’t be worried about my racing heart because it had a reason to be racing… it hurt. But that effort and discomfort was a great focuser. And so I convinced myself that through training my body I was also training my mind. It was a kind of active meditation. I found running to be a way of clearing the fog. Also, that kind of monotony that running generates – the one soundtracked by heavy breathing and the steady rhythm of feet on pavements – became a kind of metaphor for depression. To go on a run every day is to have a kind of battle with yourself. But that voiceless debate you have with yourself – I want to stop! No, keep going! I can’t, I can hardly breathe! There’s only mile to go! I just need to lie down! You can’t! – is the debate of depression. … it gave me a little bit of depression-beating power.
  11. The world is increasingly designed to depress us … to be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act.
  12. Goals are the source of misery. An unattained goal causes pain, but actually achieving it brings only a brief satisfaction.
  13. Imagine all the time we had was bottled up, like wine, and handed over to us. How would we make that bottle last? By sipping slowly, appreciating the taste, or by gulping?
  14. The key is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones. Accept thoughts, but don’t become them.
  15. Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful.
  16. Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.
  17. 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.
  18. No drug in the universe will make you feel better, at the deepest level, than being kind to other people.
  19. Remember that there is nothing weird about you. You are nature. You are in the world and the world is in you. Everything connects.
  20. Don’t believe in good or bad, or winning and losing, or victory and defeat, or up and down at any of these times, there is a kernel of you that stays the same. That is the you that matters.
  21. Don’t worry about the time you lose to despair. The time you will have afterwards has just doubled its value.
  22. Books are possibilities, and each one can be a home for uprooted minds.
  23. Remember that the key thing about life on earth is change. Cars rust. Paper yellows. Technology dates. Caterpillars become butterflies. Nights morph into days. Depression lifts.

Part 7 – Lifted quotations too beautiful to process

But when I was at my lowest points I touched on something solid, something hard and strong at the core of me. Something imperishable, immune to the changeability of thought. The self that is not only I but also we. The self that connects me to you, and human to human. The hard, unbreakable core of survival. Of life. Of the 150,000 generations of us that have gone before, and of those yet to be born. Our human essence. Just as the ground below new york and, say, Lagos, becomes identical if you go down far enough beneath the earth’s surface, so every human inhabitant on this freak wonder of a planet shares the same core.

And remember …

I am you and you are me. We are alone, but not alone. We are trapped by time, but also infinite. Made of flesh, but also stars.



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