Written by ECBC contributor, Jen Heil, a voracious reader, bookstagrammer, dancer, poet and aspiring novelist.
I have many favourite books. So many that when anyone asks me what my favourite book is I just look at them with a sort of amused disbelief, as if they have asked a mother to choose her favourite child. If you were to ask me, however, which book had changed my life, I would say, without hesitation, Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig.
This is a frankly wonderful book: profound, honest, relatable, heartbreaking, terrifying and amusing all at once. Haig’s unflinching account of his experiences of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts is raw, moving, and strangely uplifting. He gets right to the heart of what it is to be trapped in your own mind and the horrifying experience of not being able to be fully present in your own life, even when it’s a wonderful one. Reasons To Stay Alive gives you just that; as well as truly nailing the torment of mental illness, Haig’s account also provides a funny, even joyful reminder of what it is to truly love, and why we should strive to stay alive even when it seems the dark is closing in. It is a tale of survival as much as of struggle, and reading it felt like being offered a hand to hold and hearing, in the voice of a friend, that we are never truly alone.
“To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.”
Reasons To Stay Alive made me feel seen. It made my experiences, both very different and very similar to Haig’s, seem ‘real’, in a way they never had before. It also gave me hope. Though difficult to read in places, the book is written in such a way that it feels as though someone who truly cares is speaking the unvarnished truth – at times it hurts, at times it is uncomfortable, but the truth of it rings inside you and you know it is better that it was spoken, and it brings a measure of relief with the discomfort. Along with sharing the dark reality of his experiences, Haig writes words of encouragement. Not that it will be easy, but that it will be possible. And his account is woven with poignant reminders that there is wonder, beauty and happiness to be found in the world, even when all seems dark, and that any mental illness you might suffer does not have to define you.
“You can be a depressive and be happy, just as you can be a sober alcoholic.”
Haig writes so openly about those very darkest times, and the very fact that you are reading those words is a reminder that survival is possible. More than survival, in fact: thriving, living, happiness. Tucked amongst his accounts of panic attacks, descriptions of depressive episodes and cliff edge moments are nuggets of wisdom: advice that, whilst not always easy to follow, is certainly worthy and, if it comes to you at the right time, hugely helpful.
“Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind.”
I think one of the things I found so compelling about Reasons To Stay Alive is that it never felt like an account of something ‘other’. Mental illness is so often ‘othered’ and we end up striving for ‘normal’ – whatever that is – but Haig’s writing made those darkest moments in the grip of mental illness seem not other but human. Reading it was the first time that I truly felt my experiences of mental ill-health were not something abnormal but simply part of being a person.
“Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself.”
I would recommend this book to anyone; whether you suffer with a mental illness, know or support someone who does, or you are a person to whom neither of these scenarios applies, Reasons To Stay Alive is for you because it is really a book about being human, and all the darkness and light that entails.
I also highly recommend you follow Matt Haig and read anything else of his you can get your hands on!
For snippets of creative writing, reviews and recommendations, general musings and reflections to mental health advocacy check out Jen’s amazing blog.