I just started reading Matt Haig’s recent novel, The Midnight Library. I’m a little bit behind, because his latest non-fiction book just came out earlier this week. What better occasion is there, I figure, to go back in time and revisit his 2015 memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive.
At the age of 24, Haig faced the biggest challenge of his life: depression. In Reasons to Stay Alive, he tells the story of his own struggle and shares what keeps him going. Spoilers: it was not a smooth road to recovery. Haig speaks honestly, acknowledging that mental illness is not rational nor is it an active choice that people make.
There are three kinds of people that will read this book. The first kind are the people that have never seen what depression looks like. The second kind is made up of those who have seen its effects take a toll on their loved ones. And the third kind is those who are picking up the book because they are in desperate need of what the title promises.
I was the third kind.
I first came across Reasons to Stay Alive in September 2019. It was World Suicide Prevention Day, and somebody had posted an excerpt to Twitter. I wasn’t doing particularly well those days, but this one paragraph was enough to at least give me some hope:
You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet, you will be able to look at a view from a high place and not assess the likelihood of dying from falling. There are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversations and laugh until it hurts. 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.
When I ended up purchasing the book for myself a year and a half later, I already knew that he was right. I mean, not every prediction there had come true just yet, but life had become worth it. And even though everyone’s experiences with depression and mental health are different, as Haig notes early in the book, I found little bits of myself scattered throughout his story. Some of them general statements, some of them personal fears, and on one occasion an anecdote so extremely specific that it genuinely shocked me to read:
I stared at a cherry tree and felt flat… I just sat there, looking at the pink blossom and the branches. Wishing my thoughts could float away from my head as easily as the blossom floated from the tree. I started to cry. In public. Wishing I was a cherry tree.
For me, Reasons to Stay Alive was a ray of light that I desperately needed, and served as a warm comforting hug. Incidentally, that’s the entire idea of Haig’s new publication, The Comfort Book, which I will likely pick up soon.
But what about the other readers?
Even if you haven’t experienced depression or witnessed its effects, Reasons to Stay Alive brings a lot of value. Because inevitably, someone you know will be fighting this same fight. Here in Canada, 1 in 5 people experience mental health difficulty in a given year and 8% of adults of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives. Suicide is a leading cause of death in youth and and in middle age. And it is impossible to truly understand with only a surface-level explanation. Matt Haig seems to accomplish the impossible, and communicates his experience of depression both bluntly and clearly, backed up with statistics and valuable information. But make no mistake: this is no textbook. Reasons to Stay Alive is a down-to-Earth account of an extraordinary period of an ordinary man’s life.
No matter who you are and what your experience is with depression, anxiety, and suicide, there is value to be found it Haig’s story.
I’ve written quite a bit about what the book does, but it’s also important to consider how it does this. Haig’s writing is constantly varied: there is no lengthy prose or psychological babble. Reasons to Stay Alive is broken into tiny sections, each ranging from as short as one page up to perhaps ten. Between personal stories he injects lists, advice, musings, thought experiments, and more.
This sort of format is brilliant, because not only does it prevent the book from growing stale, but along with a friendly medium font it also makes it easy to pick up for just a few minutes at a time. Haig makes his book accessible to the people seeking comfort most desperately—people who might not necessarily have the energy to read long blocks of text.
Perhaps not intentional, but that works as a metaphor too. Just another page. Anyone can do that. Just live another day, anyone can do that too. Just one more, and watch how the pages turn into chapters and the days turn into years.
And remember, it is always okay to ask for help. If your life is in danger, call your local emergency number.