Reasons to Stay Alive
It can feel, to a lot of us, that sometimes it's difficult to find reasons to stay alive. It doesn't matter if you're living in the deepest poverty or you're dripping in wealth, all of us can be affected by the grip of depression or other mental health issues at some stage in our life.
I've tried a lot of self-help ways to get through the dark stages, and to be honest, a lot of them might only provide relief for a short period. Though that may seem disappointing, I've still found this useful as sometimes it'll take time to really break through from depression and so those moments of lightness, no matter how small, remind us that the sun is still there.
Recently, moments of lightness turned into a bit of a sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful love affair with the dark yet gorgeous memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig.
This sort-of self-help book begins with the day the 'old Matt Haig died'. Whilst living in a young adult's paradise (Ibiza), the writer had a total nervous breakdown and eventually had to return home to his parents with his girlfriend. The book then flits back and forth between the after-math of his 'melt-down' and his current, healthier state.
What I loved about this book was the 'future self', the now Matt Haig, talking to his past self who was locked in depression and crippling anxiety. Though I couldn't always directly relate, there was something in me that responded to this - as if one day too, I could look back and say to my past self - "see, we made it". It kinda allowed me to whisper to my very scared inner self that things will be okay, it allowed the idea of a future when we look back on this period as just that, a period in time when things were a bit dark. It also brought up memories of my teenage years which were dominated by intense depression (much worse than what I am experiencing now) and an eating disorder which liked to disguise itself somewhere between bulimia and anorexia and confuse the hell out of doctors and myself. It reminded me that somehow, despite it taking a good 12 years, I did overcome that and pretty significantly too. I now love food and appreciate how much it does for my body, I also have a compassion, respect and kindness for my body which I never even thought anyone experienced, let alone myself. So it brings me hope that perhaps one day I can be kinder to my mind and have a different relationship with it, one that maybe at this stage, I just can't envision or understand.
Reasons to Stay Alive also inspired and motivated me. Though I won't let myself to be defeated by my illnesses, I do feel that they can hold me back and slow me down. At low points, I can think that this is a battle I'll have to fight forever and that maybe I'll just have to bow to my mental health issues and do what I'm told. But here is Matt Haig, making a living and creating a piece of work which is a Sunday Times Bestseller and has been celebrated by the likes of Stephen Fry. In ways, his depression and anxiety has made him - it has given him ammunition, a story and has touched people all over the world. For some reason, I can see that my story with endometriosis might forge a similar (perhaps not bestselling) path for me. When I was signed off for work in November at the peak of this flare up, I decided that if this is what the universe has given me, this sour lemon of a condition, I was going to make some serious lemonade. It hadn't really crossed my mind that depression could be added to the mix. I have been embarrassed and secretive about my mental health challenges for a long time, but this book has shown me that I don't have to be and that maybe, I could use it to connect with others.
When you're mentally unwell, it is often challenging just to wake up in the morning. If you're still in work, that can (and in my case, often does) take everything out of you and leave little energy for anything else - including getting well again. On a day when you're feeling good, you might go and buy every bloody self-help book in Waterstones, only to be overwhelmed by the length, text book approach or weightiness of the subject. Yet Reasons to Stay Alive is a memoir and it doesn't feel like it's trying to fix you. There's no expectation at the end of it - no "shit, what if this doesn't work?" hovering over each page. Matt Haig writes with an unapologetic rawness and simplicity - some of my favourite pages were when he simply listed things; listed his symptoms, listed what made him worse or better, listed famous people who've suffered with mental health issues. When you're fighting a constant battle with physical and mental pain, looking at a computer screen or a page of writing can make your brain shut down. But these lists - these clean and uncomplicated lists spoke so much truth to me, they were like poetry. I read them over and over and felt a sense of joy and achievement begin to work its way across my mind as I realised I was connecting with something again.
Because Matt Haig spends time in the past and present, as a reader, you tend to visit those places with him. When I read about his panic going to the shops, I was caught up in my own anxiety, thinking about what my attacks feel like, analysing the sensations, the frequency, the triggers. It did make it a challenging read at times, when you were going through your own journey as much as you were reading about his, but this is the beauty of the book. On the the days when he saw some progress or even a glimmer of change, I felt it too. When he reflects on the pattern of depression or speaks directly and offers some words of wisdom (fyi - page 192 'Slow Down' did a lot for me) I felt curiosity prickle through me and my intellect stimulated by this new chunk of insightful information.
By the time I had finished Reasons to Stay Alive (you could get through in a day if you wanted to), I felt like I had spent a few short concentrated weeks with a therapist. A no nonsense and uncomplicated therapist. I didn't have to trawl through years and years of my childhood or talk about how much endometriosis takes from me, but there was a part of me - perhaps my subconscious - that had analysed what I was experiencing as I analysed Matt Haig's experiences. Some part of me had come to a secret peace with depression, as I watched someone else's story, I also watched my own from a distance and began to see my current experience as just a chapter. A chapter that will end and a chapter that I may have to revisit, but like everything, it shall pass. There will be new chapters in between and new ones will be written.
I think that's enough of a reason to stay alive.