Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig – A Review

Story time.

As an unwritten rule, once it gets above 22 degrees Celsius in Britain, we freak out. If it gets above 25, the old ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, might be too hot’ conversation starts emerging. And then you get this past week. Consistently hitting between 26 and 31 for a full five days, people have NOT been handling it. Despite loving the sun in my head, my body hates it. I burn, not tan, I get heat induced headaches after half an hour in the sun and for some reason I look super tired all the time when it’s hot out. So this morning was a glorious surprise. I woke up, or should I say was woken up, by the sound of rain. Heavy rain. Then a breeze came through my window – a cool one. Then there was thunder. And as I lay there, listening to the sounds of stormy weather, I realised how lovely it felt to be awake and alive and feeling all those feelings and hearing all those sounds. Not least because I was excited by the prospect of being able to actually go outside for more than 20 minutes unprotected.

This leads me on to the book for this review. This book is one that I actually read last summer, during what, in retrospect, was a really bad brain… two months. It was lent to me by a friend who was lent it by his parents who said it was amazing and that everyone should read it. I don’t often pick up this kind of format, but this guy NEVER recommends books so I was kind of amazed enough to try it. Now, in a much more positive place, I read it again just to see. Here’s what I found.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

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The blurb of this book states it is ‘more than a memoir. It is a book about making the most of your time on earth’. It’s non-fiction but written like a diary format novel – think Bridget Jones, Sufia Khan is Not Obliged or the Georgia Nicholson series (there are a lot of nervy bs in this book too). It consists mostly of linear storytelling with inserts of lists, experimental stream-of-consciousness passages and internal dialogues reported in a playscript format. You follow Matt through 8 years of his life and various mental breakdowns. You meet his parents, his colleagues and his wonderful girlfriend-now-wife Andrea. You see, step-by-step, his ebbing and flowing, his sinking and rising and, finally, his recovery and stabilising. And it gets you, it truly does. I cried, I think. I remember feeling so relieved and pleased for him, but mostly I felt hope. I didn’t realise it at the time, but so much of Matt’s experiences were a little too easy for me to empathise with. A favourite quote is ‘I had never been one of those males who were scared of tears. I was a Cure fan, for God’s sake. I’d been emo before it was a term.’ My parents both love The Cure and when I was growing up my mum used to play their video albums to get me to go to sleep. Alongside The Smiths who, admittedly, I was listening to a bit young for how nihilistic they are, I always had that understanding that having emotions is fine! Expressing your emotions is cool! Cry if you want to, saying boy don’t cry is dumb! It’s those little things sprinkled through the book that make this so easy to engage with – Matt is real, you can feel that in the writing, and it makes his journey all the more engaging.

In terms of connection, Matt Haig really nails how to communicate complex states of mind. There’s a part where Matt lists what it feels like to have a panic attack, then recalls a time where he couldn’t go to the corner shop at the end of the road alone without having one. He gives you a clinical-looking list of steps or symptoms, then chucks you into a scenario in which those things happen like an unstoppable tide. The combination of objective understanding with emotional reaction means we, as readers, can feel just as frustrated as Matt when we can’t control the outcomes. We start expecting the worst before it can ever happen, and that, my friends, it what depression feels like. He uses a metaphor of the demon on his back, licking his ears while he’s at the theatre or in bed with his girlfriend. Matt Haig’s writing is nothing if not to the point and to the heart. His language isn’t fancy, but it is poetic and emotive. You understand everything that is going on at every stage in the process, something imperative for people to read. His simplicity and honesty translates so well because it provides the experience he had to other people in understandable and relatable terms. A Sunday Times bestseller, this book has reached not only the percentage of people who suffer from mental health problems, but the 2 in 3 people who don’t. It creates such an inescapable empathy through genuine care for him and his family that you find yourself completely understanding his brain along the way. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

I did, however, have some problems with it. Matt says himself in the book that we like to compartmentalise things and give labels to what is a much more complex set of factors than just OCD, schizophrenia or depression. I get the feeling that reading this book again would be a completely different experience each time, depending on the place that you’re in when you read it. When I read it, in the midst of a suffocating bout of depersonalisation and anxiety, it made me angry. I knew I had some of these things Matt was experiencing, but I didn’t react in the same way. I didn’t lash out at my family, I could go to the shop, I didn’t feel a demon licking my ear. I found myself getting defensive that I was doing it wrong. That my brain was faulty, but faulty in the wrong way. I couldn’t relate, and I was tempted to discard the book as reductionist because of this. But on a reread, I felt entirely different. I thought Matt relayed everything perfectly, sensitively and delicately to his own truth. I found it smart and funny in ways I didn’t during the first read. This reaction, to me, is fascinating. It’s a super quick read – it only took me a few days – so i’s definitely worth trying more than once to see if the same thing happens to you.

This makes it hard for me to really review it one way or the other. Reasons to Stay Alive is a brilliant memoir of one man’s experience. In one way, it felt isolating and confusing to someone who refused to acknowledge their own struggles. In another, it is gut-wrenching and close-to-the-bone but ultimately hopeful. Most importantly, it is educational and aware. Matt Haig is careful to insert lots of information and offhand advisory sentences to those who suffer from mental illness as well as to the carers of those who do. For everyone, it is worth reading. For some, like me, it is worth reading a couple times. It is honest, brutal, and, dare I say it, a really important signpost towards a larger conversation. This book opens avenues for discussion and understanding for both people who suffer from anxiety, depression, or any other manner of mental illness, and those who don’t. All aboard the empathy train, people!

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An Introduction

Hi there. At the moment, there is absolutely no audience for this. In reality, there probably won’t really ever be an audience for it. This blog (??) is going to function for me as a kind of documentation of all the books I read in the coming year or so that feature, in some way, mental health as a focus. There are 3 main reasons for this:

  1. My dissertation. I am at university, studying for a BA in English Language and Literature. Wow, an English student writing a blog waah. Truth is, blogs take commitment. They take time and effort and inspiration and most of those things I don’t have in abundance. HOWEVER. I figured that if I could combine those things into one place, I’d suddenly have a thing I could really put effort into. I’ve just finished my second year and part of my last semester was taken up by creating a dissertation proposal. Now, I’m a language girl at heart. I love reading, of course, and literary theory and convention and what-does-it-all-mean??? but I came to uni loving language and that hasn’t really changed. Stylistics is my current jam (currant jam? There’s some phonological humour for you for free) which is essentially looking at how a text is constructed on the page and to what effect. It’s a strange combo of literature, language and psychology and I LAV it. For all the books I read, this will be the main focus as the title of my dissertation is, drumroll please… ‘Mind-Modelling and Stylistics in Neurologically Atypical Narration’!!! In other (less poncy) terms, what that means is I’m looking at how an author writes from the point of view of someone who does not have a neurologically or cognitively typical brain. I want to see just how writers recreate the mind of someone which is going to more than likely be completely different to the person reading it. At the moment, a full 6 months away from the beginning of my dissertation, I’m still stuck between whether to write on representations of cognitive or learning disorders such as autism, or on mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or dementia. This is going to be a kind of journey through books to see what I find most fascinating. As well as being supremely interesting to me, another reason for choosing this topic takes me onto my next point…
  2. Empathy. Sounds vague, I know, but let me explain. Studies show that people who read literary fiction frequently and from a young age develop better emotional intelligence skills and levels of empathy. I think I’ve always believed this but it wasn’t until I started my studies that I started understanding why. In one of my future posts I will talk about this in more depth, but the basis of this is in Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is essentially our ability to imagine and understand things from other peoples’ points of view and to afford them as much consciousness and emotional complexity as we view ourselves with. As an inherently empathetic person (code for: I cry at all the films) I find it extremely difficult not to run through every possible consequence my actions will have on people and make judgements based heavily on how it will effect others. True, that can be a hindrance sometimes, but it’s also a skill we need increasingly more of. In recent years, people have refused to acknowledge others complexly, as real people with lives and emotions and brains different to their own, instead inserting them into boxes labelled with dangerous things. But they say reading helps to change this way of thinking. As an English student, I feel it is my academic duty to try and read books by authors from walks of life different to my own. I am white, I am straight, I am English. I have a whole lot of privilege. So this task I have set myself is me trying to expand my understanding and empathy towards those who so often get the opposite: mental illness sufferers.
  3. My own mental health. For reasons I won’t get into right now, I’ve been struggling with mental health problems for the best part of two years now. Luckily, I’ve always had a good support network of family and friends and have access to professional support and counselling services. However, one of those most useful things I’ve found more my own peace of mind is seeing, hearing and reading the stories of other people who have struggled in a similar way to myself. Mental health is something everyone has. Wonderfully, the conversation around mental health has bee increasing exponentially in the past few years, but in Britain there is still a huge stigma about it. Especially with all the political tempestuousness, things like mental health do tend to get sidelined into the ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ mentality of dealing with problems. But there is a reason talking therapy is a thing. It works! Not for everyone, but for a lot of people. So, in a weird roundabout way, this is a talking therapy for me, intermingled with expanding my own emotional intelligence and empathy skills (and hopefully those of people reading) whilst all the while contributing to my dissertation and my degree.

So that’s it. Intro done. Now to get on with the books.