Reasons to Stay Alive is not the kind of book that I would normally pick up. I’m a fiction reader, pure and simple. I only did so because it happens to be written by the wonderful Matt Haig and because it tackles the issue of depression. Over the last few months it feels like a number of friends and acquaintances have talked about being or feeling depressed and truly, before reading this book, what I knew about depression could be written on the back of a postage stamp. I had wanted to read more Matt Haig and so, when I came across this book, it seemed like the right book at the right time.
When I thought about depression, I thought of unhappiness, an all pervading sense of glumness, but I don’t think that I had ever really appreciated what a truly debilitating illness it is. Growing up in 1970s and 80s England, I remember very clearly my parents talking about a couple of their friends suffering from ‘mental breakdowns’. I’m not sure that I really understood what that meant, but I knew enough to comprehend that it was a taboo subject about which we were never supposed to speak. It was firmly in the domain of the whispered conversation and the half story narrative. Nowadays gradually this pattern is changing and although we still know perilously little about how the brain functions, we are at least more open to discussions relating to mental health.
Reasons to Stay Alive is a short book and, at first glance, I felt it was a messy one. As you know, I’m not really one to bear with a book that doesn’t immediately grab me, but here I was. In part it’s an intensely honest memoir about Haig’s own struggles with depression and how it impacted and continues to impact his life, but it’s also so much more than just an autobiography. What struck me most strongly about it, when I finished the final page, was just how astonishingly optimistic it was. Here is a writer who has truly circled the bottomless pit of despair and yet, having done so, wants to find what it is that keeps people going, how you truly need to focus on the reasons to stay alive, whatever that might mean to you.
At the end of the book, there is a chapter entitled “How to live (forty pieces of advice I feel to be helpful but which I don’t always follow)”. I’ve never been one for the self help genre (isn’t that what we have our friends for?) and yet, these pieces of advice I keep turning to. Haig is at heart a beautiful writer and somehow, these suggestions so simply put, strike a real chord amidst the day to day business of our lives.
Whether you are looking for a way to cope with depression, supporting someone through the illness or quite simply looking to learn more, this is the book for you.