trigger warning: depression, suicide
“So what, you have a label? ‘Depressive’. Everyone would have a label if they asked the right professional.” ~ Matt Haig
Today, I wanna share with you things I’ve learned from Matt Haig‘s infinitely important book, Reasons to Stay Alive. Matt himself lived through depression and came terrifyingly close to attempting suicide. In this book, he shares with rare clarity not only what it means to live with depression, but also how to live better as a result of it.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or anxiety, THIS is the one book you have to read. One review said it “should be on prescription,” and I agree it well should be. Below are just five of the best lessons it shares:
1. Depression is real, but it’s hard for people to understand it because it’s invisible.
“The weirdest thing about a mind is that you can have the most intense things going on in there but no one else can see them…If you are depressed, your pain is invisible.” ~ Matt Haig
Although awareness of mental health issues is becoming more widespread, it doesn’t surprise me when I encounter people who still have a hard time believing that depression is a real condition. That it’s not just some made-up, imaginary thing people who crave sympathy and attention decide to have.
See, it’s really hard to wrap our mind around something we haven’t really experienced firsthand, much more something that’s virtually invisible. When we see people ailing from a broken arm or a gaping wound, our compassion comes quick and easy, because we get a clear, visual evidence of the pain they must be going through. But not so with depression and other mental illnesses. It’s easier for us to chalk those illnesses up as imaginary, because we can’t readily see proof of their existence. Therein lies the difficulty of eliminating the stigma against mental illness.
But though we may still be a long way from ridding the world of that stigma, it shouldn’t blind us to the good that’s still around us.
“You don’t need the world to understand you. It’s fine. Some people will never really understand things they haven’t experienced. Some will. Be grateful.” ~ Matt Haig
2. Depression ebbs and flows.
“Be patient. Understand it isn’t going to be easy. Depression ebbs and flows and moves up and down. It doesn’t stay still. Do not take one happy/bad moment as proof of recovery/relapse. Play the long game.” ~ Matt Haig
The above lines were actually part of a section Matt wrote for the significant others of people struggling with mental illness, “How to be there for someone with depression or anxiety.” But I think the above reminders would also be helpful for the people going though such illnesses themselves. When you’re in a very low and dark place, it’s hard to have hope that things are gonna get better. It’s easier to be swallowed by the thought that it’s always going to be that hard.
But when you keep in mind that depression doesn’t stay still, in your darkest of days you may still suffer, but you suffer knowing that there’s an end to that suffering, because depression lifts. It may not seem likely at the moment, but you need to trust that it does.
“It’s been better before and it will be again.” ~ @Despard
3. Depression is smaller than you.
“Depression is…smaller than you. It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but—if that is the metaphor—you are the sky. You were there before it. And the cloud can’t exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud.” ~ Matt Haig
The above lines comprise one of my favorite sections in Matt’s book. It follows a section enumerating all the things and metaphors people have used to express their experience of depression: “an internal war,” “a black dog,” “a black hole,” “a devil inside,” “a living nightmare,” “a fucking pain.” Yes, depression may be all of those things, but be reminded: It’s also “smaller than you.” I think there’s a lot to be gleaned from that point. Depression is smaller than you.
“Nothing lasts forever. This pain won’t last. The pain tells you it will last. Pain lies. Ignore it. Pain is a debt paid off with time.” ~ Matt Haig
4. Depression can be a gift.
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” ~ Rumi
In a previous post, I’ve written about the value of mental illness and it pretty much covered my thoughts on this, but since this message is such an integral part of the book, it’s worth highlighting again.
“People often use the word ‘despite’ in the context of mental illness. So-and-so did such-and-such despite having depression/anxiety/OCD/agoraphobia/whatever. But sometimes that ‘despite’ should be a ‘because’. For instance, I write because of depression. I was not a writer before. The intensity needed—to explore things with relentless curiosity and energy—simply wasn’t there. Fear makes us curious. Sadness makes us philosophise.” ~ Matt Haig
As Matt pointed out, one of the best ways to successfully manage mental illness is to take a more accepting rather than a combative stance. In his words, “The trick is to befriend depression and anxiety.” He has seen value in his mental health struggles, and has learned to use them as “fuel for the fire” of his creative work. He has also come to appreciate the pleasures and enjoy the wonders of life more intensely, precisely because he has experienced life’s terror at its worst.
“You need to feel life’s terror to feel its wonder…I hate depression. I am scared of it. Terrified, in fact. But at the same time, it has made me who I am. And if—for me—it is the price of feeling life, it’s a price always worth paying. I am satisfied just to be.” ~ Matt Haig
5. There are reasons to stay alive. Find them, and cling to them, when the going gets tough.
“I knew that down wasn’t the only direction. If you hung in there, if you stuck it out, then things got better.” ~ Matt Haig
In a section entitled #reasonstostayalive, Matt shared the responses of people he’d asked online as to what keeps them going in the face of depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. I loved reading through the entire list. Some of my favorites are:
- “Friends, family, acceptance, sharing, knowing the black dog will leave eventually.” by @Matineegirl
- “Since the other option isn’t flexible.” by @lillianharpl
- “Because 7 x 10 ^49 atoms won’t arrange themselves this way ever again. It’s a one-off privilege.” by @GoodWithoutGods
- “Knowing my depression has never lasted forever, and there has always been a way out.” by @gourenina
- “To spite cancer, Bipolar and all the other things trying to kill me young.” by @debecca
See, life as it is isn’t always easy, and when you have to suffer through mental illness on top of that, life can become—to borrow one of Matt’s descriptions—a f*cking pain. As philosopher Albert Camus wrote, “…in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.”
But no matter how hard or painful life gets, there are still reasons to stay alive. We need to remember them. Find them. And if we can’t find any, maybe we can create them instead.
“Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars.” ~ Matt Haig
I am pretty sure Reasons to Stay Alive must’ve saved a life somewhere. In a way, it repaints the scars of mental illness as tattoos bearing a message:
I am a warrior, and I am winning this fight.
Day in and day out, I fight,
and I know I am winning, because I’m still alive. ♦
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Resources for Suicide Prevention
In the US:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
A free, 24-hour hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
In the Philippines:
(02) 804-HOPE / (02) 804-4673
2919 (toll-free number for Globe and TM subscribers)
A 24/7 suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in emotional crisis and in need of immediate assistance.
If you’re actively suicidal, please reach out to someone or read this.
For other international resources, please click here.
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• About the Author •