Matt Haig on coping with depression through writing

Matt Haig. Picture: Getty
Matt Haig. Picture: Getty
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HE’S visited the cliff edge of depression in fiction. Now Matt Haig describes the reality

IN MATT Haig’s 2013 novel, The Humans, an alien takes over a human body and, as it adjusts to domestic life in Cambridge, it is baffled and repelled by the world it encounters. Haig had the idea “because that’s how I felt when I was depressed”.

“It’s a very crude metaphor for depression in that you feel alienated,” he explains. “You’ve got this alien who hates humanity because he’s got all these prejudices, and he comes to love a lot of things about life on Earth, and I think that is a kind of metaphor for coming out of depression. It was dangerously risking sentimentality but I kind of thought, ‘To hell with that, I’ve done bleak endings so many times, with this one I’m going to be as optimistic as I can.’ I was consciously writing it to my 24-year-old self.”

At 24, long before he became a best-selling author, Matt Haig was on the brink of suicide. Living in Ibiza with his girlfriend Andrea, he was “putting off being an adult as long as I could” when he was suddenly hit by severe depression. Unable to process what he was going through, he decided to throw himself off a cliff. At the last moment, one step from the edge, he changed his mind. Weeks later he was back in Britain at his parents’ home, unfit to work or leave the house but on the beginning of a long road to recovery.

If The Humans traces this journey in allegorical form, Haig’s new book, Reasons To Stay Alive – his first work of non-fiction – vividly describes the reality. It begins on that cliff edge, “the most glorious view I had ever seen. A sparkling Mediterranean, like a turquoise tablecloth scattered with tiny diamonds.” The glorious view is important, because it illustrates how little Haig’s depression seemed to have to do with his circumstances, how abrupt and inexplicable it was. “This wasn’t being a bit wacky,” Haig writes. “This was pain. I had been okay and now, suddenly, I wasn’t. I was ill.”

Reasons To Stay Alive has been in Haig’s head for around 14 years, he says, but he wrote it in just three weeks: “It was very therapeutic, by far the easiest book I’ve ever written.” It’s also extremely candid. Its publication, Haig admits, has been “emotional” for his family, and for Andrea (they are still together). “My experience of depression is that it’s very mysterious, but my mum feels so responsible for it and Andrea sometimes feels responsible, and you feel guilty; it’s this vicious circle. I’d love for mental illness to be seen in the way that other horrible illnesses are. When people get cancer, very few parents will say, ‘Oh I feel so bad for giving you so much unhealthy food over the years.’”

Reasons To Stay Alive is a curious hybrid. Part memoir, it is also concerned with debunking some myths about depression, and challenging attitudes. One short chapter is a list of “Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations” (like, “Maybe your parachute has failed. But chin up.”) Occasionally it reads like a self-help book – especially in a chapter that lists 40 tips on “how to live”. Haig acknowledges this, but is careful to distance himself from “the worst kind of self-help, where it’s like saying ‘I have the answers’. I totally don’t have the answers.”

Book review: The Humans, Matt Haig

Indeed, this is the problem with writing about depression – everybody’s experience of it is different. For Haig, “It was always anxiety and depression, but some people have a much flatter, slower experience. I haven’t had anyone else’s experience so I wanted to make it clear I’m not some sort of divine authority.”

And yet the book exists because Haig’s approach – frank, matter of fact, unassuming – has already connected with a lot of people. It began life as a blog for the Book Trust; Haig wrote about his depression, he says, simply because after seven weeks he’d run out of other things to talk about. “It had an amazing response… You learn very quickly that everyone’s got a story, about themselves or a partner or a parent.”

On the cover is a quote from Joanna Lumley: “A small masterpiece that might even save lives.” What does Haig make of such claims? “I don’t want to oversell what a book can do. I certainly wouldn’t say that, but I would say that my aim went beyond what I’d normally aim for with a novel.” For the book’s launch next week, rather than just having Haig give a reading, publisher Canongate has teamed up with the Mental Health Foundation for Head On Fire, a Glasgow event in which Haig will explore mental ill health alongside singer-songwriter Withered Hand, poet Jenny Lindsay, former bishop Richard Holloway and Linda Irvine from NHS Lothian. The event is very much in the spirit of the book, both in its attempt to generate something positive and joyous from a debilitating condition, and in its campaigning spirit.

That said, Reasons To Stay Alive is also a very carefully written book. Haig is aware of the paradox at the heart of it – that a condition that made his life miserable also helped him become a writer. “I was drinking loads and trying to escape my own head,” he says of his 24-year-old self. “I think if I’d stayed in that mode I would have been an eternal student and never done anything.” Depression gave Haig focus, ironically, by restricting his options. “I literally couldn’t leave my house for a normal job, so whatever I had to do I had to do from home. And suddenly after years of floundering I found some ambition.” He spent much this solitary existence reading voraciously – one of the chapters in the book is essentially his reading list.

But depression, Haig is quick to point out, “is not a creative writing course”, even though “it made me understand myself better and made me more curious”. Neither was becoming a successful writer the cure. “Fame doesn’t provide some miraculous solution to anything. In 2008 my publisher dropped me, so I was back to square one again, but weirdly the depression didn’t come back. I had four months of being rejected by everybody, but something had changed in the interim that wasn’t related to external things like career and money.”

Self-awareness was an important factor. “Part of the absolute terror for me was not having a clue what was going on. I was convinced that I would never get out of it, whereas time has proven that I did and I can.”

As different as it is for everyone, says Haig, “I think it’s helpful to know that the experience of depression, when you come out of it, can enrich your life in strange ways, not in terms of your career or making you creative but in terms of that appreciation of normality and making you realise how freakishly lucky we are to be alive. We’re all on these tightropes. We could fall, but when we’re up there, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Twitter: @aeatonlewis

Reasons To Stay Alive is published by Canongate on Thursday. The launch event, Head On Fire, is at St George’s Tron Church, Glasgow, 10 March at 6.30pm. Tickets are available online or from Waterstone’s, Argyle Street