A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A few weeks before the birth of my daughter, I had a particularly bad patch of depression and anxiety. Lots of panic attacks, lots of hours too scared to get out of bed, lots and lots of tears. I was 30-odd weeks pregnant and basically terrified. This trough didn’t last long in the grand scheme of things – about 3 or 4 weeks – but it was unlike anything else I had experienced before. The worst thing about it was being unable to explain it to other people. I had countless conversations along the lines of “what are you panicking about?” … “I have absolutely no idea”. It was scary, but I had good people around me who supported me and through a mixture of being able to lean on my husband and friends, and professional help from my GP and my local perinatal counsellors, I got better. I still have bad days, but they are relatively infrequent, and nothing on the scale of those dark days of January 2012.
Reading novelist Matt Haig’s story of his own experience of depression – his lasted much longer and was more severe than mine – brought back what those dark weeks felt like:
“Depression, for me, wasn’t a dulling but a sharpening, an intensifying, as though I had been living my life in a shell and now the shell wasn’t there.”
I know exactly what he means by this. I vividly remember lying in bed wondering how I could have lived the previous 29 years without the kind of fear I was experiencing then. I didn’t actually know what I was scared of, but I knew with complete certainty that the world was a terrifying place and the fact that for years I had been merrily walking about outside was reckless at the very least. But if reading the parts of the book where Haig was at his lowest was difficult, the sections that dealt with the way back up invoked memories of my own ascent to the surface. Those small moments where you realise that you haven’t worried about anything for a couple of minutes. Those moments feel like the most enormous breakthroughs.
What I loved about Reasons to Stay Alive was that Matt Haig has, ultimately, written an incredibly uplifting book about depression. That’s not easy. Depression and anxiety are, by their nature, not a laugh a minute. What’s more, he doesn’t do it by laughing at his illness. He is not unkind to himself, which feeds into his bigger message about the importance of self-care. Learning what might be a trigger for you is important. His list includes coffee, lack of sleep, September, October, bad posture, and advertising. Mine includes early January, staying up late, horrible stories on the news, and eating badly. Just as important is learning what makes you feel better. For him: mindfulness, running, yoga, writing, eighties movies. For me: baking, watching cartoons with my daughter, colouring in, long showers, taking a nap.
It is a frank book, and I applaud Matt Haig’s honesty in writing it. If you’ve ever experienced depression then you must read this book. What’s more, I would also strongly recommend it to anyone who loves someone who has depression. In the depths of darkness it is almost impossible to explain what it is you’re feeling. While everyone experiences depression differently, and no two experiences map directly onto each other, I have never read such a clear and concise explanation of what it can feel like. Reading it, I was overcome by a sense of wanting to press this book into the hands of those who were around me at the time and say: “This. This is what I was trying to say.”
Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2015) ISBN 9781782115083. RRP £9.99.