TO WRITE Reasons To Stay Alive, Matthew Haig had to
face a fear that had not been there with his earlier books. The
fear was that writing this book would make him ill again.
When he was 24, working with his girlfriend, Andrea, at a club
in Ibiza, Haig's world caved in. He describes it as "the day the
old me died".
He writes about it plainly and beautifully. "It started with a
thought. Something was going wrong. That was the start. Before I
realised what it was.
"And then, a second or so later, there was a strange sensation
in my head. Some biological activity in the rear of my skull, not
far above my neck. The cerebellum. A pulsing, or intense
flickering, as though a butterfly was trapped inside, combined with
a tingling sensation.
"I did not yet know of the strange physical effects that
depression and anxiety would create. I just thought I was about to
die. And then my heart started to go. And then I started to go.
"I sank fast, falling in to a new claustrophobic and suffocating
reality. And it would be way over a year before I would feel
anything like even half-normal again."
Haig went to bed for three days, but did not sleep. "There was
no relief. I wanted to be dead. That's not quite right: I didn't
want to be dead, I just didn't want to be alive."
He told Andrea how scared he was. On the third day, he left the
room in the house where they were staying. "I went outside to kill
FIFTEEN years later, he is now an author of several bestselling
novels. A perceptive reader will have worked out that when Haig
went outside that day, he stopped before he went over the edge of
the cliff he had walked towards.
Reasons to Stay Alive describes how close he came to
ending it all. Instead, he returned to his childhood home in
Newark, Nottinghamshire, where Andrea and his parents looked after
The book tells how the days of depression became weeks and
months; how he could not leave the house - or, on the days that he
could, would have to run out of a shop when he was on the point of
buying a pint of milk. Some days were marked by panic attacks and
compulsive behaviour; others were slow-moving, living life "at very
low volume". It was, he recalls, the most intense period of his
"I was a nervous wreck. People say 'Take it one day at a time.'
But I used to think: that's all right for them to say. Days were
mountains; a week was a trek across the Himalayas."
HAIG's new book, then, is the honest, witty, and often wise record
of one journey into the darkness of depression. And, slowly, of a
journey out, albeit one where the darkness is never completely
banished. Hence the fear of taking his mind back to that time - the
fear that he might find himself in the Himalayas again.
Sitting on the platform of a London train station, waiting for
his return trip to York, where he now lives with Andrea and their
two children, he agrees that returning to this period of his life
"may not have been the most healthy thing. . . But that is
counterbalanced by the response. It is a nice feeling to try to do
something good; it is a selfish selflessness."
The response is that Haig has done something very good.
"Astounding" was how Stephen Fry put it, himself no stranger to
depression. Joanna Lumley calls Reasons To Stay Alive "a
small masterpiece", and says that it is "for anyone who has faced
the black dog or felt despair. . . A real comfort." The Revd
Richard Coles says that it "should be on prescription".
It is Haig's first non-fiction title, and intentionally
didactic, if wry and unpreachy. His fiction has often disclosed a
moral heart. "Troubling, thrilling, puzzling, impossible" is how
Jeanette Winterson found his 2012 novel The Humans, in
which an alien takes up life as a Cambridge professor to prevent
humans' discovering the secret of the universe.
Eventually, the alien discovers the beauty of human love - a
common thread in Haig's books - but, until then, the alien is
repelled by having to adjust to life in this world. That repulsion
gave the author the idea for Reasons: "That's how I felt
when I was depressed."
HAIG was born in Sheffield in 1975. His first novel, The Last
Family In England, was a 2005 bestseller, and his readership
has grown ever since. His page-turning stories can have a
post-religious, psalmic quality.
"Your mind is a galaxy," he writes in The Humans. "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."
The success of that novel boosted his profile on Twitter, where
reaction to the new book has been just as warm from readers less
famous than those quoted above. It's a sign, he says, of how common
an experience this is. "Even though people may not experience
depression themselves, everyone knows someone who does."
While official figures suggest that one in five of us will
experience a significant depressive episode at some point, most of
us, most of the time, remain reserved and unsure about mentioning
If we talk badly about our own depression, we're worse with
other people's. In Reasons, Haig puts it in a list of
"Things people say to depressives that they don't say in other
life-threatening situations". Examples: "Oh, Alzheimer's you say?
Tell me about it; I get that all the time." Or: "Come on, I know
you've got tuberculosis, but it could be worse. At least no one's
Terrified of saying the wrong thing, and not knowing how to say
the right thing, we often end up saying nothing. I tell Haig the
story of a friend who was experiencing one of the darkest periods
in his life, when many in his church community withdrew. Not
knowing what to say, they said nothing, taking consolation in the
idea it was best to give him space.
THE problem, Haig says, is that this is an illness that is often
unseen. Also, that our language is not up to the job.
"In some ways, this is an invisible illness, and so people are
scared of it - even forward-thinking, progressive people, who you'd
imagine to be totally OK with it. The mystery about what it is
breeds a fear."
As a society, we do not yet have the tools to respond. Our
scientific understanding is not there. Neuroscience remains a "baby
"With mental health, we are almost back where physical health
was in the 18th century: we're still putting leeches on
When someone is ill, he says, we expect to see crutches, or a
bandage; but, with mental health, there is nothing for people to
look at, or be sympathetic over. With physical illness there is an
"it" to talk about. "But with mental illness, the 'it' is you.
Depres- sion is an illness of thought; so it takes you over."
Now that my friend is feeling well again, I asked him how people
like me could have been a better friend on his darkest days. He
said that saying the wrong thing would have been better than saying
nothing. Haig has a similar story, recalling a day when his father
found him weeping for no apparent reason, gathered him in a hug,
and told him he had to pull himself together.
The words were wrong, but the embrace was more powerful than the
words. Love covers a multitude of etymological sins.
"The dangerous thing in a depressive state of mind", Haig
explains, "is to feel no connection, and this is the risk of giving
people space. Even if someone is depressed, and they are shutting
people away, sometimes they want that connection even if they're
not saying it.
"It sounds terrible, but when you're depressed you don't always
know what's best for you."
IF YOU are listening to the illness too much, he says, then you're
mistaking symptoms for "external reality". For example, when you
are depressed, you may be convinced that everything is going to get
worse. In reality, it isn't, and it won't. There is truth in the
cliché that time heals.
"If you could press a magic button, and see five years into the
future, then nine times out of ten you'll be in a much better place
than you are when you are depressed."
In the book, he uses a neat trick to capture this, talking to
himself across time:
Then Me: I want to die.
Now Me: Well, you aren't going to.
Then Me: That is terrible.
Now Me: No. It is wonderful. Trust me.
Then Me: I just can't cope with the pain.
Now Me: I know, but you are going to have to. And it will be worth
"Time" and "love", Haig says, are the two main paths to
recovery, and it is clear that the love and support of his wife,
Andrea - his "lifesitter" - has been vital in recovering his
well-being. But he also lists a multiplicity of practical changes,
from running to reducing alcohol intake, from spending time
outdoors to changes in sleep and diet patterns. These are not
prescriptive - everyone's experience of depression is different,
and there may be many different paths to good health. But it helps
to remember that your brain is part of your body.
"Just as physical illness affects your mental state, we have to
understand that mental health is often a response to our physical
health. You have to be your own laboratory."
FASCINATED by religion, but not a believer in anything in
particular, Haig does not call himself an atheist. He does not like
the word "agnostic", and is not "allergic to the word 'spiritual'".
He sometimes wishes he had "more of a religious framework".
"I get a bit jealous of people with faith in an answer or
answers, but I'm in-between, open-minded. So much of human life is
about a search, whether it's a religious search for meaning or a
more general existential search."
One of the paths back to his own good health was in books and
reading. If anything, books are his one true faith, and the library
is his church.
"It's good to have things to believe in. For a moment, in my
darkest hour, I lost faith even in words; I was at that point where
nothing meant anything, and that is a very scary place to be.
"As someone who has always loved reading, and stories, the idea
of opening a book and staring at a sentence, knowing what it meant
but not caring, not imagining I would ever care again about any
human language - that was terrifying."
Reasons To Stay Alive by Matthew Haig is published by
Canongate at £9.99 (
Church Times Bookshop, £9).