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Now Me’s message to Then Me

10 April 2015

The novelist Matthew Haig has revisited a period of despair. He talks to Martin Wroe

Clive Doyle

"Wry and unpreachy": Matt Haig

"Wry and unpreachy": Matt Haig

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 myself."

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 him.

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 life.

"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 it.

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 died."

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 science".

"With mental health, we are almost back where physical health was in the 18th century: we're still putting leeches on ourselves."

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 it.

"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).

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