In the last couple of years the topic of mental health has been afforded more column inches, and there have been many campaigns and movements to encourage us to speak more about our mental wellbeing. Yet we are still light years away from ‘parity of esteem’ with physical health, and as the illustrations from Robert Hugs shows, comments such as ‘chin up’ and ‘it could be worse’ are considered to be helpful.
There’s no rhyme or reason to depression, no cause. The rich and beautiful are not immune, as the tragic death of Robin Williams last year demonstrated. Abraham Lincoln, Halle Berry, Jim Carrey, Emma Thompson, Mozart, Tennessee Williams ad Buzz Aldrin are all successful people who also suffer or suffered depression. Scientists disagree on the neurological basis of it. Haig suggests that one cause may be the Pressure of the modern world and its overwhelming bombardment of stimulation and demands, but he certainly does not lay the blame here. The problem is that the brain is so complex, infinitely unfathomable. Our brains alone have a hundred billion cells, each cell being made up of roughly a hundred trillion atoms. The brain is capable of great things and vast thought, as well as ‘the capacity to feel a whole universe’s worth of darkness.’
Although the signs were there earlier on, it was Haig’s first intense anxiety attack aged 24, whilst living a hedonic lifestyle in Ibiza, that triggered his severe depression. Describing the physical sensations of this mental illness – sweating, dizziness, asphyxiating pressure on the lungs, a chest feeling like it is about to cave in, thirst, tension – as well as the sensations in the mind of darkness, ominous fear, consuming fire and a strangling intolerable sadness. Over the next few years he uses the tools of yoga, reading, writing, running – and love – to life himself out of these severe phase, and find reasons to live once again. It’s not easy. As he says, ‘People say “take it one day at a time”. But days were mountains and a week was a trek across the Himalayas.’
For a book centring on suicide and depression, this is an uplifting read. It’s sad to know that the brain is capable of feeling this way, but also reassuring to see a way out of it. There’s a calmness that comes with the thought that to ‘just be’ is not only enough, but a viable alternative.
This is a book about finding that ‘break in the clouds’ and noticing it, riding the flickers of hope until moments become minutes become hours become days. Haig is not angry at his illness, but thanks it as the ‘price of feeling life.’ And of course, it’s testament to the wonder of writing. Before depression Matt Haig was not a writer. Now he is a published author and award winning novelist. ‘The process of writing, combined with an increase in self-esteem that being published gave me, has helped more than I can say. It was a defence mechanism. It gave me purpose. It might have even saved my life.’
Published on March 5th 2015 by Canongate.