Author Matt Haig on the truth about depression

Matt Haig pictured at his home at York...SH10012101a.19th February 2015 ..Picture by Simon Hulme
Matt Haig pictured at his home at York...SH10012101a.19th February 2015 ..Picture by Simon Hulme
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Sixteen years ago, successful author Matt Haig came close to suicide. He talks to Sarah Freeman about his latest book Reasons to Stay Alive.

In September, 1999 Matt Haig left the apartment he shared with his girlfriend in a quiet corner of Ibiza and went outside to kill himself.

Today he is a successful, award-winning author, his girlfriend from back then is now his wife, they have two beautiful children and a house in one of the most desirable parts of York.

In between, there were days when he was too scared to venture out to the corner shop and months when he wondered whether he would ever glimpse normality again.

The fact he not only came through, but as a result of depression found a whole new career as a writer - since 2005 he’s had seven novels published - was why he wanted to write his first work of non-fiction - Reasons to Stay Alive.

As the title suggests, the book, which is at times moving, searingly honest and at times funny, is about Matt’s own experience with mental illness. Cutting between the story of how he made it back from that clifftop in Ibiza, via his family home in Newark and a cheap flat in the student area of Leeds, there is also a series of lists.

They include, ‘Things you think of during your first panic attack’, ‘Things you think of during your 1,000th panic attack’ and ‘Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression’. The latter includes, breaking a toe, bad Amazon reviews and working in a cabbage packing warehouse.

The book was born out of a blog he wrote from the Book Trust about how writing helped him through those bleakest of months, but he admits it was one which could only have happened with the distance of time.

“I’d had the book in my mind for many years, but there was also a reluctance, a feeling that if I revisited what happened all those years ago I would open old wounds,” he says, sitting in the spacious living room of his York home with views across the River Ouse. “It was an intense process. I worked on it seven days a week, but it was as though I was writing about a different person. The only worry was I would hurt someone I knew. People say you can’t write a honest book about yourself without betraying someone, but I hope that’s not true.

“My mum has just read it and there were a series of long emotional texts. Everyone close to me has their own memories of that time and going back there is difficult for all of us.”

Despite the subject matter, says he was determined that the book not only be honest, but also optimistic.

“I didn’t want it to be a misery memoir. Depression tells you all sorts of lies, ones which you believe, which I believed, but I wanted people to read it and realise however dark it gets there is a way out the other side.”

Throughout the 260 or so pages, Matt also address the myths and misconceptions which surround mental illness, best summarised in one short chapter - Things people say to depressives that they wouldn’t say in other life-threatening situations.

“The word depression itself is misleading. It makes people think of something slow and lethargic, but my experience wasn’t like that. As in the vast majority of cases, my depression was accompanied with anxiety, a feeling of rushing headlong into something absolutely terrifying. People are always looking for a trigger, you would never ask someone, ‘So what do you think you did to cause the colon cancer?’, but it’s exactly the kind of question you get asked about mental illness. Unlike most other diseases it also sparks a sense of guilt in other people. If someone has a heart attack no one thinks, ‘I wish I hadn’t given him that bacon sandwich’.”

Stood on that clifftop back in 1999 Matt says he was desperate not to feel happy, but just to escape from the pain which had suddenly overwhelmed him. The reason he didn’t jump was two-fold. Partly it was knowing that there were people in the world who loved him, partly it was fear that he might end up paralysed rather than dead.

His girlfriend Andrea arranged for them to fly back to England and they returned to Matt’s parents in Newark where he spent the next three months confronting - and sometimes trying to hide from - the very worst of the disease. While he makes it clear that he is not against pills, his own experience of antidepressants was not a good one.

“I did take diazepam, but it just made me feel worse. It was like I was having one continuous panic attack, so I did everything I could to avoid them. Andrea saw that when I came off the drugs I was a little better, not much, but a little and so she understood how I felt. Maybe in a parallel universe, one where I had taken anti-anxiety medication I may have got better quicker or perhaps felt less pain. I don’t know, but at the time it wasn’t for me.”

With herbal remedies and homeopathic treatment also making no diffrence, Matt’s world shrank and when he and Andrea moved to a flat in Leeds the only real escape he found from depression was through books. He read everything from Graham Greene to Keats to the Diary of Samuel Pepys almost obsessively and he believes he became a writer because not despite of depression.

“Before my illness, I had no confidence and no ambition. I’d given journalism a go when I was in my early 20s, but it hadn’t worked out and I think if something fairly catastrophic hadn’t happened I would probably have ended up sliding into a state where I drank more and more.

“I’m not saying that I’m a better writer than I would have been without depression, but it certainly gave me focus and a sense of determination.”

The turning point for Matt came in April 2000 when he had what he describes as a “moment of nothingness... a break in the clouds, a sign that the sun was still there, somewhere.” The knowledge that there would be a time when those brief seconds turned into minutes and hours were, he says, key. As he began reconnecting with the world, he also sent off his first manuscript. He hadn’t lost any of his sensitivty, but the succession of rejection letters didn’t bother him either.”

“My first book, The Last Family in England, had talking dogs in it, so it was a hard sell, but the last publisher on my list gave me a chance. It came with the smallest of advances, but I didn’t mind, I had a foot in the door.”

Matt followed it up with a clutch of similarly quirky novels from Dead Fathers Club, based on Hamlet, to The Humans which sees an alien threaten to destroy the world while masquerading as a mathematics lecturer. He still occassionally feels the fog of depression descending, but now he knows how to manage it better and that it won’t last for ever.

“I do believe that physical and mental health are linked, so I try not to drink too much, take exercise and get enough sleep. I still experience moments of fear. The idea of getting up and talking to a room full of people still makes anxious although I’m not sure whether that’s a sign of mental illness or sign I am in fact just a normal person.”

Matt says the reaction to him opening up about his depression has been overwhelmingly positive and one of the most moving chapters includes the responses from people online when he posted the question ‘What keeps you going?’

“If you admit any weakness there will be some one poised to go in for the kill. but I have found that if you write honestly then most people tend to be incredibly supportive.”

Aside from Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt has recently written a screenplay for The Humans and has an idea for a new book about someone who ages incredibly slowly.

“Maybe it’s because I’m in my 40th year. Let’s call it a midlife crisis.”

He might be right, but it’s one for a while in his early 20s he never thought he’d see.