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Book Review: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Everyone experiences periods of depression and anxiety at some point in their life. It is normal to have these feelings, but having knowledge about the illness can be helpful in dealing with it. Books can be a great resource for finding strategies and tips to cope with these problems. Rather than discussing problems with others, I mostly prefer reading books related to the issue and developing an understanding of the problem. To that end, I highly recommend Matt Haig’s  “Reasons to Stay Alive” to all, regardless of whether you are currently going through any psychological or life challenges.

The book is full of useful insights and comes with the powerful personal history of Haig’s battle with depression and anxiety. It’s not only a must-read for those who have struggled with mental health issues themselves, but also for everyone looking to gain a deeper understanding of the topic. I can’t stress enough how this single book has helped me in my own self-healing journey. And I just admire Haig’s insights. 

“Reasons to Stay Alive” is a memoir written by Matt Haig about his experience with depression and how he learned to manage it. In the book, Haig writes about the difficulties he faced while struggling with depression and how he found ways to cope with the condition and ultimately overcome it. Haig writes in the book: 

‘I wrote this book because the oldest clichés remain the truest. Time heals. The bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view. The tunnel does have light at the end of it, even if we haven’t been able to see it. Words, just sometimes, really can set you free.’

Haig, who used to be known for being a party-goer in his youth, was surprised when he experienced his first episode of depression while living a pleasure-seeking lifestyle in Ibiza. He recalls the begging of his symptoms as a “flickering” sensation in his head, like a butterfly being trapped. When he came back home, even simple tasks like going to the store became overwhelming and caused fear. 

“You’re walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames. And so depression is largely unseen and mysterious”

You don’t have a single waking second outside of the fear. That is not an exaggeration. You crave a moment, a single second of not being terrified, but the moment never comes. The illness that you have isn’t the illness of a single body part, something you can think outside of. If you have a bad back you can say my back is killing me, and there will be a kind of separation between the pain and the self. The pain is something other. It attacks and annoys and even eats away at the self but it is still not the self. But with depression and anxiety, the pain isn’t something you think about because it is thought. You are not your back but you are your thoughts. If your back hurts it might hurt more by sitting down. If your mind hurts it hurts by thinking. And you feel there is no real, easy equivalent of standing back up. Though often this feeling is a lie. 

Still, “life always provides reasons to not die, If we listen hard enough.”

In a world where possibility is endless, the possibilities for pain and loss, and permanent separation are also endless. So fear breeds imagination, and vice versa, on and on, until there is nothing left to do except go mad. 

Haig’s journey is relatable and inspiring, as he takes the reader through the depths of his depression and the steps he took to recover. He writes about the importance of seeking help, the power of mindfulness and exercise, and the impact of loved ones on our mental well-being. He also touches on the societal stigmas surrounding mental illness, and how they can prevent people from getting the help they need. 

Depression is always smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but if that is the metaphor you are the sky. You were there before it. And the cloud can’t exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud. 

“A key Buddhist symbol is that of the lotus flower. The lotus flower grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clean air, pure and beautiful, before eventually dying. This metaphor for spiritual enlightenment also works as a metaphor for hope and change. The mud you could see as depression or anxiety. The flowers in the clear air, the self we know we can be, unclogged by despair. “

Life is beautiful in its ambiguity. But I like the idea of being alert to ourselves, of connecting to the universal rather than living life on a see-saw of hope and fear. To be selfless, while being mindful seems to be a good solution when the self intensifies and causes us to suffer. 

Being good feels good because it makes us remember that we are not the only person that matters in this world. We all matter because we are all alive. And so kindness is an active way in which we can see and feel the bigger picture. We are ultimately all the same thing. We are life. We are consciousness. And so by feeling part of humanity, rather than an isolated unit, we feel better. We might physically perish, like a cell in a body might perish, but the body of life continues. And so, in the sense that life is a shared experience, we continue. 

It’s an important book that will not only educate but also empower readers to take control of their mental well-being. It is a powerful and uplifting account of one man’s struggle with depression and ultimately a must-read for anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by life. 

Life has struggles. Life has losses. Life has sufferings. But life also has life in it and more often than not, all these struggles and trials add colors to it. As my favorite author Haruki Murakami puts it in his excellent novel Sputnik Sweetheart, “ once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

Ayrin Saleha Ria works at Future Startup as a full-time Research Associate. She has a background in Applied Sociology. Before joining the FS team, she worked and volunteered with a number of social organizations. As someone who comes from a social science background, she takes a deep interest in research around important social-economic challenges in our society. A voracious reader, Ayrin is passionate about working for the betterment of society, takes a deep interest in human society and behavioral science, and loves books.

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