When our bodies get sick, we know what to do: seek professional help, follow the prescribed treatments, ask friends and family for support. But when it’s our mental health that falters, things get murkier. What kind of transfusion or surgery or pill can fix a brain that feels broken?
In 1999, Matt Haig seemed as happy and fit as any other 24-year-old. A smart, capable college graduate from a nice middle-class home, he had a summer job on an idyllic island in the Mediterranean, a loving girlfriend, and a whole life ahead of him. And all he wanted to do was die. Or, more accurately, stop the desolation and panic that overwhelmed him in every waking moment. Reasons to Stay Alive is his chronicle of that time: a sort of memoir/self-help hybrid that traces his painful, unsteady climb out of suicidal despair to marriage, parenthood, and a fragile but resolute peace with himself. In confiding, conversational prose that references figures from Rumi to cult rappers, Sylvia Plath, and Shakespeare, he addresses the guilt and shame that comes with clinical depression—especially for men, who are disproportionately more likely to take their own lives—and the ways its symptoms can be misunderstood and dismissed by even the most well-meaning outsiders. (The 21-item list in a chapter called “Things That Have Happened to Me That Have Generated More Sympathy Than Depression” includes “consuming a poisoned prawn,” “breaking a toe,” and “bad Amazon reviews.”)
Haig’s tone can feel glib—he seems to take for granted that others share his baseline of emotional and financial resources—and the book is generally short on new research. But he also describes the battles raging inside his “red-raw, naked mind” in bruisingly lucid detail and provides an excellent Further Reading list in the postscript. And a touching compendium of #Reasonstostayalive culled from online readers is capped by his own resonant response: He lives, he writes, for “the sheer unfathomable marvel that is this strange life we have, here on earth, the seven billion of us, clustered in our towns and cities on this pale blue dot of a planet, spending our allotted 30,000 days as best we can, in glorious insignificance.… And I am glad to feel every tumultuous second of it.” A–
OPENING LINES “Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen. I was going to die, you see. Or go mad. There was no way I would still be here.”