“Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (2015, Canongate) is a non-fiction book about Haig’s development of, and recovery from, depression.
I found it to be quite different from other books of this type. The writing is punchy, broken up into little chunks, and the whole thing is very easy to read.
Haig chose not to have counselling or medication for his depression. He instead relied on his relationships with his family and girlfriend. Some people choose medication, some therapy, some both, some neither – there is no right or wrong answer. Not everyone has all options open to them, or wants to try everything at once. Haig went with what was right to him personally, but doesn’t criticise anyone who chooses differently.
Haig describes his feelings so well, so vividly, I felt like I was right there alongside him. His descriptions of small moments of joy – and his realisation that he was experiencing those moments more often – were detailed and touching. It felt very real, very honest, and full of very gentle hope. I particularly liked the little “scripts” between himself in the present talking to himself back then, if he could time travel. If you are suffering depression, it can seem like things will never get better – but Haig wanted to reassure himself (and the reader) ‘back then’ that they could and would. What do you think might your ‘future self’ say to you? What do you hope they might say?
The section on “advice” was excellent – simple, clear ideas to try without pressure. It was particularly strong on self-care, which is something I have written about several times before. The suggestion of a breathing exercise, and the reasons for it, have inspired me to write about this for my next blog post.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has depression or is trying to help a loved one through it.
Celebrations of milestones are part of human experience the world over – from the changing of the year to more personal events.
Some people choose their milestones based on what is important in their culture or family. These might be religious events, birthdays, wedding anniversaries etc. People usually celebrate these in social groups.
Some people choose milestones based on very individual events – and might not mark them anywhere but in their mind. For example, you might note one year to the day since stopping smoking. You might not think it is a party-throwing event, but worth marking in some other way.
People with depression can feel that there isn’t anything worth celebrating. That days go by one by one with nothing good happening. Depression is insidious, and in a way ‘protects itself’ by giving you these messages.
When was the last time you celebrated something? What are your milestones? Where does your choice of milestones come from? Are they right for you? When was the last time you felt you had something worth celebrating? What do you think is worth celebrating? Do you play down events so as not to be seen to “make a fuss”? Do other people’s opinions on milestones hold you back?
“Celebration” can be anything, not just a big party. Buying a small reward or treat. A mental “pat on the back”. Setting aside time to be with someone special.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression which appears over winter, affecting about 3% of people in the UK according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. It seems to be linked to a lower amount of sunlight, but it is not clear exactly how and why some people are affected more than others. Some people have suggested that humans once hibernated, and this might be a cause!
SAD has many of the same symptoms as clinical depression – including persistent low mood, lethargy/sleepiness and a feeling of disconnection or lack of interest in activities you normally enjoy. You may find you are sleeping and eating more (particularly carbohydrates), and being ill more often. It is also common to find it more difficult to think clearly or manage stress well.
If you think you have SAD, it is a good idea to see your GP in the first instance.
Your GP may offer you medication or lifestyle advice to ease symptoms. Some people find that making sure to get as much natural sunlight as possible eases symptoms, or use daylight-simulating lightbulbs or light boxes at home. Eating well, taking appropriate exercise and maintaining social links all seem to help.
As always, good self care can not only ease symptoms in themselves but also help you feel more in control. It is an important aspect of a healthy lifestyle but one that is often brushed aside – some people feel guilty or self-indulgent for prioritising it. However, good self care not only helps us to feel better but it also means we are more able to help others. Nurturing of yourself is just as important as (if not more important than) being able to nurture others!
Some people benefit from counselling to tackle SAD – if you would like to make an appointment with me for this, please contact me.
“I Had A Black Dog” is written by a man with depression, and is presented as an illustrated work with not much text.
It’s Johnstone’s way of visually expressing what depression felt like for him, and I think it gets this across very well. It covers thoughts, feelings and behaviours in a sensitive and clear way – and there is even some humour.
The “black dog” of the title comes from the way that Winston Churchill described the depressive phases of his bipolar disorder. The image of a large, uncontrollable, dark animal that slobbers over everything and destroys peace through size, ineptness and stubbornness is a useful image to many people. This dog isn’t deliberately vicious, or evil… just there. More Clifford The Big Red Dog than Cujo.
Like Clifford the Big Red Dog, the black dog can be lived with and managed – this book ends on a note of hope for the future while not glossing over the reality.
I highly recommend both this book, and the follow-up (“Living With A Black Dog” by Matthew and Ainsley Johnstone), to anyone who has depression or is trying to help someone who has it.