Reasons to Stay Alive came along at the perfect moment for me. Not only did it move me towards a new stage of recovery from my depression, it did so in a language that felt completely personal to me. For Haig, reading was a vital part of his recovery, and as such his book is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the literary greats. Emily Dickinson seems to be a particular favourite, and the fact that the words “hope is the thing with feathers” pop so frequently into my head when I’m in need of an emotional boost is entirely thanks to Haig. To read a book that was not only about hope in the midst of the darkness of depression, but also about the power of words and reading, made me feel that Haig had tailored this book just for me. And I know I’m not alone in feeling that.
“‘The object of art is to give life a shape,’ said Shakespeare. And my life – and my mess of a mind – needed shape. I had ‘lost the plot’. There was no linear narrative of me. There was just mess and chaos. So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered. Films. TV dramas. And most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to me to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something’. One cliché attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me books were my way out of being lonely. If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength. In my deepest state of depression, I had felt stuck. I felt trapped in quicksand (as a kid that had been my most common nightmare). Books were about movement. They were about quests and journeys. Beginnings and middles and ends, even if not in that order. They were about new chapters. And leaving old ones behind. And because it was only a few months before that I had lost the point of words, and stories, and even language, I was determined never to feel like that again. I fed and I fed and I fed. I used to sit with the bedside lamp on, reading for about two hours after Andrea had gone to sleep, until my eyes were dry and sore, always seeking and never quite finding, but with that feeling of being tantalisingly close.” – Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive (Canongate Books, 2015), p.136.