Estimated reading time: 6.5 minutes
Every so often I read a book which is so perfectly aligned with my feelings and needs at the time that it seems to have been written for me. Some books make me feel as if I am in my own version of The Truman Show and a Christof style director is nudging me towards them. Some books just turn up and make everything feel better for a while.
Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive is one such book. I read it in one sitting, staying up until the sun rose and I finished the last few pages outside on the dewy grass. I try to be as frank as possible about my own ongoing struggles with depression, but I will never come close to the accuracy and honesty with which Haig describes the impact of the illness on his life.
My absolute favourite part of the book is when Haig explains how books helped him through the worst times. This resonates deeply with me;
Light was everything. Sunshine, windows with the blinds open. Pages with short chapters and lots of white space and short paragraphs. Light was everything. But so, increasingly, were books. I read and read and read with an intensity I'd never really known before. I mean, I'd always considered myself to be a person who liked books. But there is a difference between liking books and needing them. I needed books. They weren't a luxury good during that time in my life. They were a Class A addictive substance. I'd have gladly got into serious debt to read (indeed, I did.) I think I read more books in those six months than I had done during five years of university education and I'd certainly fallen deeper into the worlds conjured on the page.
This part echoes what I always say about books: read because you need to, not because you have to. Read the books which teach you how to live, not the ones which teach you to sound smart. Read for the ability to breathe, not the ability to write a well-cited essay. Read because it lessens the pain, not because it passes the time. Likewise, I don't think I have ever read as little (by my standards) as I did during the brief time I studied English Literature at university. Being forced to analyse the words which I just wanted to absorb ruined my enjoyment.
There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don't really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping. It is not where we are but where we want to go and all that. 'Is there no way out of the mind?' Sylvia Plath famously asked. I had been interested in this question (what it means, what the answers might be) ever since I had come across it as a teenager in a book of quotations. If there is a way out, a way that isn't death itself, then the exit route is through books. But rather than leave the mind entirely, words help us leave a mind, and give us the building blocks to build another one, similar but better, near to the old one with firmer foundations and very often a better view.
Depression has a tendency to liquefy your sense of self. It causes a fracture in your mind, a sense that there are two parts - the part that wants to live and the part that wants everything to stop. Sometimes, when a bad patch ends, you are left unsure where the line between the depression and your personality lies. Sometimes you lose chunks of yourself along the way and can't quite work out how to retrieve them.
Books help. Books remind you of who you were, especially the books which you loved before it happened. During the bout of depression which landed me in a hospital, I struggled to focus on reading and would sometimes just sit and hug my favourite books, looking for the warmth they had always given me. The closest metaphor I can find for the sense of escaping depression through books is that feeling I used to get at school when a friend and I would skip class, run to the park and lie in the grass. We knew that soon we would have to go back and face up to the consequences, but at that point, all the pressures felt far away.
'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 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 endless. And the books themselves seemed to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to 'someone is looking for something.' One cliche attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me, books were my way out of being lonely.
We all have a tendency to picture our life as a story, with neat chapters and chains of events. As Hayden White has written, we cope with the past by finding morals and lessons in it. Depressions cuts chunks of out the narrative. I have blank spaces in my memory lasting months from times when I was too absorbed in the pain to be aware of what was happening around me. Books help us to recreate a new narrative. When you have no idea how you are going to handle the rest of the hour, let alone your life, reading the narratives of others who have survived the same sort of despair is incredibly strengthening. If each person with depression can find a way to give hope to someone else, maybe we can lift the collective load a little. Of course, Haig has reached and lifted up thousands of people through this book. But each time I write about my own ongoing struggle, I hope I can do the same for someone.
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.
There a lot of different things which can help with depression. Books just happen to be one of the best- they are cheap, accessible, they make you feel less alone and have the added advantage that you can pass the ones which make a difference on to other people.
If you are struggling right now, there are a few books I can recommend which have always helped me: On The Shortness of Life, Just Kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Embers, Madness, Lolita, The Virgin Suicides and The Bell Jar.
Important note: reading alone is not a cure for depression. I use them as a tool for coping, in addition to attending therapy and taking the right medication. If you suffer from mental health problems, please be aware that books, exercise, spending time outside etc are means of alleviating symptoms, not curing the problem.