It was 2am when I finished Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. 

Normally finishing a book this late is a good thing. It gives my subconscious the responsibility of organising my thoughts. Deciding what I liked. What I didn’t. My subconscious has the job of dealing with the emotions that came with reading and accepting the things I know won’t leave me. Reasons to Stay Alive, however, kept me up. It convinced my brain that it was my conscious that needed to make these decisions. I tossed and I turned and I got up and washed my hair.

At 5am, I was still wide awake. I was pondering each and every word. Making mental lists of what my reasons to stay alive were. Trying to remember what it was that made me turn back from the darkest moments. 

I found myself eager to purchase a dozen copies and send them to all those people in my life who believe mental illness is a lie. A ploy. A phase. An excuse to get away with things ‘normal’ people can’t. Fashionable. But these people, I realised, would disregard this incredible book just as they disregard me. Their cousin. Their niece. Their friend. They would brush it off just as they brush off my ‘quirks’ as ‘attention seeking’. They would never understand. Perhaps they choose not to. Perhaps they lack the ability to. Who knows.

But Matt Haig understood.

He had experienced it. Felt the pins and needles at the back of your head, fought against the sudden inability to take more than just a shallow breath, struggled with the fear of… everything. He understood the ANTs (which I recently learnt was an anacronym that stands for Automatic Negative Thoughts, not just a way to describe the feeling of metaphorical ants crawling across your brain), the need to hide away, the urge to scream and cry and tear your hair out one strand at a time.

Matt Haig lived it. Survived it.

Matt Haig shared it. He pointed out thoughts I related to but had never realised were part of my illness. Things I thought were just… me. He reminded me that no two experiences of mental illness are the same so it’s okay if one remedy works and another doesn’t. 

He explained that science still has a long way to go in understanding the brain. That it is infinite, a galaxy, a universe, within our skulls. In our lifetime, science may never explain what it is that’s going on with our minds, but that’s okay. We don’t need to fix it. We don’t need to end it. We just need to find our way through the dark tunnel and emerge in the light. To remember that the sun is always in the sky, even if thunder clouds are blocking it out of view. 

Through his words I suddenly understood why the urge to read and write helps the anxiety, the uncompromising fear and everything else that comes with being me. I accepted that I may not always know why I feel the way I feel, or act the way I act, but that it’s all okay. It’ll pass. There is light. 

Reasons to Stay Aliveilluminated thoughts and patterns I had never noticed in my own mental illness. Travel, for example, calms my brain. My healing truly began in February of last year when I stepped off the plane from Edinburgh to Brussels. When I surrendered all thoughts of fear and shame. When I spent hours meandering through streets, speaking a language I didn’t entirely understand, drinking new beers and eating new chocolate, experiencing things I hadn’t even dreamt of before, and claiming sanctuary in cathedrals when that anxiety crept up on me. Did I realise this at the time? Not at all. Did I realise it between then and reading the book? Perhaps subconsciously. But after reading about how travel helps Haig, it clicked. I understood the calm he talks about feeling, temporary as it may be.

To put it simply, Reasons to Stay Alive gives you hope. Understanding. It pushes you towards the path that leads to the light instead of towards the darkness. It reminds you that change is inevitable. That things end. All things. And all you need it the perseverance to see it through.  

But I don’t believe this book is only for people who suffer from depression or anxiety. It’s not just a book for the mentally ill. It’s a book for everyone. It helps people notice the signs of depression and anxiety in others, too. To catch a glimpse what it can feel like for someone in the depths of it. What’s going through the sufferer’s brain. Body. And it lists ways you, as a friend, can help. It shoots the idea of ‘tough love’ in the foot and points out, instead, that all you need to do is be there. 

Haig ends his list on things that sometimes makes him feel better with “knowing that someone else may read these words and that, just maybe, the pain I felt wasn’t for nothing.” To that, I say this: I read every word on every page and the pain was definitely not for nothing.

Photography from The Guardian and Bendigo Writers Festival.