Anyone who experiences anxiety and depression knows that it can feel like a personal battle. Those who suffer often feel they’re alone in the fight. They’re reluctant to share their struggle for fear of judgment.
I know how that feels. That was me, 12 years ago, riddled with social and general anxiety disorder.
I’m on the other side of it and can talk openly about my experience, triggers, and how I handle anxiety daily. Yet, I still feel alone in my fears.
That is until I read Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive for Caitriona Balfe’s book club.
When Caitriona announced the book at the end of August, some book club members mentioned they couldn’t read it because it was too triggering. I completely understand why, as Haig paints vivid pictures of his experiences with depression.
I hesitated at first — did I want the same experience? I thought about the mindset work I do daily, meditation practices that help me stay present and positive. Yes, I’m in the right place to read this book.
After reading just the first few pages, I knew I made the right choice. If Haig published this book only seven years earlier, it would have been a constant companion in my darkest, fear-filled days. Even though the focus is on depression while I faced anxiety, my initial reaction was:
It’s not just me. I’m not alone in this.
Here’s why this book resonated so strongly with me, and why it will be a staple of my yearly reading endeavors:
It shows we’re not alone
Anxiety took hold of me during and immediately following college. I didn’t understand what it was at the time, and neither did my friends. To them, I was “overreacting” to situations, and in other instances, “shy.” I knew it was more than that, and it took seeing a psychologist for me to understand what happened in my mind and body was more than just being upset over being left out or a case of nerves.
“To other people, it seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames…When you are depressed you feel alone, and that no one is going through quite what you are going through.”
Even though I opened up to close friends, I felt alone in my battle. They didn’t understand it and couldn’t see why it affected me the way it did.
I’ve made other friends over the years, many who acutely understand social and general anxiety. I started to feel less alone with friends with similar experiences and somewhat less stigma attached to it. And in Reasons to Stay Alive, Haig not only describes his own experiences but those of prominent figures right down to everyday people. Just knowing it’s not a singular experience is an immense weight off my shoulders.
“It helps to know you’re not alone.”
I kept a journal at the height of my anxiety. It detailed the interactions and events I found triggering, how I responded, and my outcome. It was cathartic and helped me to understand my feelings about the situations stemmed from my thoughts, but I was so anxious someone would find it that I shredded every page.
If you asked me to tell you details of those years, I could only describe the feelings. Everything else is a blur.
It’s why this book resonated so strongly with me. Haig is honest and raw in describing his experiences, and he doesn’t shy away from vivid details and thoughts. He lists his symptoms, what makes it worse, and what makes it better. The anecdotes and conversations give insight into his mindset and therapy. When others, including myself, can barely speak “I have anxiety” or “I have depression,” Haig opens the door to his mind and life.
It’s that authenticity and storytelling that prompted the memories of my own experiences with anxiety to surface. Now years beyond the worst of it, I can reflect and understand my mental health, my triggers, and the power cognitive therapy and self-coaching had on moving past that time.
It gives hope
The latter sections of the book, Living, and Being, provide advice and hope that there is a way out of the darkness and fear. Haig shows that healing isn’t linear, but simple changes can help you move forward.
“I knew that down wasn’t the only direction. If you hung in there, if you stuck it out, then things got better. They get better and then they get worse and then they get better.”
It’s understanding the small things that can help you focus on something else, to help you stay present. For Haig, it was running; for me, it was horseback riding.
It’s enjoying the little things and finding gratitude. It’s knowing you’re not alone and sharing your experiences with others.
But most of all, it’s your reason to stay alive.
Haig dedicated nine pages to sharing responses to his online inquiry of “What keeps you going?” Tagged with #reasonstostayalive, these responses are heartbreaking and inspiring. And they give hope that there’s life beyond the darkness and fear.
Reasons to Stay Alive wouldn’t be in my collection if it weren’t for Caitriona’s book club, but I am grateful she selected it as the monthly read. It’s a challenging read for some, but I found understanding, light, and hope through heavy content. I found support and a message that life is more than our fears.
“Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.”