Learning to live because of depression
Updated: May 14
Author Matt Haig is in his 40s, but he's written a guide to surviving and, indeed, thriving with depression that's pertinent to those in old age dogged by the condition as much as for those of younger years.
His description of approaching a cliff edge – literally as well as metaphorically – when in his 20s, and almost being propelled over the edge by his suicidal thoughts, stays long in the memory.
It took Haig many years to realise how depression was part of his personality and to embrace the sensitivities it afforded him rather than being destroyed by it.
It is the case that some older people's depression goes undiagnosed and untreated because doctors regard it as an inevitable part of growing old, or put their patients' symptoms down to other causes. Whether help comes in the form of drugs or talking therapy, for Haig it has always been talk which has assisted him the most. For depression, he argues, is so linked to shame:
'Depression is not something you "admit to", it is not something you have to blush about, it is a human experience. A boy-girl-man-woman-young-old-black-white-gay-straight-rich-poor experience. It is not you. It is simply something that happens to you. And something that can often be eased by talking. Words. Comfort. Support. It took me more than a decade to be able to talk openly, properly, to everyone, about my experience. I soon discovered that the act of talking is in itself a therapy. Where talk exists so does hope.' (p.67)
Haig draws on biographies, history and philosophy to chart the ways in which individuals and society have grappled with the problem of depression. He avoids discussing the 'soul' apart from at this point:
'When I sink deep, now, and I still do from time to time, I try to understand that there is another, bigger and stronger part of me that is not sinking. It stands unwavering. It is, I suppose, the part that would once have been called my soul.
'We don't have to call it that, if we think it has too many connotations. We can simply call it a self. Let's just understand this. If we are tired or hungry or hungover, we are likely to be in a bad mood. That bad mood is therefore not really us. To believe in the things we feel at that point is wrong because those feelings would disappear with food or sleep.
'But when I was at my lowest points I touched something solid, something hard and strong at the core of me. Something imperishable, immune to the changeability of thought. The self that is not only I but we. The self that connects me to you, and human to human.' (p. 235)
The conversational tone of this self-help book, endorsed by a host of celebrities who have spoken up about their own battles with depression, makes it easy to read. His 40 pieces of advice on 'How to live' will stimulate your own thoughts on what works uniquely for you… And the book concludes with a guide to further reading, and the first steps to 'seeking help for a mental health problem'.
This is a book to turn to if you who live with someone with depression, in order to understand their thought processes better, or even make sense of the tragedy of a close friend or relative who's ended their own life.
You may come to think of Reasons to Stay Alive (Canongate Books, 2015), as Joanna Lumley has, as 'a small masterpiece that might even save lives'.