Diary of a London Book Obsessive… to Battersea Arts Centre, 6 September 2014
According to the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 4 people in the UK experience some form of mental health problem each year, with by far the most common condition being a mixture of depression and anxiety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has estimated that by 2020, depression will be the second most prevalent mental health condition in world. Figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that as many as 1 in 5 adults in the UK experience some symptoms of depression at any one time. Depression can be a debilitating condition, affecting almost every aspect of life and relationships, making it difficult for suffers to lead normal lives and perform routine activities. At the extreme, it can lead to self-harm, overpowering feelings of worthlessness and suicide attempts.
Yet, despite such prevalence and its debilitating and potentially fatal effects, depression remains a social taboo, rarely discussed openly or with ease. Use of the term “the Big C” used to be widespread but society has become more comfortable with the language of cancer and oncology and less fearful of naming that particular demon. Not so depression which, is more often known as ‘the beast’, ‘the common cold of mental health’ and, mostly famously perhaps, the black dog. Those with depression often feel stigmatised by society, labelled as weak or whining, and blamed for a having mental disorder when in reality it is far from being a matter of individual will. It is telling that the late, great comedic artist, Robin Williams, frequently spoke quite openly and frankly of his troubles with addiction and substance abuse but chose not to discuss publicly his inner battles with the black dog of depression, a war which he so tragically lost.
“Winston Churchill had a black dog
his name was written on it
It followed him around from town to town
It’d bring him down
took him for a good long ride
took him for a good look around”
Reg Mombassa, Black Dog
This, then, makes the decision of Matt Haig, the super-talented, award-winning author known for treating troubling themes with side-splitting wit in novels such as The Dead Father’s Club (Jonathan Cape, 2006) and The Last Family in England (Jonathan Cape, 2004), to speak out about this own experiences with depression both brave and refreshing.
At a recent “meet the author” evening at Battersea Arts Centre (and event put on as part of Battersea Literature Festival), Matt spoke frankly of his own depression, of his darkest times – in 1999, while living Ibiza, he came close to suicide – of the effect his disorder had and continues to have on him and his family. He also said he was a peanut butter-eating, social media-time wasting, liar. To prove the last of these he recounted a time when he falsely told his tutor at university that his girlfriend was pregnant to explain a lack of application to his studies – a pretence he kept up for some weeks.
Haig admits that The Humans (in which an unnamed alien takes over the body of a quirky but genius Cambridge maths professor who, while struggling to get a grasp on the nature of humanity, becomes increasingly fond of his inherited earth-wife and earth-son who, in turn, seem not to notice any change in the professor) draws his own experience of depression. The alien is from a race of Vonnadorians. Their homeland is a loosely drawn Heaven. But it’s a Heaven where such things as art, painting and peanut butter – the small pleasures which bring joy to mankind but which most depressives are deprived of – are unknown. The parallel is deliberate: Haig argues that depression causes feelings of alienation, making outsiders of those it afflicts and detaching them from the giddy and glorious whirls of human life. The Humans, though, is still chokka-full of Haig’s trademark wit and relief and ultimately delivers a positive, life-affirming message. This is important to Haig: he believes that “depression lies about the future”, convincing those who have already reached the blackest depths of despair that there is no light, no way out and that it’s only worse from here on in. He calls The Humans “depression as comedy”. As such is it attempt to prove that depression, not Haig, is the liar of the piece. It might equally be called love is truth – as the alien/father tells his son in a 97 point letter of advice on how to live.
Quizzed by the audience, Haig explains how his experience of depression sensitised him to the good in life, to take pleasure in the small and the joyful and to be thankful for them. It seems there is also a direct connection to the formation of his creative style: after depression, the typical devices of narrative structure such a clear beginning, middle and end become reassuringly attractive. This shines through in The Humans which is ultimately a firmly plot-driven story well told.
Haig’s next outing promises to be equally brave but on a wholly different level and this time, despite some semi-autobiographical elements in The Humans, much more personal. In Reasons to Stay Alive, through a series of conversations with his younger self, Haig explores more directly the nature of his mental illness and discusses anxiety and depression alongside autobiographical anecdotes and reader contributions. Writing ‘fact’, Haig says, is scary: there is no fiction for the self to hide behind.
With the same self-effacement and contrariness that Haig shows in taking a comedic slant on depression in The Humans, he keeps the audience at Battersea Arts Centre laughing and joking while dwelling on a challenging and uncomfortable topic. (In this he ably assisted by Isabel Losada, author of The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment – the only book which has ever made me laugh out loud on the tube in rush hour. Londoners will understand such behaviour is wholly inappropriate.) If Reasons to Stay Alive has similar compassion and reassurance, then Haig need not worry much about putting himself on show; in doing so he will be making a valuable contribution towards dispelling the stigma of depression. After all, as Haig says on his blog “Stigma is what happens when ignorance meets realities that need an open mind”.
My thanks to Karen Sullivan, Managing Editor at Arcadia Books, for inviting me to the event; to fellow book blogger Liz Barnsley for making me feel not so completely out of my depth; to Matt Haig for making the evening both thought-provoking and entertaining (and for signing my copy of the The Humans; to Isabel Losada for making Battersea Literature Festival happen and for making me laugh (again); and to all four of them for being such great company.
Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive will be published by Canongate Books in April 2015. The Humans (Canongate, 2013) is available right now from all good bookshops and probably some not quite so good ones too.