By Anne-Marie Gawen
Anxious in some ways as a child and not quite comfortable in his own skin, Matt had a ‘meltdown’ aged 24 whilst living a hedonistic lifestyle in Ibiza with his girlfriend Andrea. Alcohol seemed to have played a large part – whether just because that was what happens on ‘party island’ or to quash his creeping anxieties. Matt writes about his breakdown, the aftermath and his recovery in ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’.
The weight of being
Unable to continue there, he and Andrea moved back home to live with his parents, and there his life nosedived into a painful existence of overwhelming anxieties and depression.
He describes all this time quite unflinchingly from the position of survival several years later. This must have been tortuous for him, as it was a bleak time indeed. Feeling a failure, feeling hopeless, ‘The weight of being a son that had gone wrong, the weight of being loved, the weight of being a disappointment. The weight of being a hope that hadn’t happened the way it should have’. Heartbreaking. He had to go back to the place that he nearly didn’t survive to see how he DID survive, and for that I thank him. He quotes H Murakami, ‘When the storm is over you won’t remember how you survived, or in fact whether the storm IS over. One thing is certain, when you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in’.
He makes some very interesting points. Is mental health SO separate from physical health? There are many physical manifestations of mental health; so much happens away from the mind/brain. He is keen for the message that this is a temporary state to get through, citing all the negative thoughts of wanting to die, hating yourself, things are only going to get worse as symptoms of the illness; he considers the mind to have its own ‘weather systems’. ‘You are in a hurricane – hurricanes run out of energy. Hold on’.
The concern for him from others was shockingly missing
One great chapter name (and there are a few gems of Chapter Headings!) is ‘Things That Have Happened to Me That Have Generated More Sympathy Than Depression’. Scalding a hand, losing a job, bad Amazon reviews, norovirus, IBS, lower back pain. Matt makes the stigma clear, showing that how we feel about people with mental health problems is skewed. You see the damage and pain his illness caused him and how the concern for him from others was shockingly missing. It seems easier to show our concern for minor glitches, physical ailments and disappointments than the total devastation that anxiety and depression bring. I am sure all those who have experienced something similar will relate to this.
‘Don’t make the depressive feel weirder than they already feel’
He talks of the intensity of it: that it is off the scale of ‘normal emotion’. It overwhelms the sufferer, and maybe that is also what makes it so difficult for people who do care to know how to help, and makes people likely to avoid if possible? He has a chapter called ‘How To Be There For Someone With Anxiety Or Depression’. LISTEN, get educated, appreciate it is an illness, ‘Don’t make the depressive feel weirder than they already feel’.
He does feel though that out of this crushing, devastating, lonely experience, pleasure can eventually grow.
The book is written in a very accessible format – very short chapters – sometimes less than a full page, lists, lots of aspects covered. Great titles too for some of these chapters: ‘In Praise Of Thin Skin’. How time is so important and how to work with time, mindfulness, the love of his Andrea and others. It is a very personal book and yet at the same time full of universally applicable truths, painfully learned.
Obviously he survived his ‘hurricane’ and is reporting back from the front line. He lists things that now make him worse – lack of sleep, feeling ignored, advertising, sitting for too long etc. Also things that make him better – running, sleep, summer, music, being with people he loves, mindfulness etc.
Reasons to stay alive
His second to last chapter ‘How To Live – 40 Pieces Of Advice’, lists: Appreciate happiness when it is there, Sip don’t gulp, Be gentle with yourself, Be kind, Don’t watch TV mindlessly, 3 in the morning is never a good time to sort out your life, Trees, Be brave, Be strong and keep going, Read.
And then lastly – ‘Things I Have Enjoyed Since I Thought I Would Never Enjoy ANYTHING Again’. (I told you some chapters had great headings!!!) Seas, Rivers, Pub Meals, Watching his son being born, Country music, Christmas trees, Laughing, Talking to friends, Talking to strangers, Writing his book. A very moving chapter for all who have been to a place where life seemed to be over and hopeless. Add your own and feel grateful and happy.
A practical, easy to read book that is thoughtful and real
Thanks Matt – I am sure you really wanted to write ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’. You have done an eloquent job of describing what it felt like, how you can recover and grow from these experiences, and your lessons learned. I doubt there will be a single person who cannot learn something about themselves as they read this book.