The guru of mental health speaks about his own difficulties, coping with lows during lockdown and why Meghan Markle deserves a break
Matt Haig is being quite hard on himself. He’s calling himself “the vanilla option”, “mainstream, like Ed Sheeran or Coldplay” and his new non-fiction book of mental health wisdom is “fortune cookie stuff … I can understand why people would be cynical about me”. The cynics would be missing out. Haig is down-to-earth, off-beat, intelligent and funny.
The Comfort Book – his follow up to the zillion-selling Reasons to Stay Alive and Notes on a Nervous Planet, and directly after his 2020 bestselling novel The Midnight Library – is brilliant, full of nuggets of profundity to consume when you’re feeling low. And he has a way of discussing mental health that rises above the general confessional noise.
The opening quote of the book comes from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “Do not think that the person who is trying to console you lives effortlessly among the simple quiet words that sometimes make you feel better.”
But nobody who has paid any attention to Haig’s career could think that of him. Like so many of the greatest gurus of our time (Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle to name but two), he had his own mental-health crisis before finding success as an author.
Twenty-one years ago, when he was 24, he walked to the edge of a cliff in Ibiza and came very close to jumping. He stopped just one step away.
“As soon as I say I was in Ibiza, people assume I was high on drugs but during this terrible period I was completely sober,” he tells the Sunday Independent. “We had been living in Spain for three years. So we
weren’t on holidays, we were living there and had jobs.”
He’d been for a run in the warm September sunshine when he began to feel bad. In Reasons to Stay Alive, he describes how what started with a “strange flickering” inside his head, soon felt as if the “Big Bang” had smashed him to pieces.
“I thought I was going to die. My heart was beating so fast. Although it’s called mental health, for me it felt totally physical. My skin was alert. I wanted to be out of my own body. It felt very overwhelming.
“You can’t really feel suicidal while you are fighting panic. But after that this huge depression came over me. It wasn’t from any grief or drug taken or life event, there was no one trigger. And because of that I felt trapped. Human beings are resilient when they feel things will change but depression can tell you there is no way out.”
He went to bed for three days but didn’t sleep. His then-girlfriend (now wife) Andrea brought him fruit but he couldn’t eat. On the third day, he left the room and walked to the edge of a cliff, pausing when he was just one step away from the precipice. “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to die as that I didn’t want to live any more,” he says.
In the end, something stopped him. He was terrified by the idea the fall would not kill him and he would end up paralysed instead. He thought of all of the possibilities of life he would be cutting off. He remembered the love of his father, mother, sister and girlfriend. And so he stopped, turned around and returned to the villa, where he threw up from the stress.
His recovery from this moment took some time. He learned to take care of himself and gave up alcohol for eight years.
He also leaned on Andrea. “I wasn’t the easiest person to be in a relationship with because I went from being someone who wanted to stay out until 6am to being an agoraphobic who didn’t want to go out. I still have guilt because she had to be a
carer all of a sudden.”
The couple flew home and spent a year living with his parents in his childhood home of Newark in the English midlands.
He eschewed medication (once telling an interviewer “I did take diazepam, but it just made me feel worse”), but a combination of time, love, reading and physical exercise helped him to regaining some kind of mental equilibrium.
His recovery proved freeing in many ways. A year after he and Andrea moved home he began writing, something he hadn’t done since he was in his teens.
“When you overcome depression, you think, ‘What other things in my life can
I overcome where I thought I was stuck?’. It gave me that fight. I remember not even minding rejection letters.
“Most people might have given up but I saw it all as part of a curve. I had a strong sense of what I wanted: to get published.”
He’d written five novels and several children’s books before Reasons to Stay Alive became one of 2015’s surprise hits.
The book, a memoir of living with anxiety disorder and depression, won warm praise from the likes of Stephen Fry and Jo Brand and made him into something of an accidental authority on mental health issues. That wasn’t always easy.
“When Reasons to Stay Alive was top of the charts, everyone thought I was on top of the world but it was very exposing and
I felt in a very vulnerable place.”
He would receive dozens of messages a day and found that people often treated him as though he were “the Samaritans”.
“There was a moment when a woman got in touch with me on social media. She had taken an overdose and I was the only person that she told. I didn’t know who she was – she had quite an anonymous handle. I didn’t know how to handle it. I was wondering ‘Do I put her handle out there online?’ I was on to the police and trying to find out who she was.
“It had a happy ending. She survived, and she was known to local services, but it really shook me up.”
Until the point of his own breakdown he’d had no real awareness of depression. He would later find out his mother suffered from postnatal depression after having him and his sister but she hadn’t spoken to him about it. Both that fact – the fear of there being a genetic component – and his desire to preserve his own delicate recovery made him hesitate to have children.
“I’d got my health to a certain place where it was good but it felt delicate, I felt
I had to keep things the same. I felt like
I wanted things to stay working. I was well but with a lot of conditions. My fear was that kids would send me back there because of sleep deprivation and constraints and freedom and so on.”
When his son Lucas was born in 2008 he felt an extreme sense of gratitude. “Having said that, a year after I had my son, I got a bit wobbly again. We had money worries. My publisher dropped me. I was knackered, and had a bit of depression and it was difficult to get out of because I was up at four in the morning and every night it felt like I was getting worse. But it didn’t last and generally my mental health has been better since having kids.”
He’s honest and open with them about his own struggles, he says. “Obviously you can’t shield your kids totally from what you’re going through but I’m reasonably good at explaining to them if I’m depressed that it’s not about them. I try to treat it like it’s having the flu.”
His children, Pearl and Lucas, are now 11 and 12. Kids have a way of understanding how to get adults to do what they want so I wonder if his own ever marshal the language of psychology in their petitions.
“My daughter frames things in terms
of mental health. She’ll have a normal night’s worries but talk about it in terms of anxiety. My son is very chill. He has worries but he’s really on the level. My kids get their worries out. They have a house where they can talk about their worries, maybe too much.”
Hilariously he tells me that his son is “not really into Matt Haig as an author”.
He still minds himself now and says one unexpected benefit of his Ibiza breakdown was it helped him to give up alcohol for a number of years.
“It would have been hard for me to give up alcohol without the breakdown but in terms of the addiction the breakdown was the cure. It was only when I felt reasonably stable and had kids that a little bit of drink eased back in. I never call myself teetotal any more than I call myself ‘better’. I’m always a work in progress.”
He says he detects the conversation around depression and anxiety has shifted.
“A few years ago people were just grateful if some millionaire on television spoke about a mental health issue because it made them feel better about themselves,” he says. “But now it feels like there is so much of it. It’s become every magazine article, every newspaper interview.
“And there is a split as with so many social movements. The split is between social reasons for mental health – like poverty – and other reasons.
“We have to remember that you can be Anthony Bourdain or Caroline Flack or Meghan Markle and still want to die in a way that someone in externally worse social circumstance doesn’t want to die.”
Right, but what would he say to those who feel in, say, Markle’s case that her openness about her mental health difficulties was both a sword and a shield; a well-timed chess move in a bigger game?
“I can understand why there might be eye rolling. It’s possible that you can use mental health, like you can use anything, as a shield. If you take Meghan Markle, she was apparently the most trolled woman in the world in 2019. That has to take its toll.
“If you compared her to Michael J Fox who has a physical condition [Parkinson’s disease], that shield is built in but with mental health you have to speak it.”
He worries that slamming high profile people, not for what they do, but for simply being open about their mental health, has wider social implications. “Those criticisms do stop other people speaking about them and feed into the stigma.”
The last 18 months hasn’t been easy. He says he’s had “some of my biggest lows in recent memory” during lockdown.
“My own anxiety is related to being unable to control the future. My pandemic anxiety was very much centred around that.”
He also recalls how in March last year “when we were watching the news and they were saying it was going to be like the Blitz, that was psychologically hard for me. I’m quite good within a crisis: what I’m bad at is catastrophising. When there isn’t a massive danger right there in the present that’s hard for me”.
When the first lockdown began, he says, ”I got into my routine and there were things that were quite positive. It was nice not having to commute into London or have pointless face-to-face meetings where you’re already stressed out when you get there because you’re exhausted.”
Writing about mental health themes has also left him somewhat jaded, he says. “Right now I feel like this is the last thing I will ever write about mental health,” he says, referring to his new book. “I don’t feel I have more to contribute. I have written 21 books and only three books have been about mental health.”
Still, he will return to the material in The Comfort Book, to soothe himself. His favourite quote in it comes from the philosopher Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river, twice, for he’s not the same man and it’s not the same river.”
It’s a quote about acceptance of change and uncertainty. “My own anxiety and stress is related to not being able to
control the future. This is a book of therapy for myself because I wasn’t in the best place and these were the kinds of things
I wanted to hear.”
‘The Comfort Book’ is published by Canongate and out on Tuesday, €13.99; the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 day or night.