“Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (2015)

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reasons“Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.”

Mental illness still carries something of a stigma in our society. Perhaps because the effects are not immediately so obvious than they are with, say, a broken leg or a third degree burn, some people are still inclined to think that they aren’t real. However, depression, anxiety and the whole plethora of mental conditions available to humanity are incredibly real, particularly for those suffering from them.

I’m never going to be so arrogant as to assume I know what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness. I’ve brushed up against something that may have been depression, and if I was to qualify whatever issues I have now, I’d say it’s something akin to anxiety, but I’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything so I’m always wary to use the terms and claim myself to be something I’m not. Nonetheless, much as you don’t need to be a woman to read Animal, you don’t need to have depression to read Reasons to Stay Alive.

Matt Haig is an man who I feel I know better than I do. I’ve only actually read one of his novels so far, The Humans, but adored it beyond measure. I think following him on Twitter does a lot for feeling I know him, and indeed this book does too. His other novels are now on my Amazon wishlist. In this book, Haig talks about his struggle with depression. One day, while he and his then-girlfriend Andrea were living and working in Ibiza, he quite suddenly collapsed into a pit of despair that he was entirely unable to climb out of. The book meanders through his life story as he details his childhood, his depression and his recovery, because recover he does.

Haig knows that depression is not forever, and while maybe it can never go away for good, it can be fought, and it can be controlled. His words are, frankly, beautiful. His writing is so raw and honest, and you can’t but love him and wish him well. You’re so proud of him. And you’re so proud of everyone who has struggled with the Black Dog, who has fought through this storm, and come out the other side a more resilient person. Amongst some very private personal details, Haig also fills us in on the primary symptoms of depression and anxiety, deals with famous people who have suffered from it and shown how it doesn’t have to debilitate you – Buzz Aldrin, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana and Stephen Fry all suffer or suffered from mental illnesses, to name five, and our culture reveres them all – as well as listing off a general collection of helpful pieces of advice that can make things more bearable.

He also deals with the important issue of being a man with depression. It might not feel like there needs to be a distinction made between men and women on this front, but he points out that while more women are diagnosed with depression, more men commit suicide, which is strongly linked to having depression. Why is this? Although he doesn’t go into it in much detail, it is suggested that this is because society expects men to be tough. “Boys don’t cry” as the old saying goes. Utter rubbish. Toxic masculinity seems to force men to keep their true feelings inside as to show that you’re struggling is to show a weakness, and men must not be weak. Sexism does damage in both directions.

I have little to say about this book that hasn’t already been said by other people. Joanna Lumley called it “a small masterpiece that might even save lives”; the Rev Richard Coles declared it “should be on prescription”. Jo Brand, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, S J Watson and Simon Mayo all give it great reviews, and I’m inclined to trust and agree with the lot of them. It’s not often a book lives up to the hype, but this one certainly does.

Matt Haig has done something wonderful, and I would encourage everyone to read this and remind themselves that while life might get tough at times – Lord knows mine has been a struggle this week – there are plenty of reasons to stay alive.

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“Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson (2012)

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Yes, that's a taxidermied mouse.

Yes, that’s a taxidermied mouse.

“This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t.”

My bedroom, as you might imagine, looks like a small branch of Waterstone’s. I read extensively and constantly, and always have a book recommendation ready for any occasion. Hell, that’s the reason I write the damn blog. And thank you for reading. My sister’s bedroom, however, looks like a branch of HMV, shelved almost entirely with DVDs. As such, imagine my surprise when a package arrived from her (she’s currently in Australia, farming wombats or something) containing a book that was for me to read because it was hysterically funny. Bear in mind, that my sister really doesn’t read much, so this is like getting a recipe from Paul McCartney for BBQ ribs. Nonetheless, I trust her and if she claims something is funny, it probably is, as we share a sense of humour.

I went into the book blind. I don’t know who Jenny Lawson is, other than from what I gleaned from a little bit of research beforehand. She is, effectively, just a blogger and writer, who talks to the Internet at large about her life and the socially awkward things that happen to her in it. This book is her autobiography, a project usually reserved for more famous faces (and people on TOWIE). This could’ve gone so wrong, but thankfully it went so right.

Jenny grew up in Wall, Texas, living a life that was anything but normal. To my standards at least. Her father is a taxidermist who also loved adopting animals and introducing them around the house, often without any warning to the rest of the family who would suddenly find a bobcat in the living room. On one occasion, he adopts a load of turkeys and insists on claiming that they are quail, only for them to latch onto Jenny and follow her to school repeatedly, ending in an incident when one (called Jenkins) gets into the school cafeteria and shits everywhere. This is just from one of the first chapters and it doesn’t get any less insane from there.

Jenny covers her life quickly and breezily, with genuinely funny observations. She has had a strange life so far and it has included such unforgettable moments as wearing a deer, discovering no one has taught her how to sit on a couch correctly, being woken up by a puppet made from half a dead squirrel, taking acid, spa weekends with women who might actually have their lives together, talking to people at parties about getting stabbed in the face, and getting her hand stuck in a cow’s vagina. Along the way she drops off valuable pointers about life, such as how to bury a dog (and chase off the vultures who try to undo your work), why Neil Patrick Harris would be a successful mass murderer, and why you should always ask your estate agent how many bodies are buried on the premises of the house you’re buying.

Despite the quick jokes and fast-paced storytelling that Jenny mostly goes in for, there are some heartbreaking chapters that reveal truly awful moments in her life that just aren’t possible to ignore or make light of. She suffers hugely from anxiety attacks, has arthritis and suffered two miscarriages, and yet remains such a positive upbeat narrator. The stories that do allow for comedy have it in spades and I laughed out loud numerous times throughout the book. Some of her stories seem so outlandish that you wonder for a moment if she’s made them up, but I don’t know if anyone could. Also, she tends to have photo evidence of many of them.

Her love for her husband Victor and daugher Hailey is incredible and while she’s probably not someone I’d want to leave alone for too long with my children (if I had any), she’s one of those people who means well and just wants to make the most of her life. And she most certainly has done that. Hilarious, warm and occasionally shocking, I most certainly will not be pretending that this never happened.