Matt Haig’s advice for life

Matt Haig pictured at his home at York...SH10012101a.19th February 2015 ..Picture by Simon Hulme
Matt Haig pictured at his home at York...SH10012101a.19th February 2015 ..Picture by Simon Hulme
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In September, 1999 Matt Haig left the apartment he shared with his girlfriend in a quiet corner of Ibiza with just one thought. He was going to commit suicide.

Today he is a successful, award-winning author, his girlfriend from back then is now his wife, they have two beautiful children and a house in one of the most desirable parts of York.

In between, there were months when he wondered whether he would ever glimpse normality again.

The fact he not only came through, but as a result of depression found a whole new career as a writer - since 2005 he’s had seven novels published - was why he wanted to write his first work of non-fiction - Reasons to Stay Alive.

As the title suggests, the book tells the story of how he made it back from that clifftop in Ibiza, via his family home in Newark and a cheap flat in the student area of Leeds.

“It was an intense process, but it was as though I was writing about a different person. People say you can’t write a honest book about yourself without betraying someone, but I hope that’s not true. My mum has just read it and there were a series of long emotional texts. Everyone close to me has their own memories of that time and going back there is difficult for all of us.”

Despite the subject matter, Matt says he was determined that the book should not only be honest, but also optimistic.

“I didn’t want it to be a misery memoir. Depression tells you all sorts of lies, ones which you believe, which I believed, but I want people to read it and realise however dark it gets there is a way out the other side.” Throughout the 260 or so pages, Matt also address the myths and misconceptions which surround mental illness.

“You would never ask someone, ‘So what do you think you did to cause the colon cancer?’, but it’s exactly the kind of question you get asked about mental illness.”

Stood on that clifftop back in 1999 Matt says the reason he didn’t jump was two-fold. Partly it was knowing that there were people in the world who loved him, partly it was fear that he might end up paralysed rather than dead.

His girlfriend Andrea arranged for them to fly back to England and they returned to Matt’s parents in Newark where he spent the next three months confronting - and sometimes trying to hide from - the very worst of the disease. While he makes it clear that he is not against pills, his own experience of antidepressants was not a good one.

“I did take diazepam, but it just made me feel worse. It was like I was having one continuous panic attack, so I did everything I could to avoid them. Andrea saw that when I came off the drugs I was a little better, not much, but a little and so she understood how I felt. Maybe in a parallel universe, one where I had taken anti-anxiety medication I may have got better quicker or perhaps felt less pain. I don’t know, but at the time it wasn’t for me.”

With herbal remedies and homeopathic treatment also making no diffrence, Matt’s world shrank and when he and Andrea moved to a flat in Leeds the only real escape he found from depression was through books.

He read everything from Graham Greene to Keats to the Diary of Samuel Pepys almost obsessively and he believes he became a writer because not despite of depression.

“Before my illness, I had no confidence and no ambition. I’d given journalism a go when I was in my early 20s, but it hadn’t worked out and I think if something fairly catastrophic hadn’t happened I would probably have ended up sliding into a state where I drank more and more.

“I’m not saying that I’m a better writer than I would have been without depression, but it certainly gave me focus and a sense of determination.”

The turning point for Matt came in April 2000 when he had what he describes as a “moment of nothingness... a break in the clouds, a sign that the sun was still there, somewhere.” The knowledge that there would be a time when those brief seconds turned into minutes and hours were, he says, key. As he began reconnecting with the world, he also sent off his first manuscript.

“My first book, The Last Family in England, had talking dogs in it, so it was a hard sell, but the last publisher on my list gave me a chance. It came with the smallest of advances, but I didn’t mind, I had a foot in the door.” Matt followed it up with a clutch of similarly quirky novels, including The Humans which sees an alien threaten to destroy the world while masquerading as a mathematics lecturer. He still occassionally feels the fog of depression descending, but now he knows how to manage it.

“I do believe that physical and mental health are linked, so I try not to drink too much, take exercise and get enough sleep.”

Aside from Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt has recently written a screenplay for The Humans and has an idea for a new book about someone who ages incredibly slowly.

“Maybe it’s because I’m in my 40th year. Let’s call it a midlife crisis.”

He might be right, but it’s one for a while in his early 20s he never thought he’d see.

Matt Haig will be appearing at Waterstone’s In Leeds on March 18.