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Book Summary: Reasons to Stay Alive – An optimistic memoir about depression and anxiety

Reasons to Stay Alive (2015) tells the story of Matt Haig’s struggle with depression and anxiety, which was so severe that he had constant panic attacks and feared leaving the house. It reveals how Haig learned to channel his natural intensity into the creation of art and developed some unusual techniques for easing his distressed mind.

Book Summary: Reasons to Stay Alive - An optimistic memoir about depression and anxiety

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: Become inspired to befriend your demons.
Matt Haig suddenly began to experience intense anxiety, and it affected every aspect of his life.
There were warning signs that could have alerted Haig to the coming breakdown.
We don’t know exactly what causes anxiety and depression, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to fix it.
People with depression, and especially men, suffer from social isolation.
Books became a lifeline for Haig because they gave him language to understand his experience.
Haig started to recover by running toward what he most feared.
Having anxiety and depression can make you more perceptive and empathetic.
Recovery from depression isn’t linear.
Summary
About the author
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Psychology, Nutrition, Biography, Memoir, Mental Health, Self Help, Autobiography, Mental Illness, Death and Grief, Depression, Anxiety, Philosophy, Humor, Inspirational, Coping with Suicide Grief

Introduction: Become inspired to befriend your demons.

What would you do if, without warning, you were no longer able to make sense of the world around you? If the very fabric of your mind seemed to unravel, and you were suddenly unable to think?

In his early twenties, after experiencing a panic attack so severe that he was unable to leave the house, Matt Haig had to grapple with precisely these questions. The answers he arrived at are both inspired and inspiring. Rather than avoiding his discomfort, or numbing it with drugs and alcohol, he allowed himself to feel fully for the first time in his life.

In these summaries, you’ll learn how Haig developed a method of fighting fear with fear, and refused to allow himself to hide in his comfort zone. You’ll also learn how books became a lifeline for him, providing company when he was at his loneliest and giving him a language to understand his experiences.

In these summaries, you’ll discover

  • why being depressed made Abraham Lincoln a great leader;
  • how running and meditation can make us feel better; and
  • why men are more at risk of dying by suicide.

Matt Haig suddenly began to experience intense anxiety, and it affected every aspect of his life.

On a warm sunny day in Ibiza, Spain, Matt Haig experienced a rush of panic so intense that he couldn’t get out of bed. He was 24 years old, and had been living in a beautiful villa with his girlfriend, working at a nightclub over the summer.

He’d been drinking a lot and was sometimes worried about what to do with his life, but up until then he hadn’t felt particularly depressed. Then the panic began.

For three days, Haig could neither sleep nor get out of bed. The panic was constant, unrelenting. His heart pounded so hard he felt sure he would die.

The key message here is: Matt Haig suddenly began to experience intense anxiety, and it affected every aspect of his life.

At one stage, the feeling of panic became unbearable, and Haig seriously thought about taking his own life. He even went and stood at the edge of a cliff near the villa, willing himself to jump off. But the thought of the pain his death would cause his loved ones held him back.

His girlfriend, Andrea, was, understandably, very worried. She insisted they visit a doctor, who prescribed some tranquilizers. They didn’t help much, but at least they dulled Haig’s senses long enough to allow him to return home to the United Kingdom, where his parents were anxiously waiting.

To an outsider, their lives in the United Kingdom might have seemed very peaceful. Haig lounged around the house, read the paper, did some cooking. But his thoughts were anything but peaceful. He was in the grip of a toxic combination of depression and anxiety. While the depression filled him with dark thoughts, making him feel worthless and futureless, the anxiety flooded him with constant panic.

Even a trip to the corner store became a major ordeal. Haig would set off to buy something simple like a bottle of milk, and start hyperventilating as soon as he left the house. He’d start hallucinating that demons were taunting him, or imagine that something terrible was about to happen.

Inside the shop, his anxiety would become even worse. He’d become so overwhelmed by all the products with their bright labels that he could barely find the milk. When he finally found it, he still had to suffer through a social interaction with the cashier, trying desperately to appear normal.

There were warning signs that could have alerted Haig to the coming breakdown.

Can intense anxiety and depression really strike like a bolt from the blue? Such a bolt seemed to have struck Haig. The abrupt onset of what he describes as his “breakdown” was terrifying. It felt as though a switch had been flipped in his brain, triggering a sudden malfunction. However, in retrospect, he can see that he started feeling anxious long before the panic attacks he experienced in Ibiza.

The key message in this summary is: There were warning signs that could have alerted Haig to the coming breakdown.

Haig remembers first feeling anxious at the age of ten. He always hated when his parents went out at night, and he can vividly remember sitting at home as a child, waiting for them to return, fearing the worst. Had they been in an accident? Or mauled by wild dogs?

This separation anxiety only increased during his teenage years. When he was 13, for instance, he went on a school camping trip and had to sleep in a barn with the boys in his class. This made him so anxious that, while fully asleep, he began shouting and then sleepwalked to a window and punched his arm through the glass.

Haig’s anxiety didn’t disappear when he went to college, either, though he dulled it with alcohol. But even a few stiff drinks couldn’t stifle the panic he felt when he had to do a 20-minute presentation on cubism for an art history course. The thought of speaking in public made him want to hyperventilate, but there was no way to get out of it. He hid in the toilet until just before the class began, and then forced himself to stumble through the notes he’d prepared. The intense pressure took a toll. It made him derealize for the first time: he started to feel completely detached from his body, like he was on the outside, looking in.

Of course, it’s easy to see warning signs in retrospect. At the time, these incidents felt normal to Haig. And, in a sense, they are normal. We all have experiences of feeling anxious from time to time. But when does an anxious feeling turn into a full-blown breakdown? Haig believes that his anxiety got so bad because he tried so hard to repress it. He desperately wanted to fit in with the people around him, so he tried to tone down his anxious intensity, or drown it out with booze.

We don’t know exactly what causes anxiety and depression, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to fix it.

Modern medicine has come up with cures for ailments that, just a few decades ago, seemed incurable. HIV is now no longer a death sentence, and childbirth is not an experience that women have to fear. We’ve become used to finding scientific answers to all our problems.

Unfortunately, the scientific research is much less conclusive when it comes to depression. What causes it? How can we fix it? There is no definitive answer. And there are many conflicting theories.

The key message here is: We don’t know exactly what causes anxiety and depression, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to fix it.

For a long time, researchers have believed that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Specifically, that people with depression have low levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that scientists believe helps regulate your mood. That hypothesis has spawned a six-billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry.

But it’s not that simple. While pharmaceutical drugs do help millions of people, there are many others who experience no benefit from taking them. Or who have better results from drugs that target completely different brain chemicals.

Some scientists even believe that chemical levels have nothing to do with depression. They claim that depression is the result of a malfunctioning nucleus accumbens – the tiny area in the center of your brain that is thought to be responsible for pleasure and addiction.

All of these theories have been criticized for seeming to treat brains as though they exist separately from people’s bodies. But we only have to look at some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety to know that no such separation exists. Many of Haig’s symptoms were intensely physical. Anxiety manifested as tingling sensations all over his body and as hyperventilation. Depression felt like a physical pain lodged heavily in his chest.

There’s also the fact that human bodies don’t exist in a vacuum. According to Jonathan Rottenberg, an evolutionary psychologist, our social environments have as much of an effect on our mental well-being as our brain chemistry.

All of this is to say that understanding what causes depression is very complex. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to fixing it. And, sadly, there’s not always a magic pill. But, like the author, you can find your way out. But first you’ll have to accept the inherent complexity of the condition, and find tools that work for you.

People with depression, and especially men, suffer from social isolation.

If you break your leg, you get a cast and crutches. People can immediately see that something has happened to you and will often try to help. Strangers will give up their seat on the bus. Friends will drop off groceries. It’s not easy. But at least people know to treat you with care.

Depression and anxiety aren’t only hard to handle; they’re invisible. Haig could be in the grip of a terrible panic attack, but from the outside he would just seem a bit slow or distracted. A very observant person might notice that his pupils were dilated, but they’d have no idea what he was really going through.

The key message here is: People with depression, and especially men, suffer from social isolation.

On one of his lowest days following the breakdown, Haig began sobbing in his parent’s bedroom. His father walked in, and wrapped him in a tight hug. For a moment, Haig felt comforted. Then his father whispered, “Pull yourself together.”

His father was just trying to help. He desperately wanted his son to get well. But asking Haig to pull himself together was asking the impossible. Haig felt like his mind had disintegrated. He didn’t have enough control to banish that feeling. He needed people to allow him to show how terrible he was feeling and support him in that, rather than telling him to get it together.

The fact that men aren’t given space to talk about their feelings can have deadly consequences. Though twice as many women suffer depression as men, men are much more likely to take their own lives. In the United Kingdom, men die by suicide at three times the rate that women do. In Greece, the rate is twice that, with six male suicides for every female suicide.

These statistics are alarming. It seems that many men believe that suicide is the only way out. Haig thinks that this won’t change until we learn to talk about depression. It took him ten years to talk openly about what happened to him. But he was always able to talk honestly to Andrea, which he believes saved his life.

Discussing depression and anxiety should carry no more stigma than discussing a broken leg. We should regard it as something normal, not something shameful. As something that can happen to anyone, and doesn’t say anything about who they are. And as something that requires care and support.

Books became a lifeline for Haig because they gave him language to understand his experience.

Imagine you’re trying to explain something to a good friend. You open your mouth; you form the words; but your friend doesn’t understand you. You try and you try, but it’s as though you’re speaking gibberish, and your friend only stares at you uncomprehendingly.

That was how the author felt after his breakdown. He felt utterly unable to explain to family and friends how he was feeling. Their worldview was so different from his that it was like – to use the author’s words – “trying to describe earth to aliens.” What made it worse was that he could barely explain his experience himself. He was so buried in the depression and anxiety that he lost all perspective on his own situation.

Here’s the key message: Books became a lifeline for Haig because they gave him language to understand his experience.

In the midst of this anguish he found an unlikely lifeline: books. Reading books is often seen as a form of escapism, but for the author it was the opposite. It was a way to find himself again.

Reading about Holden Caulfield’s wry cynicism in The Catcher in the Rye, or about Albert Camus’s alienated protagonist in The Outsider, made him feel less alone for the first time. He could tell that the authors understood what it was like to be isolated from society, and to experience suffering.

Literary language can be bizarre. Writers use poetic license to describe the world in heightened terms. But it was precisely such language that helped Haig make sense of his experiences. After all, the way he saw the world was now nothing like the way “normal” people saw it. Poetic language offered a means of describing his experience to himself.

Books also allowed him to borrow a sense of purpose. While his own life, to put it bluntly, had “lost the plot,” the protagonists he read about lived exciting, action-filled lives. They traveled to distant countries; they fought in wars. In his deep depression Haig felt like he had no future, but it was comforting to read about other people who did.

Fourteen years after his breakdown, Haig has finally found the words to describe his experiences of anxiety and depression. His book is now a guide that other people can hold onto, proof that there is a future waiting, even if you can’t see it at the time.

Haig started to recover by running toward what he most feared.

A few months after his breakdown, Haig woke up and thought idly about the day ahead. Then he realized with a shock that the thought hadn’t been laced with any anxiety. It was just neutral. It was the first time he’d felt calm for months. A few days later, he enjoyed the feeling of sun on his face. This, too, was a novel experience: he hadn’t registered feelings of pleasure for a long time. These interludes of calm gave him hope. They seemed like small but promising signs that he could get better.

The key message here is: Haig started to recover by running toward what he most feared.

But those interludes of calm were few and far between, and Haig’s hope soon gave way to darker thoughts. He worried constantly that his depression and anxiety meant that he was losing his mind. This is called meta anxiety, which can be defined simply as worrying about worrying. Meta anxiety can keep people stuck in a frantic cycle – anxiety begetting anxiety begetting anxiety. It was the same for Haig, until he found a way to use it to aid his recovery.

Haig was terrified of being alone, leaving the house, or interacting with other people. Gradually, his world had become smaller and smaller. About four years after his breakdown, Andrea, his girlfriend, surprised him with a spontaneous trip to Paris for his birthday. The idea filled him with horror. He could hardly walk down the street without having a panic attack, let alone travel to another country.

But then he started thinking about what it would mean if he couldn’t go. A scared voice in his head told him that if he didn’t go he really would be – the word felt unavoidable – “crazy.” So, combatting his fear of public spaces with his fear of mental collapse, he decided to take the trip. While he felt very anxious throughout his stay in Paris, he didn’t have a panic attack. He got through it better than he thought he would. And being in a new place gave him perspective on his life. It literally made his world bigger, and allowed him to take his own thought processes a little less seriously.

By running toward his fears, Haig was able to slowly discover that what he believed wasn’t necessarily true. He could behave strangely in a shop and the world wouldn’t end. He could have a panic attack on the train and live to tell the tale. He was much more resilient than his depressed and anxious thoughts had led him to believe.

Having anxiety and depression can make you more perceptive and empathetic.

It may surprise you to hear that Abraham Lincoln struggled with depression. So did Winston Churchill. Both of these men were formidably ambitious and had impressive careers. They also spent large parts of their lives feeling anxious and depressed.

While it’s sometimes said that they achieved so much in spite of their depression, you could also formulate it differently. Perhaps they were able to achieve what they did because they had experienced anxiety and depression.

The key message in this summary is: Having anxiety and depression can make you more perceptive and empathetic.

That might seem counterintuitive. We’ve just spent a long time talking about how depression can immobilize you and colonize your mind with terrifying thoughts. How could that be conducive to leading a country?

Well, depression makes you intensely aware of how painful life can be. Perhaps the deep empathy that allowed Lincoln to be able to see how inhumane slavery was came from his experience of depressive breakdowns. Winston Churchill was one of the first European leaders to intuit how dangerous the Nazi party would become. It’s very likely that his intimate knowledge of the darker sides of life gave him the sensitive perception that other leaders lacked.

Experiences of depression and anxiety create a thin skin that allows you to be intensely present to the world around you. This isn’t only useful for politicians. Many esteemed writers have turned their perceptive understandings of the world into art. And Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream wouldn’t exist if Munch hadn’t had a panic attack when he was on a walk at sunset.

Haig had always resisted his own intensity. He hated the fact that he was so sensitive, that he cried easily. But after his breakdown, he slowly came to embrace being thin-skinned. It was overwhelming, but it was also what enabled him to become a writer. And even apart from his professional life, it’s what has allowed him to enjoy his life so fully in the present.

Being thin-skinned means that he stays close to his feelings. During the breakdown those feelings were largely negative, but they can also be extremely positive. They make him feel deep joy at spending time with his children. Or weep in appreciation when reading a good book.

Having experienced depression and anxiety means that he doesn’t take any part of his life for granted – neither the good nor the bad, the dark nor the light.

Recovery from depression isn’t linear.

People often think of recovery moving in a straight line. That you’ll move slowly upward from mental distress to health, and be “cured.”

The reality is much messier. Fourteen years after having the breakdown in Ibiza, Haig has stopped waiting to completely recover. He’s realized that his moods will go up and down, and that he won’t always feel good. What he knows now is that anxious states will pass. And that life can be richer and more enjoyable than he ever would have imagined while in the grip of the breakdown.

The key message here is: Recovery from depression isn’t linear.

Instead of looking for a magic cure, Haig has developed a set of daily tools to make himself feel better. Some of the tools are very simple, like eating well and getting enough sleep, and wearing clean clothes.

He knows that when he takes care of his body, his mind feels good, too. So he goes running, tearing along the pavement every day. After a long run he’ll be breathless and sweaty and much more relaxed than when he started.

To slow down his anxious brain, he started practicing yoga and doing meditation. Unsurprisingly, slowing down his movements and breath also calms his racing thoughts.

He also limits his time on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Instead, he tries to spend more time with the people he loves, hanging out with Andrea, who he’s now married to, and their two children.

He also still indulges in his greatest addiction of all: reading. Reading and travel allow him to get out of his own head and into someone else’s, which is a skill that he channels into his writing.

Perhaps most importantly of all, he’s very patient with himself. When he had a panic attack at a party full of important writers and ran away, he didn’t spend a lot of time beating himself up about it. Instead, he celebrated the fact that he’d even dared to go to the party, a feat which would have been unthinkable in his recent past.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for curing his depression, Haig has found solutions that make it easier to live with, and very many reasons to stay alive.

Summary

The key message in these summaries:

When you’re in the grip of anxiety and depression, you view the world through a distorted filter. It feels like life will never be enjoyable again, like you have nothing to look forward to. But that’s not true. With time you’ll be able to regain your sense of perspective, and develop tools to start feeling better. Having experienced anxiety and depression will give you an enhanced sensitivity to the world. This can be overwhelming, but it can also fill you with delight.

Actionable advice:

Pinpoint what improves your mood.

The things that make you feel good or bad are as unique as your fingerprints. For one person, peace comes from dancing in the center of a mosh pit. For another, from a bout of silent meditation. Make your own list of things that are sure to put you in a good headspace, and practice doing at least one every day.

About the author

Matt Haig is the internationally bestselling writer of six novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Midnight Library and How To Stop Time. He has also written award-winning children’s books. His work has been translated into thirty languages. He has written two memoirs, Reasons to Stay Alive, an international bestseller, and Notes on a Nervous Planet.

Matt Haig | Website
Matt Haig | Facebook @matt.haig.92
Matt Haig | Twitter @matthaig1

Matt Haig

Overview

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO FEEL TRULY ALIVE?

At the age of 24, Matt Haig’s world caved in. He could see no way to go on living. This is the true story of how he came through crisis, triumphed over an illness that almost destroyed him and learned to live again.

A moving, funny and joyous exploration of how to live better, love better and feel more alive, Reasons to Stay Alive is more than a memoir. It is a book about making the most of your time on earth.

“I wrote this book because the oldest clichés remain the truest. Time heals. The bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view. The tunnel does have light at the end of it, even if we haven’t been able to see it . . . Words, just sometimes, really can set you free.”

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Midnight Library.

“Destined to become a modern classic.” —Entertainment Weekly

Named one of Entertainment Weekly’s Must-Read Books of 2016

Finalist for the Waterstone’s Book of the Year

“Destined to become a modern classic.” —Entertainment Weekly

“An in-depth exploration of Haig’s battle with depression, if you need a pick-me-up on a very fundamental level, you could do a lot worse than this book.” – PEOPLE

“I dog-eared 45 pages in Haig’s compact book where he wrote profound or poignant things. I could have easily marked more of them.” – Jim Higgings, THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

“Wonderful and essential” – Christopher Weir, THE HUFFINGTON POST

“a quick, witty and at times profound take on an illness many people suffer from, but sometimes can’t bring themselves to talk about.” – THE MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE

“Things just got real. His honest — and surprisingly funny — first person account is a reminder that no matter how hopeless life may seem, it really never is.” – NY METRO

“A scintillating read.” – THE DAILY MAIL

“REASONS TO STAY ALIVE is essential reading for anyone who has dealt with depression and for anyone who loves someone with the disease.” – BOOK REPORTER

“Fascinating and beautifully written.” – IAN RANKIN

“Brings a difficult and sensitive subject out of the darkness and into the light.” – MICHAEL PALIN

“Matt Haig is astounding.” – STEPHEN FRY

“Maybe the most important book I’ve read this year” – SIMON MAYO

“A life-saving book” – AMANDA CRAIG

“Matt Haig uses words like a tin-opener. We are the tin” – JEANETTE WINTERSON

“Brings a difficult and sensitive subject out of the darkness and into the light” – MICHAEL PALIN

“Thoughtful, honest and incredibly insightful” – JENNY COLGAN

“Brilliant and salutary . . . should be on prescription” – REV. RICHARD COLES

“A vibrant, encouraging depiction of a sinister disorder.” KIRKUS REVIEW

“Warm and engaging, and shot through with humour…a valuable contribution to the conversation.” – THE SUNDAY TIMES

Praise for How To Stop Time

“Matt Haig’s latest book, How To Stop Time, is marvelous in every sense of the word. Clever, funny, poignant, and written with Haig’s trademark blend of crystalline prose and deft storytelling, this is a book that stirs the heart and mind in equal measure. A hugely enjoyable read.” – Deborah Harkness author of The All Souls Trilogy

“Compelling and full of life’s big questions, How To Stop Time is a book you will not be able to put down.” —Graeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project

“The narrator is 400 years old, but the sardonic asides give this pacy novel a modern twist. Matt Haig has designs on our heartstrings . . . The energy and zip of this book are hard to resist.” —The Guardian

“Matt Haig is astounding.” —Stephen Fry

Video and Podcast

Book Summary: Reasons to Stay Alive

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

This book is impossible

Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen. I was going to die, you see. Or go mad.

There was no way I would still be here. Sometimes I doubted I would even make the next ten minutes. And the idea that I would be well enough and confident enough to write about it in this way would have been just far too much to believe.

One of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future. Far from the tunnel having light at the end of it, it seems like it is blocked at both ends, and you are inside it. So if I could have only known the future, that there would be one far brighter than anything I’d experienced, then one end of that tunnel would have been blown to pieces, and I could have faced the light. So the fact that this book exists is proof that depression lies. Depression makes you think things that are wrong.

But depression itself isn’t a lie. It is the most real thing I’ve ever experienced. Of course, it is invisible.

To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames. And so—as depression is largely unseen and mysterious—it is easy for stigma to survive. Stigma is partic-ularly cruel for depressives, because stigma affects thoughts and depression is a disease of thoughts.

When you are depressed you feel alone, and that no one is going through quite what you are going through. You are so scared of appearing in any way mad you internalize every-thing, and you are so scared that people will alienate you further you clam up and don’t speak about it, which is a shame, as speaking about it helps. Words—spoken or written—are what connect us to the world, and so speaking about it to people, and writing about this stuff, helps connect us to each other, and to our true selves.

I know, I know, we are humans. We are a clandestine species. Unlike other animals we wear clothes and do our procreating behind closed doors. And we are ashamed when things go wrong with us. But we’ll grow out of this, and the way we’ll do it is by speaking about it. And maybe even through reading and writing about it.

I believe that. Because it was, in part, through reading and writing that I found a kind of salvation from the dark. Ever since I realized that depression lied about the future I have wanted to write a book about my experience, to tackle depression and anxiety head-on. So this book seeks to do two things. To lessen that stigma, and—the possibly more quixotic ambition—to try and actually convince people that the bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view. I wrote this because the oldest clichés remain the truest. Time heals. The tunnel does have light at the end of it, even if we aren’t able to see it. And there’s a two-for-one offer on clouds and silver linings. Words, just sometimes, can set you free.

A note, before we get fully underway

Minds ar e unique. They go wrong in unique ways. My mind went wrong in a slightly different way to how other minds go wrong. Our experience overlaps with other people’s, but it is never exactly the same experience. Um -brella labels like “depression” (and “anxiety” and “panic disorder” and “OCD”) are useful, but only if we appreciate that people do not all have the same precise experience of such things.

Depression looks different to everyone. Pain is felt in different ways, to different degrees, and provokes different responses. That said, if books had to replicate our exact experience of the world to be useful, the only books worth reading would be written by ourselves.

There is no right or wrong way to have depression, or to have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are. Misery, like yoga, is not a competitive sport.But I have found over the years that by reading about other people who have suffered, survived, and overcome despair, I have felt comforted. It has given me hope. I hope this book can do the same.

1

Falling

But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.—Albert Camus, A Happy Death

The day I died

i can remember the day the old me died.

It started with a thought. Something was going wrong. That was the start. Before I realized what it was. And then, a second or so later, there was a strange sensation inside my head. Some biological activity in the rear of my skull, not far above my neck. The cerebellum. A pulsing or intense flickering, as though a butterfly was trapped inside, combined with a tingling sensation. I did not yet know of the strange physical effects depression and anxiety would create. I just thought I was about to die. And then my heart started to go. And then I started to go. I sank, fast, falling into a new claustrophobic and suffocating reality. And it would be way over a year before I would feel anything like even half-normal again.

Up until that point I’d had no real understanding or awareness of depression, except that I knew my mum had suffered from it for a little while after I was born, and that my great-grandmother on my father’s side had ended up committing suicide. So I suppose there had been a family history, but it hadn’t been a history I’d thought about much.

Anyway, I was twenty-four years old. I was living in Spain—in one of the more sedate and beautiful corners of the island of Ibiza. It was September. Within a fortnight, I would have to return to London, and reality. After six years of student life and summer jobs. I had put off being an adult for as long as I could, and it had loomed like a cloud. A cloud that was now breaking and raining down on me.

The weirdest thing about a mind is that you can have the most intense things going on in there but no one else can see them. The world shrugs. Your pupils might dilate. You may sound incoherent. Your skin might shine with sweat. And there was no way anyone seeing me in that villa could have known what I was feeling, no way they could have appreciated the strange hell I was living through, or why death seemed such a phenomenally good idea.

I stayed in bed for three days. But I didn’t sleep. My girl-friend Andrea came in with water at regular intervals, or fruit, which I could hardly eat.

The window was open to let fresh air in, but the room was still and hot. I can remember being stunned that I was still alive. I know that sounds melodramatic, but depression and panic only give you melodramatic thoughts to play with. Anyway, there was no relief. I wanted to be dead. No. That’s not quite right. I didn’t want to be dead. I just didn’t want to be alive. Death was something that scared me. And death only happens to people who have been living. There were infinitely more people who had never been alive. I wanted to be one of those people. That old classic wish. To never have been born. To have been one of the three hundred million sperm that hadn’t made it.

(What a gift it was to be normal! We’re all walking on these unseen tightropes when really we could slip at any second and come face to face with all the existential horrors that only lie dormant in our minds.)

There was nothing much in this room. There was a bed with a white patternless duvet, and there were white walls. There might have been a picture on the wall but I don’t think so. I certainly can’t remember one. There was a book by the bed. I picked it up once and put it back down. I couldn’t focus for as much as a second. There was no way I could express fully this experience in words, because it was beyond words. Literally, I couldn’t speak about it prop-erly. Words seemed trivial next to this pain.

I remembered worrying about my younger sister, Phoebe. She was in Australia. I worried that she, my closest genetic match, would feel like this. I wanted to speak to her but knew I couldn’t. When we were little, at home in Nottinghamshire, we had developed a bedtime communication system of knocking on the wall between our rooms. I now knocked on the mattress, imagining she could hear me all the way through the world.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

I didn’t have terms like “depression” or “panic disorder” in my head. In my laughable naivete I did not really think that what I was experiencing was something that other people had ever felt. Because it was so alien to me I thought it had to be alien to the species.

“Andrea, I’m scared.”

“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.”

“What’s happening to me?”

“I don’t know. But it’s going to be okay.”

“I don’t understand how this can be happening.”

On the third day, I left the room and I left the villa, and I went outside to kill myself.

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