Reasons and Care

A man standing beneath a waterfall casting a rainbow

It's Geek Mental Help Week. That's help not health. I realised I've been calling it Geek Mental Health Week since it began in 2014. I like the more proactive, optimistic feel of "help". It evokes a sense of camaraderie and pathos. But "health" works well, too, so no biggie. I thought I would point this out in case you hadn't noticed this nomenclatorial nuance, either. What's that you say? It's perfectly clear and obvious? Just me being an idiot? Very well. Let's move swiftly on, shall we?

If you're not familiar with Geek Mental Help Week, it's an annual week-long compendium of content dedicated to mental health issues. A sort of blog-based support group. A light shone in the dark; a killer of shadows. The internet is wonderful, sometimes, isn't it?

Reasons to Stay Alive

I read Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig a few weeks ago. This was, in part, because of the brilliant reviews it's been receiving. It was also partly because I was trying to find a way to engage with Geek Mental Help Week. I tend to think about mental heath issues a lot for various reasons. It served its purpose well, although to describe the book as a purely functional reading experience - as if it were merely another self-help book - would do it a great disservice. While Reasons does contain many elements of helpful advice, it is at heart a vibrant story of struggle, of overcoming and of hope. Classic themes beautifully wrought by Haig.

It's notably and refreshingly graphic. The author conjures images and scenes in vivid detail. It is pitch black and luminous at the same time. It's this duality that makes it so different: he doesn't paint depression as a solely dark or even grey experience as it is so often depicted, but as something more multi-coloured. It's a spectrum. It's an explosion of pain; it's butterflies flickering in your cranial cavity; it's bright flames of suffering and lurid, face-licking demons. It does contains cold darkness, yes, but also brio and good humour. There's enough warmth to gently toast a crumpet and, at times, is more comforting than a peanut butter sandwich. It's deliciously British, too, capturing some of our nation's eccentricity, self-deprecation, anxieties and enduring spirit.

One of the more surprising and positive themes of the book (it is, fundamentally, a positive memoir) is that depression, anxiety and mental health issues aren't solely negative. There is a light Yang to the depressive Yin. Haig makes the point that for many, creative work comes about because of these issues, not in spite of them. He argues that perhaps the darkness is what makes the light possible - the contrast is what makes it so bright. A world without that pain wouldn't be nearly so bracing. A world without anxiety wouldn't sharpen and amplify our sense of curiosity...

Have you ever felt scared in the dark, your senses strained to the limit? Remember how you can hear your own heart and breath, every creak of the house, every flutter of a moth's wing, every distant animal call? Darkness intensifies the senses. It makes you more perceptive. There's something to be said for that, despite the obvious downsides.

Haig himself claims he wouldn't be a writer if he didn't have depression.

He also makes the crucial point that depression is separate from you. Like clouds obscuring the moon. The clouds come and go but the moon is always there. It's important to remember this. It will pass. You are the moon and the sky, not the clouds.

Reasons to Stay Alive is an ideal read for the creative soul, especially if you struggle with demons. It's ideal if you consider yourself non-creative, too (if you really consider yourself non-creative, that's a whole other issue we won't go into here; suffice it to say: you're mistaken.) If you don't personally suffer, this book is a fine way to get a better understanding of those who do suffer. It's the sort of book you can gift to someone when you're struggling to explain what depression feels like; when you need for them to understand. It does the subject justice, in other words. That, right there, is an extraordinarily difficult feat. It is literally a life-saver.

Care for Carers

One of the most interesting people in Reasons is Matt's partner, Andrea. The loyalty and support she provides Matt throughout is deeply moving. There are times when his anxiety reaches such crescendoed heights that it seems like it must take a superhuman effort to not shout, "Just get a grip, man!" But she remains calm and supportive in just the right ways throughout. They have rows and there is friction there, sure, but it's not destructive. It's measured; necessary. She strikes me as an utterly remarkable woman. Strength, courage, patience, love. Easy to say, hard to practice. And yet she exhibits these qualities with a selfless ease.

It is this observation that leads to the central point of my post: we often forget those who support sufferers. It's common to hear stories of those who care for disabled relatives or loved ones getting burned out. Those who care for the elderly are classic cases, especially if those they care for suffer Dementia or Alzheimer's. Empathy fatigue - and physical fatigue - are real problems. The need for a break, to unburden, and to refresh is a need for effective ongoing care. Love can get overgrown and shaded out by the weeds of tiredness.

With the relative invisibility of mental health, the support provided by true supporters can go tragically unnoticed. Yet, the burden is there. The mental fatigue of being "a rock" can be akin to holding weights in out-stretched arms. The desire to drop those weights is agonisingly tempting, yet carers can be uncommonly resilient. The need to unload and talk to others is as much a need for the carer as it is for the sufferer, and yet the carer - due to their very nature - will often pooh-pooh attempts at supporting them.

So spare a thought for those in a position of care. Make a point to seek them out and talk to them. Find out how they're doing. Try to make it past the inevitable and expected brush-off response. Help them to see how loved and appreciated they are. Don't be heavy-handed about it: the last thing you want is to cause those who are ill to feel any guilt whatsoever. But it is important to be mindful of the critical, often life-saving role a carer plays. They are part of a successful system of support as Andrea demonstrates in Reasons.

Carers need our support and understanding too.

If this post has piqued your interest in Reasons to Stay Alive, I'll leave you with some material Matt has written for the Guardian: an extract from the book, an article and a Q&A. I also recommend the audiobook if you're so inclined. It's read by the Matt and he gets it absolutely spot on.