Book review: Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig


Mention of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive kept flitting across my Twitter timeline, so I picked it up to read earlier this year. It’s a memoir of sorts of the author’s struggle with anxiety and depression over the years. But it’s also a letter to his younger self, to the “present tense” of his darkest mental health years (and anyone who has ever had depression and/or anxiety as their present tense). It’s a quick read, human and empathetic, and I don’t regret reading it.

I found a lot to relate to. At one point he describes depression this way:

Depression, for me, wasn’t a dulling but a sharpening, and intensifying, as though I had been living my life in a shell and now the shell wasn’t there. It was total exposure. A red-raw, naked mind. A skinned personality. A brain in a jar full of acid that is experience.

I especially like that last bit, because depression is a lot like being pickled in your own brain juice, unable to escape. Still, I wasn’t mad about the book as a whole. Perhaps it’s because my depressive episodes are generally sans anxiety. But there’s a deeper disconnect there, one that I can’t quite put my finger on. I like his writing, so it’s not that. He seems like an okay dude, so it’s not that either. I don’t know why (which is super annoying), but there’s a barrier between this book and my whole-hearted approval when by all accounts I should have loved it.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Reasons to Stay Alive
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books (2015).
Rating: 3.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.18/5)
The best feature of the book: It offers an honest, hopeful look at mental health issues.
The worst feature of the book: It errs on the glib, although I think maybe that’s just Haig’s writing style.
Trigger warnings: It speaks frankly about depression and anxiety.
You’ll like this if… You’re into memoirs or have ever struggled with mental health.

Coffee Time Prayer

Friday #CoffeeTimePrayer


Faith vs fear

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:28-33 ESV

It’s interesting to me that Peter only began to sink after he’d gotten out of the boat and started to walk towards Jesus. He actually had the nerve – or let’s call it faith, though I think more often than not it amounts to the same thing – to get out of the boat in the first place. I think this episode illustrates the fact that there are two basic fears in our Christian life.

The first fear is the fear of taking that first step, that initial leap of faith. It’s the fear of getting out of the boat. When we experience this type of fear, we’re reluctant to hand our problems over to Jesus, for fear of his response (or lack of response). This fear renders us spiritually inert. It immobilises us. When it takes hold of us, we become spiritually passive. Physically, mentally and emotionally we may still keep going, but those essential spiritual components of faith, trust and surrender are missing. When we become stuck in a rut, or an apparently unending loop of difficulty, I think this is the fear to blame.

The second type of fear is that of sustained trust in the Lord. When we experience this type of fear, we usually surrender our situation to God, but then as time goes by we begin to doubt the integrity of God’s heart. We begin to waver, to doubt in God’s faithfulness, especially when something is a long time coming. This kind of fear is rooted at least partially in impatience. When a deadline looms, it can easily feel like God is oblivious to the practical realities of human existence.

So how do we cope with fear? I think there are two steps we can take:

First, we need to repent of our fear. Do we even realise that worry is in actuality a sin? Consider these verses:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:25-30 NRSV)

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7 NRSV)

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18 NRSV)

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. (James 1:14 NLT)

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7 NLT)

Since we are so often instructed NOT to fear, not to be anxious, actually doing so should be considered disobedience and therefore a sin. When we worry, we are being disobedient to God – and like all sin, it turns our faces and hearts away from God, leaving us open to the temptation of seeking answers in all the wrong places.

Secondly we, like Peter, get to ask for help. God doesn’t expect anything of us he won’t help us with. Peter, wavering, cried out to Jesus to help him. What was Jesus’ response? Did he reprimand him and stalk off, annoyed? Did he leave him to sink as a kind of test? Did he give him theological homework to do? No! Jesus reached out and grabbed Peter’s hands. In my Bible it reads that Jesus immediately reached out to Peter. Jesus hauled him up out of the water and then asked him, “Why did you doubt?” It didn’t make sense to Jesus that Peter should doubt him because it never occurred to Jesus not to help him.

In the moment, fear can be overwhelming, even crippling. It can feel a whole lot like being stuck out on open water in a boat during a storm. Visceral, threatening. But Jesus walks out onto this lake, and his hands are ready to lead us out of the storm. Let us be ready to greet him with the declaration, “Truly, you are the Son of God!” on our lips.

Prayer inspiration: Psalm 27

The Eternal is my light amidst my darkness
and my rescue in times of trouble.
So whom shall I fear?
He surrounds me with a fortress of protection.
So nothing should cause me alarm.

(Psalm 27:1 VOICE)