Book review: Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig

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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.

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Seasons with God

 

 

An interesting lesson I took away from a missions course I did late last year was that the natural realm is a general revelation, a way for God to accentuate unreached peoples to the possibility of his presence – a possibility realised in the specific revelation of Jesus Christ. I’ve been thinking about general revelation a lot lately as autumn has sped past, winter fast on her heels and kicking away the last of her leaves with cold, gusty winds. If God uses the natural world to speak to unreached peoples, then it must have something to teach us reached souls too.

So many of Jesus’ parables were rooted in everyday activities that had to do with the natural world. Harvests are a popular example Jesus uses, as is wine, water, desert, livestock, fig trees, grapevines, mustard seeds, grain, fishing, and fertile ground. Jesus was hardly a city boy. He used the cycles of the natural world to explain the cycles of God, the seen to explain the unseen.

This is echoed in our church calendar. For Northern Hemispherians, the church calendar syncs up with the natural world: Jesus born in mid-winter, a very real light in a dark and cold world, and resurrected come Easter and spring: new beginnings. But perhaps the natural world should speak to us even beyond this: nature’s cycles reinvigorating and energising, pausing and resting our spiritual lives; spring, summer and autumn our work week, winter our sabbath; or spring and summer our exodus, and autumn and winter our Canaan. We cannot always remain in the desert, spiritually speaking; at some point, we must enter our rest.

Winter isn’t an easy season for me. Some years ago I was treated for cancer, and my treatment coincided with autumn and winter. More than a decade later, the start of winter still makes me sad. For me, it’s associated with loss in a very real way, as I lost the innocence of my own mortality. Every winter makes me face that afresh. While it also means that I look joyfully to the summer because each one is one more than I had before, winter is a generally a stunted time for me, and I often spend it struggling to seek God.

But God’s general revelation reminds me of the mercy of his specific revelation. I look at the world around me: the dry and withered grass, often burned black; the cold, cutting wind herding people indoors; the bright, clear sky peeking curiously through the spread fingers of bare tree branches; choked plants in dry, infertile-looking soil. And I remember summer: how green and lush everything is, trees twice their size clothed in foliage, earth wet with rain and sweet with petrichor, white clouds rolling across a hazy sky, flower heads drooping and stirring in hot breezes. And then I remember a cross and an empty tomb…

Rather than feel guilty about my perceived lapse of faith during this time, I might more productively spend my time being enriched by Jesus in order that I may grow better and stronger come the spring and summer months. This isn’t death, sweet soul, it’s the moment before resurrection…

It’s a good moment.

A note

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I’ve been meaning to write that post… The one that’ll explain the reasons for my periodic absences from blogging, the one that poignantly describes my ongoing issues with depression without being depressing, the post that will (hopefully) encourage others struggling with the same thing.

But guess what?

It ain’t happening.

Some struggles aren’t blog-worthy. I think this is something we tend to forget in our Instagram-filtered lives, where even people having a tough go of it manage to smile and wave at the camera, perhaps with some witty/self-deprecating/snarky comment. I’m not there, though.

There are good days – treacherously good days. Days that remind you what it’s like to breathe, to exist, to take up space; days you forget to ponder your veins and the slow passage of time and the creep of life. But the bad days? The bad days swallow you whole, and sometimes there’s just no energy to ride it out, much less do something that requires spirit, effort, passion.

So when I’m here…hey, thanks for stopping by. When I’m not… It’s not laziness or apostasy or even busyness, it’s just a temporary inability to function as well as I want to. But like the good days, I’ll be back. It might just take a while.

-Lee

Sanity Sundays

From Steven Furtick’s (Un)Qualified reading plan over at YouVersion:

A Secret Weapon Called Weakness

So for the sake of Christ, I am well pleased and take pleasure in infirmities, insults, hardships, persecutions, perplexities and distresses; for when I am weak [in human strength], then am I [truly] strong (able, powerful in divine strength).
(2 Corinthians 12:10 AMP)

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul was sharing one of his personal struggles. He actually called it a thorn in his flesh and a messenger from Satan.

So here was the greatest author in the New Testament, the guy who opened the door of the Gospel to the entire Gentile world, and he was confused and confined by a weakness.

Paul asked God to fix it. Three times. But it didn’t work. Nothing changed. Instead, God gave this mysterious promise that His power works best in weakness. He answered Paul’s prayer by saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” [verse 9]

It may sound like a profoundly unsatisfying response if you’re asking God to wave His hand and eliminate your shortcomings.

You don’t want to be weak. You want to be strong.

But it isn’t about being strong despite weaknesses. And it isn’t about being strong after weaknesses are gone. It is about being strong in and through and because of weaknesses.

Somehow, incredibly, the things that drive you crazy about yourself might be central to the fulfillment of your potential.

Your weaknesses don’t disqualify you. They actually qualify you even more, because they are the portals through which God’s power permeates your life.

That doesn’t mean you never need to change, of course. You never stop changing. But it means the current version of you is the right version of you for this moment.

Stop stressing and straining to be a different you, because the real you is perfect and priceless. It’s not only what God has to work with. It’s what God wants to work with. And from that starting place, progress is possible.

Sanity Sundays

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For this week’s Sanity Sunday, Psalm 31 (Amplified):

In You, O Lord, I have placed my trust and taken refuge;
Let me never be ashamed;
In Your righteousness rescue me.

Incline Your ear to me, deliver me quickly;
Be my rock of refuge,
And a strong fortress to save me.

Yes, You are my rock and my fortress;
For Your name’s sake You will lead me and guide me.

You will draw me out of the net that they have secretly laid for me,
For You are my strength and my stronghold.

Into Your hand I commit my spirit;
You have redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth and faithfulness.

I hate those who pay regard to vain (empty, worthless) idols;
But I trust in the Lord [and rely on Him with unwavering confidence].

I will rejoice and be glad in Your steadfast love,
Because You have seen my affliction;
You have taken note of my life’s distresses,

And You have not given me into the hand of the enemy;
You have set my feet in a broad place.

Be gracious and compassionate to me, O Lord, for I am in trouble;
My eye is clouded and weakened by grief, my soul and my body also.

For my life is spent with sorrow
And my years with sighing;
My strength has failed because of my iniquity,
And even my body has wasted away.

Because of all my enemies I have become a reproach and disgrace,
Especially to my neighbors,
And an object of dread to my acquaintances;
Those who see me on the street run from me.

I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind;
I am like a broken vessel.

For I have heard the slander and whispering of many,
Terror is on every side;
While they schemed together against me,
They plotted to take away my life.

But as for me, I trust [confidently] in You and Your greatness, O Lord;
I said, “You are my God.”

My times are in Your hands;
Rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from those who pursue and persecute me.

Make Your face shine upon Your servant;
Save me in Your lovingkindness.

Let me not be put to shame, O Lord, for I call on You;
Let the wicked (godless) be put to shame, let them be silent in Sheol (the nether world, the place of the dead).

Let the lying lips be mute,
Which speak insolently and arrogantly against the [consistently] righteous
With pride and contempt.

How great is Your goodness,
Which You have stored up for those who [reverently] fear You,
Which You have prepared for those who take refuge in You,
Before the sons of man!

In the secret place of Your presence You hide them from the plots and conspiracies of man;
You keep them secretly in a shelter (pavilion) from the strife of tongues.

Blessed be the Lord,
For He has shown His marvelous favor and lovingkindness to me [when I was assailed] in a besieged city.

As for me, I said in my alarm,
“I am cut off from Your eyes.”
Nevertheless You heard the voice of my supplications (specific requests)
When I cried to You [for help].

O love the Lord, all you His godly ones!
The Lord preserves the faithful [those with moral and spiritual integrity]
And fully repays the [self-righteousness of the] arrogant.

Be strong and let your hearts take courage,
All you who wait for and confidently expect the Lord.

So much of the language in this psalm resonates with me: the sheer exhaustion of depression, the helplessness, the guilt, the fear. Most of all, though, the loneliness. Depression is a disease of isolation. On the one hand you’re too tired to socialise, to express the hows and whys of your emotional state. On the other, there’s this pervasive paranoia that people don’t want to be around you. That they don’t want to know you, that they – like you – think you should just about get over this now and move on. That you need to stop  making things so difficult for others, that you need to stop being so selfish.

Christians with depression have yet another added dimension to deal with – the question of God and sin. Is depression punishment for sin? The Psalter makes this conclusion: My strength has failed because of my iniquity. Nowadays, though, depression isn’t seen as a punishment for sin, depression itself is treated like sin. In the sea of Christianese, Christians with depression are told to pursue the “joy of the Lord” like Ahab pursued Moby Dick. We are told that Jesus will heal us. That antidepressants turn people into alcoholics, and other such nonsense. In essence, we are told to try harder, to try more, because in today’s consumer-churches there is no longer room for emotions that do not immediately communicate ecstatic worship. There is no room for the messiness of depression – at least, not at this inn. But if there’s no room for depression in our places of worship, where will we find room for it? Who will take us in?

For me, Psalm 31 answers this question, and answers it boldly. God doesn’t reject the hurt, the lost, the wandering. Nevertheless You heard the voice of my supplications. Where our depression tries to silence us, God listens for our call. Where our churches try to drown out our pain with the cacophony of the untroubled, God listens for our voices. God inclines his ear to us, to our very lips if necessary. And no, this won’t always make you feel better. But it’s a truth to hang on to: Blessed be the Lord, For He has shown His marvelous favor and lovingkindness to me [when I was assailed] in a besieged city. Amen, amen.