In his 2015 best-selling memoir Reasons To Stay Alive, British author Matt Haig opens up about his battle with severe depression and the mental breakdown that almost led to his suicide.
On a September day in Ibiza, Matt Haig, aged 24, walked to a cliff edge planning to kill himself. He writes,
‘A sparkling Mediterranean, looking like a turquoise tablecloth scattered with tiny diamonds, fringed by a dramatic coastline of limestone cliffs and small, near-white forbidden beaches. It fit almost everyone’s definition of beautiful. And yet, the most beautiful view in the world could not stop me wanting to kill myself.
I was ill. It did not matter if it was society or science’s fault. I simply did not – could not – feel like this a second longer. I had to end myself.’
Another step was all that it would take but he chose to walk away.
Matt Haig is eminently qualified to talk about suicide. He understands why people give up hope. But he also understands what it takes to live.
His new novel, The Midnight Library, is the closest he has got to representing his own experience in fiction.
Nora Seed, 35, lonely and depressed, decides to kill herself, but at the stroke of midnight finds herself in a library between life and death, where each book on the shelf is a chance for her to explore another life she could have had. By choosing a different path Nora finds the answers to the questions that have long weighed heavy on her mind.
The answers to these questions and their application to our lives will help anyone who struggles with suicidal thoughts find a way ‘back from the edge.’
(1) What activities allow you to empty your mind of negative thoughts?
People who are suicidal are often consumed by negative thoughts. Such thoughts have many different causes, and these causes can differ for everyone. A mental health condition like an anxiety disorder or chronic depression produces negative thinking. Negative life events can also be a catalyst for harmful thoughts. In her suicide note Nora wrote,
‘I had all the chances to make something of my life. And I blew every one of them. Through my own carelessness and misfortune. The world has retreated from me, and so now it makes perfect sense that I should retreat from the world.’
There are many activities that help us clear our mind. These include meditation, physical exercise, creative activities, and music.
Nora rediscovered her love of swimming. She recalled that ‘the thing she had once loved about swimming was the disappearing. In the water, her focus had been so pure that she thought of nothing else.’
(2) When have you been successful in changing your life for the better?
People who are suicidal often find themselves stuck, not knowing how to alter their reality nor having the energy to think through a plan. Sometimes our thinking rules out the possibility of change. We see ourselves as fixed.
Nora wrestled with this thought. She says,
‘Maybe I get stuck. Maybe in every life I am stuck. I mean, maybe that’s just who I am. A starfish in every life is still a starfish.’
Simple choices can make our life more grounded, more robust, more purposeful. Simplify your routines, minimise your exposure to social media, eat healthy, plant some seeds, volunteer at the animal refuge.
(3) Have you been aiming to be something that you are not?
People who are suicidal lack contentment and are overly critical of their life experience. They are frustrated by their inability to relate to other people, to make meaningful connections. They are prone to put others on a pedestal, imagining their lives to be uncomplicated, free of hassles and disappointments.
Nora came to appreciate her uniqueness. She might have been imperfect, prone to disappoint herself and others, but there was only one Nora Seed. She says,
‘Aim to be you. Aim to look and act and think like you. Aim to be the truest version of you… If you aim to be something you are not, you will always fail.’
(4) Are you able to describe the difference between loneliness and solitude?
People who are suicidal often feel isolated and do not know who to turn to. They feel they have become a burden on society and have nothing useful to offer. They believe they have forfeited their right to life and are undeserving of anyone’s care and attention.
On an expedition to the Arctic, Nora encountered ‘true solitude.’ Rather than something to be feared, solitude became a state to be welcomed. She says,
‘The lonely mind in the busy city yearns for connection because it thinks human-to-human connection is the point of everything. But amid pure nature solitude took on a different character. It became a kind of connection. A connection between herself and the world. And between her and herself.’
(5) What does it mean to have ‘a fear of death?’
People who are suicidal have overcome their fear of death and the instinct for self-preservation. To have achieved this level of disregard for their life indicates a fault line in their mental wellness. Psychologist Thomas Joiner says,
‘The deterioration of this instinct should be regarded as a symptom of disease…’
What is more concerning is that the ‘instinct for self-preservation’ no longer affords them protection.
The survival instinct is defined as ‘the ability to know what to do to stay alive.’ When Nora was confronted by the polar bear, she recognized that she was in extreme danger. Despite the obvious threat to her life, a life that she had been ready to discard, Nora did not want to die. ‘In the face of death, life seemed more attractive.’ She summoned her courage and banged the ladle against the saucepan as she had been instructed to do. The polar moved away, slipping headfirst into the water.
(6) Can you provide any examples from nature where plants and animals are able to survive against the odds?
People who are suicidal forget that they are surrounded by numerous examples of living things surviving against the odds.
When Matt Haig was contemplating ending his life, he saw a lizard. He reflected on the lizard’s ability to survive, even in barren environments. He says,
‘There was a lizard near my feet. A real lizard. I felt a kind of judgement. The thing with lizards is that they do not kill themselves. Lizards are survivors. You take off their tail and another grows back. They are not movers. They do not get depressed. They just get on with it, however harsh and inhospitable the landscape. I wanted, more than anything, to be that lizard.’
Following the encounter with the polar bear, Nora was taken away in a dinghy. Nora describes what she sees.
‘We passed a small island, teeming with nature. Green lichen spread over the rocks. Birds – little auks and puffins clustered together – huddled against the Arctic wind. Life surviving against the odds.’
Nora came to the realization that ‘to be part of nature was to be part of the will to live.’
(7) Can you imagine a life where you are immunised against sadness?
People who are suicidal feel a deep sadness. They mistakenly conclude that being sad is unacceptable and further evidence that they are not coping. But sadness is a normal response to situations that are upsetting, painful, or disappointing. It is considered one of the basic human emotions. Sadness is a natural part of life and is therefore to be expected.
Nora was helped to see that sadness was universal and that she should anticipate feelings of unhappiness and low mood. There would be times of tragedy, failure, and fear. No-one can hope to be immunised against sadness. Nora explains her newfound awareness.
‘Sadness is not a by-product of living a certain way, but something that is experienced simply living. Sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You cannot have one without the other.’
(8) What would ‘a life worth living’ look like?
People who are suicidal have lost sight of ‘a life worth living.’ The separation and confusion they feel is the product of their analysis of their life, not the life itself. They over-think everything, drowning in a profusion of thoughts and feelings. It is not surprising that people who are overwhelmed or depressed may feel like giving up.
Nora realised that she was obsessing about the perfect life. But maybe there was no perfect life for her. But, somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living.
To discover a life worth living we must start with the premise that ‘every life has intrinsic value.’ Do not neglect your unique abilities. Do not underestimate your influence. Do not give up when the going gets tough.
Matt Haig says,
(9) Have you ever thought that the emptiness you feel is due to the absence of love?
People who are suicidal are fearful of giving and receiving love. Allowing love into your life can be threatening, activating fears of abandonment and feelings of loneliness from the past. The anxiety love arouses in some people can heighten vulnerability and expose hidden insecurities prompting a defensive reaction.
These are issues that require counseling as love has the power to nurture, strengthen, heal, and unite.
The fundamental problem with Nora’s life, the thing that left her vulnerable, was the absence of love. There had been no one, once Volts (her cat) had died. She had loved no one, and no one loved her back. She experienced the emptiness of a life without love.
Leo Buscaglia was an American author and motivational speaker with an unflagging commitment to Special Education. He said,
(10) Do you allow your regrets to diminish you and blur your focus?
People who are suicidal can find no respite from their regrets. Whilst it may be true that feelings of regret can motivate us to want to change, they are more often viewed as a negative. Psychologists point out that ‘regret can have damaging effects on mind and body when it turns into fruitless rumination and self-blame that keeps people from re-engaging with life.’
Nora had ‘a book of regrets’ and it was heavy. It made her shrivel and wither and feel like her own and other people’s worst enemy.
Are you weighed down by your regrets – the thoughts, words, and actions – that you would like to erase? Or perhaps your regrets have more to do with actions not taken or missed opportunities to show love. To be burdened by the past deflates any positivity we might have about the future.