Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic people have vacillated between hope and despair. It has felt like a rollercoaster. There has been fear and apprehension as the virus took hold and the number of infections grew. There has been reason for optimism with the easing of some restrictions and talk of pathways out of lockdown. But tension remains. We know there are no guarantees and uncertainty permeates all that we do. Some days we wake to clear blue skies and feel a surge of life. But then the clouds return, and the greyness overwhelms our spirit.
Hope and despair are two sides of the same coin. Often, we are forced to choose which side of the coin we will dwell on. In times of personal crisis, despair dominates, and we lose sight of the possibility of hope. Could the answer lie in the flip of the coin?
On a September day in Ibiza, Matt Haig – then 24 – walked to a cliff edge planning to kill himself, thus putting an end to the mental pain he was experiencing. He stopped one step away.
Now an acclaimed novelist, he writes about his personal struggle with depression and how hope and despair play out in his life. He wants us to know that we can get through even when the future looks bleak.
In The Comfort Book, Matt Haig explores the connections that frame our life including that of hope and despair.
At his lowest point, Matt Haig recalled something his father had said. They had gone for a run in the Loire Valley in France but lost their way in a forest. His father assured him,
‘If we keep going in a straight line, we`ll get out of here.’
His father was right. They found a way out. And these were the words that returned to Matt Haig when he was in the middle of a breakdown. He says,
‘[I recalled what my father had said.] When I was living in a panic attack punctuated only by depression, when my heart pounded rapidly with fear, when I hardly knew who I was and didn’t know how I could carry on living. If we keep going in a straight line, we’ll get out of here. Walking one foot in front of the other, in the same direction, will always get you further than running around in circles. It’s about the determination to keep walking forward.’
Mental illness is negotiated one step at a time. The path may not be to your liking, challenging your courage and determination. Coping with the relentless self-torment or the sheer exhaustion of never being able to find mental comfort is immense.
Matt Haig makes this observation. He says,
‘Mental illness is about peaks and troughs. But the bottom of the valley never has the clearest view.’
It is often when people are at the bottom of the valley that they feel overwhelmed, clutching at any thought that comes into their mind, often with disastrous consequences.
Following his breakdown, a fusion of severe depression and panic disorder, Matt Haig spent three years of his life desperately wanting to die. But his fear of death was counterbalanced by his fear of life. He says,
‘My fear of life and fear of death were equally matched. I was scared of the pain of living, and I was scared of the annihilation of death.’
Mental illness does not define a person. When Matt Haig was diagnosed with depression, he felt trapped in quicksand with no hope of finding a way of escape. The mental pain was constant, altering his view of himself. He says,
‘I called myself a depressive. I rarely said, ‘I have depression’ or ‘I am currently experiencing depression’ because I imagined the depression was the sum of who I was.’
Depression is not you. It is simply something that happens to you. And you are no less of a person for having depression.
Mental illness can rob you of your voice. It jumbles your thoughts bringing confusion and uncertainty. Matt Haig experienced the loss of his voice in a literal sense. He says,
‘There was a time when my depression was so heavy my tongue wouldn’t move. I could nod. I could mumble. But I sounded as if I were in slow-motion. Underwater.’
Language is a means of expression, allowing us to voice our experience, and to authenticate who we are. It is a means of connection, fostering relationships and facilitating change in our own and other people’s lives.
Matt Haig discovered the restorative power of language. He says,
‘Language is the way back to life.’
And for him, writing became a powerful tool, allowing him to explore his inner self, to pull back the curtain on his fears and insecurities. He says,
‘Writing is a kind of seeing. A way to see your insecurities more clearly. A way to shine a light on doubts and dreams and realise what they are actually about.’
Sometimes we are afraid of what we might find hidden in the dark recesses of our lives. We imagine writing about it would only complicate matters further, plunging us into the abyss. What Matt Haig found was quite the opposite. He says,
‘Writing down darkness doesn’t make you feel dark. Writing things down brings that inner darkness into external light.’
When we bring things into the light it allows for clarity and perspective. The understanding we acquire challenges our fears and inspires hope.
Mental illness will not go away. Recovery is never complete. It is more about management. Getting the right diagnosis. Committing to a treatment regime. Acknowledging the people who can provide support. Accepting your own reality.
Matt Haig is not free of depression, but it does not dominate his life. He says,
‘Even though I have largely recovered from depression, the door is never quite closed, always slightly ajar.’
Matt Haig is aware of the triggers that might prompt a depressive episode. He has strategies in place to diffuse the threat and to maintain a positive outlook on life. He has come to appreciate the importance of acceptance, that pain is an integral part of life, that when the pain lifts there is space for other things. He says,
‘At some point, you have to accept your own reality. Even if that reality includes depression and fear and pain alongside other things. And when you accept it, you accept other things too. The more generally pleasurable things.’
Hope is a beautiful thing. It is the thing we most want to cling on to in periods of despair or worry.
We live in a world where hope is hard to find. It seems we preference negativity, pulling down rather than building up, criticising rather than affirming, judging rather than forgiving.
Matt Haig reminds that even when we feel bombarded by challenging events that threaten to overwhelm any vestige of positivity, hope is undaunted.
‘Hope can feel in scarce supply for everyone these days. Global pandemics, brutal injustices, political turmoil and glaring inequalities can all take their toll on your reserves. And yet, the thing with hope is that it is persistent. It has the potential to exist in the most troubled times.’
We might feel that it is hard to cultivate hope when in a state of despair. The thing is, hope is born from the uncertain fabric of life, so give hope a chance. Sometimes hope comes to us unexpectedly and all we can do is look on with wonder. Matt Haig had such an experience. He says,
‘I can remember one night in the middle of a depression feeling suicidal and looking up at a cloudless sky of infinite stars. I felt a mental pain so deep it was physical. But seeing the sky, our small glimpse of the universe, flooded me with hope and wonder of life, and the world is full of such moments.’
Hope is available to all. Some people are tempted to give up on hope, feeling that it fails to deliver. But hope is the basis of life. Without hope we die. Matt Haig said he clutched on to hope like a security blanket. Do not let anyone talk you out of hope. Do not let anyone prise it out of your hands. Shield it. Protect it. Own it.
Hope is the acceptance of possibility. It is believing that change is a fact of life. Nothing stays the same. We may think the clouds are stationary until we look a little closer and wait a little longer. It is believing that even when the darkness presses in on us, a tiny speck of light can make all the difference.
Matt Haig encourages us to light a candle. He says,
‘When things go dark, we can’t see what we have. All we need is to light a candle, or ignite some hope, and we can see that what we thought was lost was merely hidden.’
If we are to believe in a better future, we must keep hope alive. Matt Haig offers this final word of encouragement. He says,