Writer Matt Haig thinks travel is useful for people who suffer from depression because “it takes you out of yourself”. Depression tends to envelop and compress your world, and literally getting away from the small space into which you’ve shrunk yourself, allows you to focus on something else. It takes your mind off it.
He was speaking at this month’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, in a session called Darkness and Light with the hot new Australian writer Brooke Davis (author of Lost and Found, one of the international hit books of the year). Matt’s latest book is called Reasons to Stay Alive.
Matt is the author of five novels, including the bestselling The Last Family in England, The Radleys, voted the winner of Channel 4’s TV Book Club series in 2011, and The Humans, a World Book Night 2014 title. His works have been translated into more than 20 languages and optioned for films. Matt has also written award-winning books for children. He lives in York and London.
His new book reveals his longstanding battle with severe depression. The book took on mega seller status after comedian Stephen Fry (who also went public with depression) tweeted it to his millions of followers.
It was some months after Matt’s breakdown in 1999, that his then girlfriend, Andrea, suggested they get away to Paris for a weekend. From London it was a mere two-hour train journey on the Eurostar. Matt had barely been able to walk to a shop to buy a bottle of milk, and was horrified at the prospect. But he was starting to realise that sometimes, doing something he dreaded – like going outside and surviving it – was precisely the best thing he could do for himself.
“When you are depressed and and anxious your comfort zone tends to shrink from the size of a world to the size of a bed. Or right down to nothing at all,” he wrote in Reasons to Stay Alive.
A lot of depressed people turn to travel as an antidote to their symptoms.
So he went to Paris for the weekend after all, and observed “By forcing yourself into a new physical space, preferably in a different country, you end up inevitable focusing a bit more on the world outside your head”.
Of course, travel isn’t always a solution. Or even an option. But it certainly helps me, when I get the chance to go away. I think, more than anything, it helps give a sense of perspective. We might be stuck in out mind, but we aren’t physically stuck. And unsticking ourselves from my physical location can help dislodge our unhappy mental state. Movement is the antidote to fixedness, after all. And it helps. Sometimes. Just sometimes.
A lot of vacuous bullshit is written about the delightful effects of travel, including in some posts on this blog. But I agree with Matt. The pit of despair seems erstwhile removed while I’m in another country, or even a pleasant location away from home. Familiar markers – a pet’s grave, gruesome news on TV, shitty neighbours who park across the driveway, people who you thought cared when really they’re self-centred strangers – which reinforce the depression are left behind. Temporary respite maybe the breather you need.
I think sunshine helps. A dose of Vit D and the gentle warmth of the sun’s rays has a miraculous effect on my wellbeing. Searing mid-summer Australia is an exception.
Matt’s breakdown has left permanent scars. He says he has a thin skin and hence is vulnerable to depression and anxiety. He credits his now wife (who he called Saint Andrea at the writers festival) to helping him get on the road to health. He eschewed medication and therapy, quit smoking and drinking, took up running and yoga, and reading lots of books, including philosophy. “Kurt Vonnegut was right. ‘Reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found’.”
He focused on finding calm spaces, whether they were at home or abroad. While he’s not a Buddhist, he likes Buddhist thinking. That a lotus flower – a key Buddhist symbol – grows in mud but rises to the surface to bloom in clear air. That we have to be vigilant, aware of ourselves, starting with our breathing. Mindful. In a modern world full of extraordinary 24/7 distractions that’s an increasingly challenging state to be in.
How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe.
Matt has a list of 40 reasons to stay alive for. They include not watching TV aimlessly, or going on social media aimlessly. And 3am is never the time to sort out your life.
Be brave. Be strong. Breathe, and keep going. You will thank yourself later. – Matt Haig
Thanks Matt, it was great to meet you too!
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig is published by Canongate Books.
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