Sunday, 25 September 2016

Post 43: Reasons To Stay Alive, Matt Haig

I am sorry for doing this to you, writing two blog post in as many days.  I am also not sorry at all, because this book, which I utterly consumed in just two sittings, is brilliant.

This is another book selected by one of my students for her A Level coursework.  I am just sad that I am not her main supervisor!  Matt Haig has written frankly, honestly, openly and sensibly about depression. And please, don't be put off right here, right now.  Read to the end of the review, then read the book!

I have worked with people who have been depressed, I am friends with some who suffer and I have family who accept their battle with the black dog on an almost daily basis.  Perhaps even more real to me is the increase in depression in young people.  The pressure on students to be the best they can be is far greater than anything I experienced whilst at school or university.  They are told that failure is not an option and they are told what failure looks like.  Hence, they look to their teachers to give them the answers, the right answers, so that that they can be guaranteed success.  They risk nothing and fear everything because to take risks is to invite failure in.  And if they do fail, or achieve less than their targets, they are at risk of inviting in worthlessness, anxiety and depression.  In my mind, it is not coincidental that there are more children and young people self-harming and starving themselves than there has ever been before.  They are not weaker than we were, or  our parents before us, they are just exposed to more intense pressure much earlier.  

Paradoxically, this is one of my main reasons to stay in teaching.  I try to be a voice of reason over the clamour of a pressurised, target-ridden education system.  I teach A Level.  I want to share a love of words and of books.  I want to enthuse students and help them to reach their potential.  But I also want them to realise that life has many different paths and that failure to achieve A's is not failure at all.

Matt Haig's book, Reasons To Stay Alive is a personal story of his own battle with anxiety and depression.  He first "went under" at the age of 24.  This in itself, interested me.  He had succeeded. He was a good government statistic.  He had finished A levels and got a Masters Degree. He had a steady girlfriend.  He was working abroad.  He was living the life.
How to Live..forty pieces of advice...#20
 "Look at trees.  Be near trees. Plant trees. (Trees are great)

But that's the point.  We teach our young people to strive, but what if when they get there, the view from the top is no better than it was at the bottom?  We know that pressure continues, and it is exerted from all sides.  Be better. At everything.  Look younger.  Be thinner.  Buy the latest phone.  Achieve popularity.  Have followers in all aspects of social media.  Be promoted.  Own a house.  Pay for it. 

This extract really spoke to me about modern lifestyle and our wellbeing: "Human brains -in terms of cognition and emotion and consciousness - are essentially the same as they were at the time of Shakespeare or Jesus or Cleopatra or the Stone Age.  They are not evolving with the pace of change.  Neolithic humans never had to face emails or breaking news or pop-up ads or Iggy Azalea videos [I confess at this point to never having heard of the latter!] or a self-service checkout at a strip-lit Tesco Metro on a busy Saturday night.  Maybe instead of worrying about upgrading technology and slowly allowing ourselves to be cyborgs, we should have a little peek at how we could upgrade our ability to cope with all this change."

And no, I'm not naive enough to think that technology is the root of all evil, (I'm writing a blog, for goodness sake!), but it has made us multi-taskers.  Child two is a demon at it.  He can be seemingly absorbed in his phone but then beat us all at University Challenge and tell us breaking news that he has just read on twitter!  In a recent sermon, the very sensible Sam Allberry preached that in this modern world we are justifed by our own busy-ness.  We have lost the capacity to be still.  The Revd Sam advocated time spent with God, to listen, to read and to be.  Matt Haig is not propounding faith as a solution in his book, but he similarly recognises the need to breathe, the need to be idle, to pause and take stock.  We need to be as much (or even more perhaps) than we need to do.  That is counter-cultural.

Matt Haig writes very well indeed. More than anything I have read before, his description of depression and anxiety helped me to understand how it might feel to be so reduced by the illness.  It is also a profoundly positive book -  it offers hope and gives practical strategies.  It doesn't preach, but by the end we are left in no doubt that we all need each other.  We need to be kind.  We need to care. The opposite of depression and anxiety is not strength, but love.  Matt Haig received love from his girlfriend, (now wife) and his family.  He learnt to love himself again and through this book, he is showing hope and love to a myriad of readers who can benefit from his experience.

Let's talk to each other, listen to each other and ease one another's burdens.  Let's not say yes to the demands and pressures that are becoming so mainstream. Instead, let us grasp life, look about us and realise we are not determined by what we achieve, but by who we are.

Compelling, well written.  One of the best books I have had the privilege to immerse myself in.

I hope, Matt Haig, that this is a review that fits into one of your "Things that make (sometimes) make me feel better!"

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