Matt Haig: 'It was touch and go, but I didn't jump'

By Matt Haig

Best-selling author Matt Haig, 38, is about to have two more books published. Here, he explains how he only started writing to cope with his sudden, life-threatening depression.

Author Matt Haig.
Author Matt Haig.

I can remember the day the old me died. It started with a thought: something was going wrong. And then, a second later, my brain started to have something pumped into it from the inside. And then my heart started to go. And then I started to go. It would be more than a year before I would feel even half-normal again.

Until that point, I'd had no real understanding or awareness of depression, except that I knew my mum had suffered from it for a little while after I was born and that my great-grandmother on my father's side had committed suicide. So there had been a family history, but it hadn't been a history I'd thought about much.

When depression reached me, I was 24 and was standing in the most beautiful place I'd ever lived. It was in Ibiza, where I worked for the Manumission club and hotel empire from 1997 to 1999. The villa my girlfriend Andrea and I shared with the owners of the club was behind me and, in front, was the Mediterranean, looking like a turquoise tablecloth scattered with tiny diamonds.

And yet, the most glorious view in the world could not stop me from wanting to kill myself. I was going to do it even while Andrea was in the villa behind, oblivious, thinking that I just needed some air.

I walked, counting my steps, then losing count, my mind all over the place.
"Don't chicken out," I told myself.

I made it to the cliff edge. I could stop feeling this terrible simply by taking another step. It was so preposterously easy - a single step versus the pain of being alive.

But, actually, it wasn't easy.

The weird thing about depression is that even though you might have suicidal thoughts, the terror of death remains the same. The difference is that the terror of life has rapidly increased. So when you hear about someone killing themselves it's important to know that death wasn't any less scary for them. It's just that life had become so painful that death was the lesser of two extremely bad evils.

I stood there for a while, summoning the courage to die, then summoning the courage to live.

It was touch and go, but I didn't jump. I had my parents, my sister Phoebe, and Andrea.

Four people who loved me. I wished like mad, in that moment, that I had no one at all.

Also, if I'm honest, I was scared. What if I didn't die? What if I was paralysed and was trapped in this state forever?

And so I kept living. I turned back towards the villa and was sick from the stress of it all.

A doctor put me on diazepam to help control my anxiety and I moved back to my hometown of Newark in Nottinghamshire to live with Andrea and my parents.

When you're depressed - unable to leave the house, or the sofa, or to think of anything but the depression - it can be unbearably hard. However, bad days are not all equally bad. The really bad ones, though horrible to live through, are useful for later. You store them up in a bank so that if you're having another bad day, you know there have been worse: the day you were so depressed your tongue wouldn't move; the day you made your parents cry; the day you almost threw yourself off a cliff.

And even when you can think of no worse day, you at least know that the bank exists and that you've made a deposit.

Depression is an illness. There may be triggers, but we can't see them. Sometimes it just happens. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you consciously want that happiness more than anything.

The period that followed was, from the outside, the least eventful phase of my life. My parents would leave for work and Andrea and I would spend long days talking in the house. Occasionally we would venture to the nearest shop, about 250 yards away, or walk by the River Trent. That was about it. Life at the lowest possible volume that two 24-year-olds could manage.

Yet those days were the most intense I've lived because they contained thousands of tiny battles. They're filled with memories so painful that only now, with the distance of 14 years, can I look at them head-on. People say "take it one day at a time". But days were mountains and a week was a trek across the Himalayas.

We spent three long months at my parents' house, then the rest of that winter in a cheap flat in Leeds. Andrea did freelance PR work and I tried not to go mad.

But from April 2000, good stuff gradually started to become available, though it amounted to about 0.0001 per cent of what I felt. The bad stuff was still there most of the time, but from that point on I knew life was available to me again and, by May, 0.0001 per cent became 0.1 per cent.

In June, we moved to a flat in the city centre. The thing I liked about it was the light - the walls were white and the windows made up most of the walls. Light was everything but so, increasingly, were books. I started to read with an intensity I'd never known. I needed books. I read more in the following six months than I had during five years of university, and I'd certainly fallen deeper than I ever had into the worlds conjured on the page.

There's an idea that you read either to escape or to find yourself, but I don't see the difference. I think we find ourselves through the process of escaping.

"Is there no way out of the mind?" asked the writer Sylvia Plath. If there is a way out (that isn't death), I believe the exit route is through words. But rather than leave the mind entirely, words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view.

My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in films, television dramas and, particularly, books, offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.

Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was, in actual fact, myself. But each map was incomplete, and would be complete only if I read all the books and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest.

One cliche attached to bookish people is that they're lonely, but for me books were a way out of being lonely. In my deepest state of depression I felt trapped in quicksand, but books were about movement, quests and journeys. They were about starting new chapters and leaving old ones behind. And, because I'd only recently lost the point of words and stories altogether, I was determined never to feel like that again.

I used to sit with the bedside lamp on, reading for hours until my eyes were dry and sore.

I was always seeking, but never quite finding, despite feeling tantalisingly close. Then Andrea sat me down in front of an old PC and forced me to write. I started with what I felt, and then writing became a kind of therapy. A way of externalising things.

I wrote a story called The Last Family In England, written from the point of view of a family's dog, about the disintegration of the family and the dog's attempts to stop it. It was published in 2004, became a best-seller and the film rights were sold to Brad Pitt.

It felt surreal, but for once it was in a good way.

I married Andrea in 2007 and we now have two children, Lucas, 6, and Pearl, 4. Seven more novels followed that first. I am still prone to the odd dip, or spell of anxiety, but nothing on the scale of my breakdown.

The process of writing, combined with an increase in self-esteem that being published gave me, has helped more than I can say. It was a defence mechanism. It gave me purpose. It might have even saved my life.

Echo Boy by Matt Haig (Random House $34.99).

If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline, 0800 543 354.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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