Trigger Warning: Please be aware that this article and recommended books contain references to the following; depression, anxiety, grief, attempted suicide.
‘Matt Haig has an empathy for the human condition, the light and the dark of it, and he uses the whole palette to build his excellent stories’, which Neil Gaiman is quoted in response to Matt Haig’s recent release The Midnight Library.
I couldn’t have put it better myself. He is one of my favourite people for good reason.
Matt Haig is a brilliant writer and human being who is constantly investigating and questioning the effect of modern life on our mental health. He is a huge advocate for mental health wellness, and has shared his experiences through his multiple fiction works and his non-fiction books, Reasons to Stay Alive and Notes On A Nervous Planet.
Today I will be focussing on his second non-fiction work, Notes On A Nervous Planet, which is about becoming aware of the things around us that are affecting our mental health and how we survive in a world that is nervous and agitated. It is very relevant for any person experiencing any type of illness, or stress in their life. As we know, one overwhelming aspect of our lives affects every other aspect, and we need to lower our stressors wherever we can.
This book is a follow up to Reasons To Stay Alive, which is an intimate and honest account of Haig’s experience with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and suicidal tendencies, and how to fight and stay alive. In his first book he covers his experiences and the things that saved him. In his second book, he is exploring the need for awareness of things that affect everybody’s mental health and how to manage them.
Both of Haig’s non-fiction books are loaded with facts and are considered memoirs, however the amount of valuable self-help knowledge in these books is truly life-changing if applied. Rarely do we find self help books that inspire us to take action immediately and out of curiosity.
Matt has a unique way of bringing you to awareness of pitfalls and problems with great emphasis (sometimes scaring us into action with data and his experiences), while also acknowledging the human failures we all have and where he is still trying to learn and apply. He admits how hard it is to place priority on your mental health when there are so many exciting and addictive things vying for our attention, the guilt from being unproductive while resting, and the fear of missing out.
Matt Haig reminds us that all the things we have in our lives are creating and fueling the feelings we have, and are either loading or unloading the pressure on our minds. He teaches us that we have to learn to protect ourselves, how to mother ourselves, and be careful of the language we use to describe ourselves. He shows us through his own experiences that it is constant work to keep ourselves healthy and well, to learn the things that don’t work for us and moderate them.
“Illness has a lot to teach wellness. But when I am well I forget these things. The trick is to keep hold of that knowledge. To turn recovery into prevention. To live how I live when I am ill, without being ill.”― Matt Haig, Notes On A Nervous Planet
Notes On A Nervous Planet is divided up into many short essays, including the following topics: overload, time, appearance, sleep, news, priorities, wanting. The insights into time, productivity and sleep are incredibly enlightening and relevant for anyone who has ever had to prioritise their health over everything else in their life. It is a difficult thing to do, but Haig explains our current beliefs and the societal expectations that have made it so difficult for us to prioritise health, reminding us that it is not us personally, but the world we live in that is not working for our wellbeing.
“This is the attitude to sleep: something to be suspicious of because it is a time when we are not plugged in, consuming, paying. And this is our attitude to time: something that mustn’t be wasted by resting, being, sleeping. We are ruled by the clock. By the light bulb. By the glowing smartphone…We live in 24-hour societies but not 24-hour bodies. Something has to give.”― Matt Haig, Notes On A Nervous Planet
Sometimes, we haven’t gained awareness of what it is in our lives that make us feel so nervous and anxious, because they’ve gradually infiltrated into our lives over time. These things might have started out being positive and exciting, but it gradually turned into addictive and stressful triggers. We have become so used to blindly accepting what is thrown at us without questioning whether it is good for us and creating boundaries to moderate its impact. Haig questions it all and shines a light on what we need to see and examine.
“To enjoy life, we might have to stop thinking about what we will never be able to read and watch and say and do, and start to think of how to enjoy the world within our boundaries. To live on a human scale. To focus on the few things we can do, rather than the millions of things we can’t.
To not crave parallel lives. To find a smaller mathematics. To be a proud and singular one. An indivisible prime.”― Matt Haig, Notes On A Nervous Planet
So much of this book shows us that the problem is the crazy world we live in that is too much for our bodies and minds to live in, not our inability to cope with it all. That we shouldn’t feel bad about it, that everything is working against us. We might be the canaries in the coal mine.
Matt Haig is fighting for a better future for everyone, not just people with diagnosed mental illness or disability. His greatest gift is reminding us of the hope and joy and beauty that is in the world, and that it will make us feel better when we are struggling.
I highly recommend reading anything that Matt Haig writes, especially his brilliant Twitter comments, and his non-fiction books if you are interested in a lived experience of mental health and illness.
If you prefer to digest lessons through fiction, Matt Haig’s new book The Midnight Library is an incredible read (my favourite fiction book of the year).
The story follows Nora who is between life and death and wondering what life she would choose if she were to continue to live. She is stuck in a library filled with books of the different lives she could live based on what choices she made along the way. As she tries out each life from each book, she discovers that her choices lead to both good and bad things happening in her life, and the regrets she has in her life may have occurred regardless of her choices.
The whole novel is a story of the things that are good and bad for us, the choices we make and where they lead to, the influences of other people on your choices and life, and forging a life that is truly and genuinely your own. Matt’s own experiences are so deeply embedded in this novel that it is incredibly heartfelt and moving. A book that will never leave you once you’ve read it.
Take heart, Readers. I’ll keep the light on.
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