The Day I Couldn't Read
Matt Haig's new book, Reasons to Stay Alive, chronicles his own personal experiences with depression. Here he writes about how the condition once stopped him from being able to read, and how he learned to break through the barrier and pick up a book again.
I had always loved books, but when I had a breakdown at the age of 24, my relationship with them changed.
Suddenly in a state of extreme depression and anxiety, it was no longer possible for me to browse a bookshop or a library. I was living back home with my parents, in my old childhood bedroom, and so the main books at my disposal were the ones on my bookshelf.
These were books I had loved as a child and teenager. Everything from Winnie-the-Pooh to Stephen King. One day, after calling a mental health hotline, I took a book off the shelf. I can’t remember which book it was, but it was a terrifying experience.
You see, when I opened the book and looked at the words it meant nothing. The words weren’t written in a foreign language but I didn’t understand them. No. That’s not quite right. I understood them but I didn’t care. I was hardly speaking at this time. Language felt alien to me. There were no words that came even close to the pain I was feeling. I felt trapped outside of language.
That is one of the things depression made me feel. It made my world – including books – alien. At that lowest point I couldn’t even cry because crying was a form of language, a form of communication, and I had lost the ability or motivation to communicate properly.
So, I couldn’t read.
I told my girlfriend this. ‘Well why don’t you try and write something down.’
So I wrote things down. It took me a while.
‘Write what you are feeling,’ she said.
So I wrote ‘I am in Hell’. It sounds melodramatic but depression only gives you melodramatic thoughts to play with. I wrote other things too. It was very slow. There was no revelatory moment. My head was a dark whirlwind and I was still trapped inside it, but there was something about the act of writing. Something about taking stuff – the painful debris of depression - from inside your head and extracting it from your mind and putting it out in the external world. It is a way of taming pain, of seeing the enemy, of understanding your experience as a human one.
One in five people will suffer from serious depression at some point in their lives but when you are in the middle of it, it seems uniquely terrifying and alienating. There are so many private hells out there. But one of the exit routes is language.
Eventually, when the pain became slightly less intense, I took another book off the shelf. This one I remember. It was The Outsiders by SE Hinton. I read the first line. ‘When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman, and a ride home.’
There was something inside that simple sentence that made me feel something. Maybe it was the move from darkness into light. Maybe it was because I knew this book better than any other. But whatever, it helped take that first step back towards books, towards that shared thing called language.
We build reality out of words. And when we find ourselves outside reality, our way back to feeling halfway normal is through language.
I love books more than ever now. And writing too. When I wrote Reasons to Stay Alive I literally felt myself finally conquering demons I’d lived with for thirteen years.
So write. And read. And talk. And listen.
Where there are words there is life.