Apr 27

“Reasons to Stay Alive”: Matt Haig’s Still Here

The recent news report that deaths from suicide have been on the rise highlights the need for increased prevention efforts. Author Matt Haig hopes his 2015 book Reasons to Stay Alive, based on his young-adult experiences with severe depression and anxiety, is a resource that can help. British novelist Haig, now 40, has learned how to survive.

An excerpt from Haig’s Guardian article called “As Therapy Shows, Words Can Be Medicine” gives some important background to the writing of Reasons to Stay Alive:

On the inside, your head can feel crushed under a raging psychological tsunami, but outwardly you can look like a healthy 24-year-old man. Even when I got a little better, I found that reading and talking about depression could be hard.
But then a trusted friend told me to write about my own experiences, and feeling a now-or-never moment was upon me – 10 books into my career – I did. I imagined writing to myself at 24, when I very nearly tried to solve my life by throwing myself off a cliff…

According to Kirkus Reviews, in Reasons to Stay Alive Haig has written “brief, episodic vignettes, not of a tranquil life but of an existence of unbearable, unsustainable melancholy. Throughout his story, presented in bits frequently less than a page long (e.g., ‘Things you think during your 1,000th panic attack’), the author considers phases he describes in turn as Falling, Landing, Rising, Living, and, finally, simply Being with spells of depression.”

Entertainment Weekly: “…(H)e addresses the guilt and shame that comes with clinical depression—especially for men, who are disproportionately more likely to take their own lives—and the ways its symptoms can be misunderstood and dismissed by even the most well-meaning outsiders. (The 21-item list in a chapter called ‘Things That Have Happened to Me That Have Generated More Sympathy Than Depression’ includes ‘consuming a poisoned prawn,’ ‘breaking a toe,’ and ‘bad Amazon reviews.’)”

On the issue of what helps, “Haig…assesses the efficacy of neuroscience, yoga, St. John’s wort, exercise, pharmaceuticals, silence, talking, walking, running, staying put, and working up the courage to do even the most seemingly mundane of tasks, like visiting the village store. Best for the author were reading, writing, and the frequent dispensing of kindnesses and love. He acknowledges particularly his debt to his then-girlfriend, now-wife.”

Lettie Kennedy, The Guardian: “Medication is discussed briefly; notable by its absence is any discussion of therapy, presumably an avenue Haig did not himself explore. Among the most affecting passages in the book are three ‘Conversations across time’: dramatised exchanges in which ‘Now Me’ reassures ‘Then Me’ that the fire in the brain will burn out and life will once again be full of promise.”

A Few Notable Quotes From Reasons to Stay Alive:

You can be a depressive and be happy, just as you can be a sober alcoholic.

Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations:

Come on, I know you’ve got tuberculosis, but it could be worse. At least no one’s died.’
Why do you think you got cancer of the stomach?
Yes, I know, colon cancer is hard, but you want to try living with someone who has got it. Sheesh. Nightmare.
Oh, Alzheimer’s you say? Oh, tell me about it, I get that all the time.
Ah, meningitis. Come on, mind over matter.
Yes, yes, your leg is on fire, but talking about it all the time isn’t going to help things, is it?
Okay. Yes. Yes. Maybe your parachute has failed. But chin up.

The key is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones. Accept thoughts, but don’t become them. Understand, for instance, that having a sad thought, even having a continual succession of sad thoughts, is not the same as being a sad person. You can walk through a storm and feel the wind but you know you are not the wind.
Aug 03

Charlie Brown: A Cartoon Kid With Mental Health Problems

An article in Time on the occasion of the death of Charles M. Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown and his gang, notes that he’d originated something very different for comic strips of his era—the “Peanuts” kids he drew actually talked about having real problems.

On October 2, 1950, at the height of the American postwar celebration — an era when being unhappy was an antisocial rather than a personal emotion — a 27-year-old Minnesota cartoonist named Charles M. Schulz introduced to the funny papers a group of children who told one another the truth:

‘I have deep feelings of depression,’ a round-faced kid named Charlie Brown said to an imperious girl named Lucy in an early strip. ‘What can I do about it?’

‘Snap out if it,’ advised Lucy.

As a shrink, Lucy was ineffective. Charlie Brown continued to be plagued not only with depression but with other types of angst as well. Probably at least in part because, like Charlie Brown, Schulz himself had similar issues. States David Michaelis in the Time piece, “Melancholy would dog him all his life, as would feelings of worthlessness, panic, high anxiety and frustration.”

And yet Schulz was—and still is—unbelievably successful in reaching a devoted legion of fans of his work.

Long-time fan Stuart JeffriesThe Guardian, related his childhood appreciation of Charlie Brown’s neuroses: “In four frames [Charles Schulz] told truths that every child knows but too often go unrecognised when adults write for kids: namely, that life is difficult, one’s shortcomings feel insuperable and that, when fate has laid you low, it comes along to kick you again in the proverbials.”

Jeffries goes on to say, “For adults, the only certainties in life were death and taxes. For kids like me and Charlie Brown there was a third one – our constant companion is, and will always be, worry. ‘Sometimes you lie in bed and you don’t have a single thing to worry about,’ Charlie Brown reflected once. ‘That always worries me.’”

CHARLIE BROWN SPEAKS: Some Pertinent Quotes

This is my depressed stance. When you’re depressed, it makes a lot of difference how you stand. The worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high because then you’ll start to feel better. If you’re going to get any joy out of being depressed, you’ve got to stand like this.

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’

That’s the secret to life… replace one worry with another….

It always looks darkest just before it gets totally black.

Jul 31

Exercise As Therapy: John Medina, John J. Ratey

It turns out that physical exercise isn’t just about watching the Summer Olympics. It’s also something just about everyone can and should do. Scientist John Medina states the following about the first of his 12 “brain rules” (USA Today):

Exercise boosts brain power. Humans adapted during evolution by constantly moving (both to get food and to avoid predators). Medina says we think better in motion. He suggests that people might be more productive if they spent some of the working day (separate from the gym) on treadmills. Another provocative idea: ‘Board meetings might be conducted while people walked 2 miles per hour,’ he writes.

Medina also states that symptoms of depression and anxiety can decrease via workouts. In fact, it’s likely that a combination of therapy and exercise is equally as effective as a combination of antidepressant medication and therapy. According to one study, both combos are 80% successful. He recommends regular aerobic exercise two or three times a week for 30 minutes; and adding a strength training component can further boost cognitive functions.

There are scientific explanations for our workouts positively affecting mood and anxiety levels, of course, one of which has something to do with increased blood flow to the brain and other body parts. Exercise can also stimulate BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), a growth factor in the brain that aids in neuron health and development. John J. Ratey, M.D., author of the 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

For more info that supports Medina’s, investigate Dr. Ratey’s book. Its description says it was “the first book to explore comprehensively the connection between exercise and the brain,” and observes that Ratey shows that “exercise is truly our best defense against everything from depression to ADD to addiction to aggression to menopause to Alzheimer’s.”

A sample quote from Spark: “Studies show that if researchers exercise rats that have been chronically stressed, that activity makes the hippocampus grow back to its preshriveled state. The mechanisms by which exercise changes how we think and feel are so much more effective than donuts, medicines, and wine. When you say you feel less stressed out after you go for a swim, or even a fast walk, you are.”