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.
Oct 29

Humorists and Mental Health: Mark Twain Prize Winners

Tomorrow night at 8 P.M. most PBS markets will televise the recently recorded presentation of Ellen DeGeneres: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize. DeGeneres is one of many humorists who has addressed mental health issues in one way or another.

This humor award has been given annually since 1998. When DeGeneres found out she’d be receiving it this year, she reportedly remarked, “It’s such an honor to receive the Mark Twain Prize. To get the same award that has been given to people like Bill Cosby, Tina Fey and Will Ferrell, it really makes me wonder…why didn’t I get this sooner?”

Besides the humorists mentioned in the above quote, the other Mark Twain winners have been Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, Bob Newhart, Neil Simon, Whoopi Goldberg, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, and Richard Pryor.

Now, please indulge me as I make all of this pertinent to Minding Therapy….

Ellen and Neil Simon have had depression. And when Ellen’s character needed to address her coming out process on her sitcom, she used therapy.

Both Will Ferrell and Tina Fey have struggled with shyness. No, really.

Here’s Steve Martin describing his history of panic attacks: “(F)or those who have them or had them – I don’t get them anymore, thank God – but it’s a terrifying experience of disassociation from your own self, and it’s a morbid sense of doom and you feel like you’re dying.”

Whoopi Goldberg famously feared flying, apparently because of witnessing a mid-air collision many years ago. It’s been reported, including on segments of The View, that she’s overcome this with the use of a technique called Thought Field Therapy, or TFT.

Jonathan Winters admitted to having bipolar disorder.

Richard Pryor‘s substance abuse issues were well known.

As forever-producer of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels has overseen the work of many comedians in trouble with alcohol, drugs, and various mental health issues.

And if you thought that one was a stretch…

George Carlin once publicly denounced prayer as a form of mental illness.

Carl Reiner starred in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

And Bill Cosby as Dr. Huxtable on The Cosby Show represented the picture of emotionally healthy, if also comical, parenting.

Finally, several of the Mark Twain Prize humorists are known for their portrayals of shrinks or their potential patients:

Bob Newhart not only played Dr. Bob Hartley on popular sitcom The Bob Newhart Show in the 70’s, but a MADtv skit featuring his character’s special brand of brief therapy is also frequently watched. See it here on YouTube.

Billy Crystal, of course, is reluctant psychiatrist-to-the-Mob-boss in the movies Analyze This and Analyze That.

Lily Tomlin was Trudy the Bag Lady in Jane Wagner‘s play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Trudy: “I made some studies, and reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it. I can take it in small doses, but as a lifestyle, I found it too confining. It was just too needful; it expected me to be there for it all the time, and with all I have to do–I had to let something go.” More recently, on TV’s Web Therapy, Tomlin has played the wacky mom of wacky shrink Fiona Wallice (Lisa Kudrow), who admits her to a mental hospital.

Mar 02

“Agorafabulous!”: Comedian Sara Benincasa’s Agoraphobia

Stand-up comedian and writer Sara Benincasa has a new book entitled Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroomwhich is about her experiences with panic attacks, agoraphobia, and depression.

Who is Benincasa? LA Weekly notes that she’s “like a crazier Tina Fey.” The Chicago Tribune refers to her as “delightfully loopy.” The Huffington Post says she’s one of their “favorite female comedians.”

Previously, Benincasa has toured in a one-woman show on the same topic, and, as stated on her website, it’s “garnered great reviews at festivals and one-night stands around the country.”

Benincasa points out in a recent blog post that the process of dredging up old stuff in order to write this book led to a relapse of depression with suicidal thoughts. She went back to therapy. She went back on medication. And she relearned “…a few cardinal rules of living with depression: 1.) Eat properly. 2.) Sleep properly. 3.) Take your pills properly. 4.) Repeat as necessary (which means daily, for the rest of your life.)”

As for the Agorafabulous! reviews:

Booklist: “Hilarious. . . . With expert pacing, the stand-up comic mixes humor and poignant anecdotes from her teen, college, and young adult life. As her empowering tale makes clear, she survives and thrives (with a little help from family, friends, and Prozac).”

Kirkus Reviews: “…Benincasa recounts her adolescent devolution into a ‘full-on, obsessive, cowering, trembling agoraphobe’ [who] discover[s], by accident, the healing power of stand-up comedy. Fabulously quirky and outrageous.”

Publishers Weekly: “Using humor to help her overcome the anxieties that once dominated her life, Benincasa discovers her gift for comedy and storytelling, and finds tranquility.”

In her own style, Benincasa offers a brief explanation of panic attacks in the animated video below: