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The Profile Dossier: Matt Haig, the Author Who Believes Books Can Save Your Life
“People don’t just read books for escape. We read to find new paths for ourselves."
Matt Haig has been called a "genius storyteller" for good reason. His books may act as a mental escape, but the ideas and concepts stay with you long after you finish reading the last page.
Haig has authored a number of books, including bestsellers Reasons to Stay Alive, The Midnight Library, and Father Christmas and Me. People often try to box his novels and memoirs in the self-help genre, but that's not quite right. Haig falls more in line with the speculative fiction literary genre, which allows him to beautifully blend the worlds of reality and fantasy so well that the reader feels completely immersed and invested in the story.
Haig didn't start writing books because he necessarily wanted to, but rather, because he felt he needed to.
"Up until I was 24, I would have cringed at the very idea that books could be a kind of literary Prozac," he says. "Fresh from a fancypants Masters degree in Eng Lit, I thought the point of a novel was to offer a mirror to life, not to shape it in any way."
But one jarring moment in his 24th year of life was enough to shake him awake and change his perspective.
Haig had a mental breakdown that year when he was living in Spain with his then-girlfriend Andrea. He had fallen into a deep depression and felt that the only way out was death.
So one September in Ibiza, he walked to a cliff edge planning to kill himself. He stopped one step away.
"It was the most beautiful view I had ever known, but I didn’t care," he writes. "I was too busy trying to summon the courage needed to throw myself over the edge. I didn’t. Instead, I walked back inside and threw up from the stress of it."
After this incident, Andrea took him to a medical center where he was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder.
He became very ill and moved back to live with his parents. In his childhood bedroom, he discovered the books he used to read as a teenager — The Outsiders, The Catcher in the Rye, Norwegian Wood, and Bridge to Terabithia.
Haig discovered that stories could be a form of medicine.
"When you are stuck in an unchanging moment — the moment of depression — then books, specifically stories, can become a kind of religion. Something to believe in. Because for a story to be a story there has to be a change. A character or situational change. And when you are stuck, you like to be reminded of the power of change and transformation."
From there, he began to read and write. He began using words as a way to translate and make sense of what was going in his chaotic brain. His experience on the edge of the cliff turned into his memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive.
"Stories saved me. Words saved me," he says. "Think about what therapy often is — an exchange of words. And reading and writing stories is the best kind of word exchanges there are."
Books are therapy. Reading true experiences can be therapy, but reading fiction is also therapy. When you understand this you realize there's nothing dry, dull, or boring about books.
They're the most vital, intimate, personal, mind-altering, thought-twisting, friend-giving, empathy-strengthening, thrill-riding, emotional, world-shaking technology we will ever have. And in a world where we are increasingly connected via technology, but disconnected by society, books and stories can be the glue that bonds us.
Here's what we can learn from Haig about his experience coming back from the edge and learning to use books as a form of therapy to soothe his mental turmoil.
On the people we could've become: I normally don't read any fiction, but I highly recommend Haig's novel, The Midnight Library. In this book, Nora Seed finds herself faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, and realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist. It posits the question: "Would you have done anything differently if you had the chance to undo your regrets?" (Related: Why It's Useless To Wonder About the Life You Never Had)
On reasons to stay alive: Haig is best known for his 2015 memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, which was in the top 10 bestseller lists for nearly a year. It's his account of how, minute by minute and day by day, he overcame depression with the help of reading, writing, and the love of his parents and his girlfriend (and now-wife). One reviewer said, "I feel like this book is a friend I very much needed."
On how books saved him: Haig's brain is often chaotic as he's thinking, reading, or writing about several things at once. In a way, he pours his anxiety into the art of writing a book and that subdues the sharp edge of his mental distress. Haig is adamant that “one of the uses of the arts is to keep us sane,” and that “reading is a route out of yourself." He adds: "You’re not the only person that matters in the world, and books are a great way of teaching yourself that.”
On the moment that changed his life: At age 24, Haig was working in Ibiza with his then-girlfriend when he experienced a panic attack for the first time in his life. "You think of a panic attack as something you have for 10 minutes, and you breathe into a brown paper bag, and you're fine, but this didn't end," he says. "It was a total physical experience." In this podcast, he explains his slow road to recovery and acceptance.
On how to move on from negative feedback: If you're writing from a place of authenticity, then Haig believes you become immune to external criticism. "There's no point in changing your behavior to win over people who you will never win over," he says. "Why gravitate toward the negative? Why not build up the positive?" Hear Haig explain how to develop thicker skin when it comes to receiving criticism.
On coping with the stress of the modern world: Haig says too much time spent on social media can be detrimental for a person's mental health. "We're still not officially recognizing social media as an addiction," he says. "It's not that every single interaction is bad for you, but it has the potential to be." Here's what he says we can do to take care of our mental health in a world full of distractions and endless comparisons.
On his writing process: When asked about what his creative process looks like, Haig says, "It looks messy." He says he goes through months of not writing anything, but ideas are likely percolating in the back of his mind. He says he had the idea of writing something on parallel lives for years before he actually sat down to write The Midnight Library. "You try to come up with a new idea, but often, it's the idea you had 10 years ago that would've been right 10 years ago," he says. "It's the one that's been in your mind for a while."
Books can be an elixir for the mind: Haig believes that reading can be a form of therapy. After he began having suicidal thoughts at age 24, Haig moved back in with his parents and used books he had read as a teenager to distract himself from his mental turmoil. Reading then led him to the cathartic experience of writing. “Books can save your life,” he writes. “People don’t just read books for escape. We read to find new paths for ourselves. We think we are in this one-room house. Books help us realize we are in a mansion. Reading is a way to find the lost parts of us. To know what’s there. What you have. To work out how far you can dream.” As I've always believed, wandering through bookstores and libraries can be therapeutic for the mind.
Eliminate this phrase from your vocabulary: Haig believes we can relieve some mental pressure by simply eliminating the phrase "right path" from our vocabularies. Many of us use this as a compliment — "you seem to be on the right path" — and as a criticism — "she went down the wrong path." In reality, there is no one single correct path for us to take in order to get the most out of life. Haig suggests envisioning your life as a wide-open space, like a field or a beach. He says: "Imagine this. You're walking through a field and to your right is a breathtakingly beautiful aqua-blue lake. Would you bypass this lake purely to keep walking forward, following one single path? No. You'd make time to take a detour and explore it. View your life in the same way." Remember, the point of life is to enjoy it, not to win it.
Elevate your heart rate to alleviate mental anguish: When you feel stuck in your own head, Haig says physical activity can help you get out of it. He found that running is an excellent tool for building mental resilience. The side effects of exercise, he says, can mimic the symptoms of a panic attack: quick breathing, racing pulse, excessive sweating. In this way, allowing your body to experience these symptoms in a controlled environment can make them less potent and powerful over your mental state. “For me, each time I forced myself out there in the cold, grey, damp of a West Yorkshire morning, it gave me a little bit of depression-beating power," he says.
Remember that you are more than a measurement: How do you measure success? Do you judge your worth through metrics like income, weight, or status? Numbers are addictive, he says, because they allow us to compare and quantify ourselves, but those numbers won't lead to a fulfilling life. "We are more than the sum of our achievements," he writes. "We are more than the feelings we witness. We are the infinity that remains when you subtract them." Remember this the next time comparison creeps in.
Happiness is found in the mundane: In 2021, we basically live online. We've begun to over-identify with our virtual selves more so than with our un-filtered regular selves. Happiness has never felt more elusive. Haig writes, "The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?" As a result, being calm has become a revolutionary act. Rather than obsessing over what we perceive as flaws, maybe we could appreciate the wrinkle or the gray hair that we see on our Zoom screens. Haig believes it's a revolutionary act to notice those tiny moments of beauty so we can stop stuffing the pockets of beauty brands and plastic surgeons. (Related: How to Be Happy In a World Designed to Depress You)
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“The only way to learn is to live.”
"Your self-worth is not found inside the minds of other people."
“There is no standard normal. Normal is subjective. There are seven billion versions of normal on this planet.”
“Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind.”
“Never underestimate the big importance of small things.”
“No one will understand you. It is not, ultimately, that important. What is important is that you understand you.”
“You don’t have to understand life. You just have to live it.”
“Sometimes just to say your own truth out loud is enough to find others like you.”
"If you think something is ugly, look harder. Ugliness is just a failure of seeing.”
“The single biggest act of bravery or madness anyone can do is the act of change.”
“Don’t aim for perfection. Evolution, and life, only happen through mistakes.”