‘It’s about editing our lives so that they make sense again’

We meet Matt Haig.

Bestselling author Matt Haig’s new book is Notes on a Nervous Planet (Canongate). Our editor Jon Sutton asked him about his approach to writing and mental health.

In Notes on a Nervous Planet, and other books, you write from the perspective of ‘The only psychology I truly know – my own’. Yet every professional psychologist I know who has read your work rates it highly… any thoughts on why that might be? 

I don’t honestly know! But it’s a very nice thing to hear. I suppose if you write as truthfully as possible about your own experience, you might end up tapping into something universal. I do think it’s important, though, to acknowledge when I am writing it down, that I am writing about myself. Not everything that works for one person works for everyone else.

You admit to falling back on clichés, ‘corny sentimental miracles’. Do you think the best approaches to mental health are staring us in the face?

Clichés are clichés for a reason! I think the aim of a writer should be to find new clichés. But sometimes the old ones have a wisdom to them. The one I stand by most is ‘time heals’. For me, time is so important. Time is the thing that is bigger than depression and anxiety, and can disprove their lies. Depression told me I’d be dead by the age of 25. I’m now 42. The lessons of time help to rationalise some of those urgent negative voices.

You’ve come through so much, yet – forgive me – you seem almost literally thin-skinned… you write that ‘The world gets in. It always gets in’, getting ‘infected by the world around us’, and ‘a secret external malevolence that could press a despairing weight and pain into you’. 

Yes, I am thin-skinned. It is always used as a negative, but I don’t think it is though. I mean, obviously getting hurt at the slightest thing isn’t great, but for me being thin-skinned is not just about the bad things. It means you are more sensitive to the magic of life. Music, art, books, love, friendship. It can help you feel alive. Now, the problem is that in a society where things are always trying to get in – marketing messages, the news, social media – we thin-skinned people can end up being a little traumatised by the experience of modern life. Everything is so close. The world is now in our pocket. And advertisers trying to create ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ – or ‘FUD’ as marketers call it – can manipulate us and our emotions. Social media can know and manipulate our emotions via algorithms. It’s just about being careful or – to use a more 21st-century word – mindful. Awareness is often a solution in itself, because once you know where your feelings are coming from, and why, it helps you deal with them and put things in perspective.

You write that you miss being ill, in some respects? 

I don’t miss being seriously ill. But there is a point when you are recovering – with anxiety – where you no longer feel the pain but you have the alertness. I think I have learned a lot from being ill. For instance, when you are ill it is really easy to work out what makes you feel better and worse. Sometimes, when we are running on neutral, it is harder to look after ourselves because the stakes aren’t right there in front of us. 

The essence of the ‘nervous planet’ in your title is that we are social creatures, the ‘mammalian bee’ in George Monbiot’s words, but our hives have fundamentally changed. And it’s things that bear the brunt in your book: you quote Sartre’s view that ‘objects should not touch because they are not alive’, you talk of a world of a million distractions where you’re still left with only one mind. To what extent is simply opting out the answer? 

It’s not so much opting out as stripping back. We are overloaded. We are in a world of infinite choice. TV shows, books, friends, careers, travel (for some), where we get our news, apps, podcasts, food, cosmetics. Whatever. Choice choice choice. You go back a few decades or centuries and millennia and you see a wholly different picture. We’re simply not made for all the thousands of micro-decisions we’re expected to make in a day. It’s about editing our lives so that they make sense again. 

And for you that’s partly about finding ‘anchors’ in simple things: the sky, the sea, a good book. You use a Huxley quote, ‘whatever’s going on in your life the only corner of the universe you can be certain of improving is your own self’. But is that easier to say from a position of privilege? 

Yes. Maybe. I am certainly privileged. I was privileged when I first became ill too. I was middle class, with a support network, and though I was in debt I certainly wasn’t going to end up on the streets. I think the sky is available for all of us, and I felt it was safe to wax lyrical about books from within the context of a book. But sure, privilege massively intersects with mental illness, whether it is access to treatment, having financial freedom, or even in terms of how much stigma you face within your culture.

Is that stigma changing? Your books have been called ‘life saving’, and Stephen Fry’s clearly a big fan. But I heard you say you’re wary of becoming another Stephen Fry, with a focus on mental health and advocacy. 

I wouldn’t mind becoming another Stephen Fry! I think he is a hero. I think what you are referring to is that Stephen Fry rightly warned of the dangers of becoming ‘Mr Depression’ as he did after his brilliant documentary on bipolar disorder. I was very determined not to be boxed into a corner where I would have to spend my entire existence talking about the worst times of my life. So after writing Reasons to Stay Alive I wrote a kids’ book about Father Christmas and a novel about a 439-year-old man. I had to wait a while before writing Notes on a Nervous Planet, basically. But yes, I think the stigma will change and, as it does, we’ll start to see mental health as an everyone issue. Mental health is far more than mental illness. It is everything. It is how we experience and enjoy life. 

That book about the 439-year-old man, How to Stop Time, is one of my favourites. Much of your writing, across non-fiction and fiction, comes back to time. Why? 

Time is something I find therapeutic and unsettling all at once. It is unsettling because you watch it passing by and worry you aren’t spending it the right way. Time is an enemy and it won’t take any of us alive. But time is also a friend. For instance, when I was ill, time disproved a lot of the pessimism I was living with. Time is everything. It is how we measure our lives and our loves and our illnesses. It is the ultimate theme. 

Photo credit: Kan Lailey

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