Borders Book Festival Part 2 – Matt Haig

Festival Sign 2

This is the second post I’m writing about the Borders Book Festival which took place last weekend (11th – 14th June) in Melrose, Scotland. You can find my first post about the talk I attended by author Kirsty Logan here.

On Sunday night I attended a talk by Matt Haig about his latest book Reasons to Stay Alive. This post took me longer to write than I thought it would – partly because I haven’t had a lot of time this week and partly because the subject of the talk is difficult for me to discuss.

Reasons to Stay Alive is a candid and emotional account of Matt Haig’s struggle with the ‘black dog’ of depression and anxiety. If you’ve read one of my previous blog posts, you’ll know I’ve struggled with this myself and would likely not be here today if it hadn’t been for a particularly serendipitous moment 12 years ago involving Star Trek: Voyager and the wonderful Kate Mulgrew. Over the years I have found ways of reading and talking about depression without having it trigger a response within myself (I have plenty of other triggers to make up for those), but somehow listening to Matt talk about his experiences in person made me feel … something. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what that something was.

Matt Haig Talk

Firstly, the setting, though very nice, threw me off and felt incongruous with the nature of the event. All the round tables with red velvet chairs, white table cloths and flower centre pieces made me feel like I was at a formal dinner rather than a book festival event (the set up for Kirsty’s event was completely different).

But then, why shouldn’t depression be discussed in an open, bright, well decorated public forum? Keeping it hidden away only serves to fuel the stigma and feed into the idea that depression is the unique affliction of those with so-called ‘troubled pasts’ and ‘hard lives’. The truth is depression can hit anyone, at any time, for no discernible reason. Of course, sometimes the reasons are painfully obvious, as they were with me, but like any illness depression doesn’t necessarily need a reason to strike – it can just appear one day and change your life without your permission.

While I was listening to Matt speak very honestly and bravely about his own experiences, I found myself analysing the way he was talking and the reactions of the other audience members. This, of course, being easier than analysing my own reactions and the subsequent avoidance easily justified by the fact that I knew I would be writing about the event for this blog.

I noticed two main things: Matt talks very fast when he’s discussing depression, and he skilfully uses humour to get his point across.

I certainly didn’t have trouble following what he was saying, and it didn’t look like anyone else was either, so it wasn’t a problem, just something I noticed. Matt talked about how his depression, coupled with anxiety, made his thoughts race and everything feel like it was moving very fast. In his own words:

‘It’s like a fast-forward depression — you’re having a lot of racing thoughts. It was never boring, it was horrendous but it wasn’t that slow, flat plane which you think of as the archetypal case of depression.’ (I couldn’t remember his exact words from the event, so I found this quote in an interview he did here).

I found myself wondering if he talked so fast in order to try and keep up with the pace of his thoughts. I often wonder that about myself, too, especially when I’m walking anywhere. I have no concept of a leisurely stroll and, as I have been told countless times by friends and family who try in vain to catch my attention when they pass me in the street (this even happened once today), I’m always ‘charging off’ somewhere like I’m on a mission and seem to be completely in my own head.

They’re absolutely right. I rarely ever notice what’s going on around me when I’m out running errands, heading to an appointment, etc. I notice enough not to bump into things or get run over by a car, but that’s about it. My thoughts never stop and the anxiety that I still struggle with on a daily basis is always lingering in the side lines even when I am not consciously aware of having anything to actually be anxious about. I think maybe my feet move so fast because I’m trying to keep up with my own thoughts. Sometimes I can’t stand to be still, and being on the move helps me feel better, like pacing when I’m feeling particularly anxious. Seriously, my footprints should be visible in my carpet by now.

I’m rambling now. Back to Matt.

The second thing I noticed was his use of humour, both in the talk and in the book itself. He got a lot of laughs from the audience and therefore made depression feel like a more approachable and less intimidating subject for people either not familiar with it or not sure how to engage with the topic. My favourite part was when he described himself as an ‘agoraphobic, neurotic weirdo’, which he said isn’t great for many professions but could sit right at the top of a CV (resumé) for a writer! Good thing he’s a fantastic writer then!

After the event I went to get my book signed. While I was walking towards the signing tent (okay, striding, my thoughts were hurrying my feet along pretty fast by this point), I was thinking that I would mention to Matt about my own depression and near suicide attempt, about how I wrote myself out of my depression and how inspirational I thought he was. But when I got to the signing tent all those thoughts coalesced into … not a lot. He asked for my name and I made some comment about how I don’t like my full name (I’m Jo, not Joanne, dammit!) and he mentioned that he’s not too fond of Matthew either. I thanked him for signing my book and wandered away, instantly feeling annoyed with myself for missing an opportunity.

Reasons to Stay Alive - signed

Had there not been other people in line behind me (or if I hadn’t been very aware of a former school classmate’s mother standing nearby), things might have been different. Or not. I don’t know, but maybe this explains why I’ve turned what was supposed to be a write up of the event into a post that probably would have been better off in my journal rather than here. Oh well.

Depression should be spoken about – it needs to be – and for that reason I’m going to ignore the part of my brain that’s telling me to delete this post and start over, and hit the publish button instead.

‘Be brave. Be strong. Breathe, and keep going. You will thank yourself later.’ – Reasons to Stay Alive

Thank you to Matt for writing this book, and thank you to everyone who has read this post.

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