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Hello and welcome to How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, the podcast that celebrates the things that haven't gone right.
This is a podcast about learning from our mistakes and understanding that why we fail ultimately makes us stronger, because learning how to fail in life actually means learning how to succeed better. I'm your host, author and journalist, Elizabeth Day, and every week I'll be asking a new interviewee what they've learned from failure.
My guest today could not be better qualified for this podcast.
He is someone who has taken the darkest moments in his life and distilled them into points of profound human connection.
A best selling author who claims his depression made him into a writer and an unofficial global agony uncle who counts the Duchess of Sussex and Dolly Parton among his innumerable fans.
The latter recently admitted that she had a copy of his latest charming novel, The Midnight Library, next to the Bible on her bedside table. He is, of course, Matt Haig.
He grew up in Nottinghamshire, the son of a teacher and an architect. He had, he says, a horrible time at school and has confessed to shoplifting in an attempt to fit in by his mid 20s. He was living in a Betha when he became ill with a depression so severe that he found himself on the edge of a cliff, considering whether to jump and take his own life with the help of his partner, Andrea. His family and an exploration of the things that made him feel better, such as time spent in nature, he painstakingly made his way back to himself.
These experiences formed the basis of Haig's 2015 memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, which was a number one Sunday Times bestseller and stayed in the UK top ten for 46 weeks.
In total, Haig has now written two non-fiction books, seven novels and 11 children's books.
He has something of a golden touch. His novel, How to Stop Time, is being adapted into a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch and a film of his children's book.
A boy called Christmas will be out later this year with Dame Maggie Smith at the helm. It's an impressively prolific work rate, especially when you consider his substantial social media following and the fact that he and his wife homeschool their two children. So how does he keep at it?
Very often the books I'm writing are things I feel that I need to read, he says, rather than things I feel I've got totally fixed and sorted in my own life. Matt Haig, welcome to How to Fail is such a joy and honor.
Thank you for having me, Elizabeth.
The honor is entirely mine. I'm so glad that you found the time because your work rate is unbelievable.
And I know that we're going to get onto that later. And I have so many questions to ask you, but I wonder if I could just ask you off the back of that quote, whether for you writing feels like therapy. It's somewhat of a cliché, I think, sometimes to ask authors that.
But because of your particular work, I'm very interested in what your answer would be. Well, yeah, absolutely.
I mean, in terms of what therapy is anyway, I mean, therapy is essentially made. War of words, whether you're talking or writing it down, and when I was super in my 20s and at my lowest point living back at my parents house, my girlfriend Andrea was with me, too. I could hardly speak. I mean, it was almost a physical thing where I felt like I couldn't speak or verbalize anything. My tongue would be super heavy.
I would have that sort of heaviness of depression around me. And I just found it very hard to articulate what I was feeling in any verbal way. And Andrea at that point had said, you know, write things down. So I started writing things down, not with any career ambition of turning this into anything, but I just used to sort of write down what I was feeling. And it was very melodramatic stuff, because depression often gives you very melodramatic feelings and thoughts.
It was like the lyrics of a sort of worst heavy metal song or something. You know, I'd always be on fire or this. And it was very epically hyperbolic and very much that intense feeling. I'd find it hard to sort of look back and read the sort of stuff I write. But the moment I externalize them, put it down and wrote it and turned it into words. And language is not like a magic wand, of course, but it actually makes you feel less like an alien.
It makes you feel less like you are the only person who's ever been through this, because that's I mean, it sounds ridiculous now, but 20 years ago when I first became ill and had I know it's not a medical term, but I still think of it as a breakdown. I felt melodramatically like no one had ever felt like this because I wasn't very articulate with the language of mental health. I hadn't known anyone. Any friend had spoken openly about depression or anxiety.
When I was growing up, my mum had gone through postnatal depression, but she hadn't really spoken much about that. So this was a totally new thing and it was an intense thing. There's more intense than anything I've been through and I've been through illnesses and hospital operations and various injuries and scrapes that you do for your life and grief and stuff. And this felt like a totally new and far more intense like it belongs to another planet. And so language was a sort of way back to Earth, I suppose it was a way back to actually make everything real again, because the moment you turn something into language, you're turning it into a shared thing.
You're borrowing words and ideas that have been around forever.
So I think there's this kind of therapy in and I mentioned in the introduction that you've said in the past that depression made you into a writer.
So am I right in thinking that as horrendous as that experience must have been, you wouldn't undo that moment?
Well, I definitely wouldn't do any moments. I mean, I would reserve the right to have that sort of red button by your side. You know, if I fell into that state again, I would not want to relive that moment and I wouldn't want to go through that moment. And at the time, I would have definitely wanted to press any button that could have got me out of that moment. But now, yeah, I mean, so much good has come out of that experience.
I'm not talking about career stuff. I'm talking about my frame of mind through recovery, because if you take me before I was ill, before I was aware of anything going on wrong with my brain, I was a person, I suppose, a very cliched, typical young man who needed everything to be top volume, everything to be the most intense experiences, the most violent Tarantino movies, the spiciest food. I was bored by neutrality. I was bored by just life itself.
You know, it had to be sensation overload in all things. And then what recovery gave me was just an extreme desire for all the things that I had once been bored by. It gave me a gratitude for normal stresses, for normal boredoms, for normal. You know, I just wanted to stare out of the window and not feel anything. And in a way, that experience made me oversensitive. And we used words like thin skinned as a negative.
And it is a negative. Often it's got a very negative side. But I became this thin skinned person who could also feel good things more intensely than I ever had before. So I didn't need to raise the volume. I didn't need to go to a beef. I didn't need to escape life in my old me. From a child onwards, I was always obsessed by this quote by Madonna. I can remember reading it in something like Smash Hits or look in magazine.
Apparently this is probably urban legend, but on her first trip to New York, she'd got into a taxi and said, take me to the center of everything. And I was obsessed with that. I wanted to escape into sort of, but I was obsessed with this idea of losing yourself in nightclubs at 6:00 in the morning, drinking all night, taking drugs, blah, blah. And I then became the opposite person who didn't want that at all.
I just wanted to sort of hear my own breath and my own thoughts and just be a lot of your cultural references.
Smash hits, one of the greatest magazines of all time, Madonna Lovette. Let's talk about being thin skinned, because you say some really interesting things about this that I massively relate to as a fairly thin skinned person, and I think it's interesting that both you and I have been through the course of choosing to express ourselves through writing and me podcasting.
We bring ourselves into a public arena where people have opinions of us, and I find that incredibly hard to deal with.
And I must only get an absolute like millimeter fraction of what you experience because you have a huge social media following. What you do is life saving literally for many people and other people don't like it.
How do you deal with that? Matt, tell me. Teach me your ways.
This is such a week for me. I've had this has been one of my worst periods of that because I don't know why. I mean, possibly because I've recently been on a podcast with Megan Markle and I've been a bit more out of my books doing well and stuff. Never heard. Yeah. And I've had it and I know I absolutely know what I write is not for everybody. And one of the reasons people possibly don't like me is resort to quoting ancient philosophers to justify an argument.
But anyway, Plato said that you should debate ideas and not people. And I think the trouble is sometimes I've become more of an idea of something in people's mind. I become like this sort of I don't really see it in my own work because I feel like although I write about mental health a lot on social media, I think if you look at my books, I've only actually written about two or three books directly about mental health and my own experiences of mental health.
So I spend a lot of my time writing about Father Christmas, writing fiction or writing aliens, vampires or all sorts of things. And so I feel like I'm quite a varied writer, but I think some people think of this sort of like talking French magma of optimism. And I feel there's a sort of like snobbery about it, because I can remember going back to the bedroom when I was in New York and I was having a breakdown, I couldn't actually read books.
You know, people would suggest great books, wonderful things like The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon or things like that, which are great and brilliant and groundbreaking in terms of understanding mental health and understanding things. But when your brain is fried to pieces and you're just wanting to something, some sort of glimmer of light that gives you hope, the thing your brain can take at that moment is a condensed thought, some sort of aphorism, something that actually can hack into your brain and change your perspective.
I didn't have many books available to me that because it was 1999, 2000, there wasn't really Internet shopping as such new content didn't have a bookshop. And I was agoraphobic anyway. So the books available to me were books that were in my mum and dad's house and in my bedroom. And I did have this old concise Collins Dictionary of Quotations and I would skim through that book of quotations. And I loved a quotation because I could focus on the quotation and quotations become quotations for reason, because they take a lot of power in a short amount of words.
And obviously in this age of Facebook walls and Instagram, people have become super snobby about this and suspicious of this. And I understand the suspicions because people think, oh, well, that's a bit too easy and that wouldn't work for me. But I sometimes think, are you actually engaging with it or are you sort of automatically dismissing it out of hand because you just think, no, that's not for me. I'm not that sort of person. I'm this sort of person.
And I question and I feel like I'm in the sort of firing line for a lot of that. I've almost become shorthand like I'm a new hallmark or something. I don't know.
Oh, I think we live in such a cynical world. And actually you're very open hearted. And it's almost like the disconnect between those two things is some people just can't computer.
But I wonder if do you feel I mean, this is a podcast all about failure and its shadow to its success.
And I know you've done some really insightful writing about this, not least in the library where there's a whole section called The Successful Life.
But do you think people are annoyed by success in others?
Well, it's a well-known British trait, isn't it? But we like to build people up and then see the tall poppies and we want to sort of keep them down to size and keep everyone down to size. And there's a definite element of that in British media. And we see it all the time. I make a mark or at least of Princess Diana. We see it on a micro scale all the time going on just on Twitter and social media.
Then obviously when people are doing it, they're not being honest about it or even self aware about it. They've always got their legitimate reasons for doing it. But it does know from the aliens perspective, it seems like everyone's trying to level people down. There is that trait, but there's also the opposite of outrage and a. Feel like if you were writing books or writing social media posts and you're being authentic to you and you're doing it for the right reasons for you, there's a point at which they can't really touch you become kind of immune to that sort of criticism.
And I relate it because I almost relate everything back to depression and mental health. But I kind of relate it a bit to what depression does, because I actually reached a point where I can remember during recovery when I was in Marks and Spencers Food Hall in Leeds, were living in Leeds at the time. And there came a point I'd been feeling awful all week and I thought particularly bad in supermarkets or anywhere, that there was no natural light and I'd feel very claustrophobic and terrible.
And I'd gone weeks and weeks and weeks of feeling quite suicidal, like not suicidal necessarily in terms of an impulse, but in terms of thinking there's no way out of this. I felt like at that point it gone on so long I passed the suicidal phase, but I just thought this is going to be it forever. But I realised that I'd actually sort of touched something which couldn't be broken. I got to the bottom of me and if I'd been more religiously minded of thought of it as a soul or something, but I almost felt it almost like a physical thing inside me that couldn't be broken down any more.
And I've written about this since, and I've turned it into an aphorism about rock bottom. And the great thing about rock bottom is the rock part, because then you can build the foundation from rock because it's solid and you sometimes do actually need to break something down to actually see the core of something. And I feel like that with criticism in a way you can chip away and chip away. But if what you're offering actually means something to people because it means something to you and you're not being cynical, you're not selling snake oil, you're actually talking about your own experience and talking about things that still help you, then they can't actually take that because that's you and that's you being authentic.
So I've got that approach now to criticism where it's fine, but absolutely entitled to their opinion, as I'm entitled to my opinion about their opinion. But it doesn't really affect me. It doesn't really damage me long term. I'll take the hit, but then I've sort of keep going what I'm doing. I won't change what I'm doing because certain people don't like it.
If I mean, I think that's such good advice and you put it so, so well. And you and I have both been slacked off by the same magazine that no one reads.
OK, yeah. Yeah. Well, welcome for everybody. Yeah.
And I'm not for a minute comparing myself to you, but I notice that, yes, I still find criticism hurtful, but I'm getting better at being more quick at dealing with it. So something or really staying for 24 hours and then I'll be okay again. And I think that that's just a really important thing for people to hear you say.
And I think it's okay to feel it. I think one of the worst things is when we deny. But it doesn't hurt at all because then you sort of live with that longer because you haven't acknowledged it. So I take the I sometimes say something about it online, which isn't always good. I'm trying to stay off Twitter now, which I think helped there with this particular thing. But yeah, I try and feel it and get cross about it, then analyse it, then move on.
And while I move on, I don't change at all. There's no point in life changing your behaviour to win over people who you will never win over. Why gravitate towards the negative to try and actually sort that out. Why not build up the positive. Why not go to the warmth is actually sort of work on that. And I've been too much in the past because I was quite an insecure writer. When I was first published, I was published by Jonathan Kate, very prestigious, highbrow Booker Prize territory publishers.
And I was very insecure about being published by that because I felt like I had to be a certain type of literary author, which wasn't totally natural for me because a lot of my influences are much more commercial. And I felt I was always pretending to be an author. I'd sit down at laptop and be a capital author and I think, how do I write this? And it took me a long time to discover my voice as a writer when I found that voice.
And if people are criticizing me now for my actual natural voice, then I would think, well, that's absolutely fine. But there's nothing pretentious about what I'm doing now, as far as you know. I mean, everything is pretentious in terms of real acting to some degree. But I mean, it's as real as I can get. So I'm going to keep doing that, I suppose.
Well, let's talk about your work, because that brings us onto your failures.
And you very generously gave me four and I'm giving you twenty seven. Oh, you're so good. I'm actually going to start the second one, which is not getting the right work life balance. I'm so glad you picked this one because I look at. Output and my jaw hits the floor. I'm in awe, and not only that, there's also I don't know if it's you or another Matt Haig who writes books on branding. Is that you?
That was me years ago. 20 years ago. Yes, I know.
I like four more books than I guess in the introduction.
Yes, it is. Honestly, one of the things that. Absolutely. And this is of a failure, actually failure to change your name when you start your actual publishing career. When I was younger, when I was still ill, when I was still living in Leeds, my girlfriend who became my wife, Andrea, because she had to sort of earn the money because I was kind of useless. She set up this sort of like freelance PR consultancy thing, which tied to what she'd been doing in a before.
And it was sort of youth marketing or whatever it was. And my partner was I do these sorts of newsletters for her PR company. So I was doing. I've never, ever spoken about this in my life. Actually, this is strange, but I did these Internet PR tips because, like, this is going back to 2000, where to be an Internet expert, you just have to say you're an Internet expert. So I was I was doing these PR marketing tips for her.
And then a business publisher called Kogan Page. They subscribed to Amend. They asked me to do a book and that book did quite well. And then I did something like eight books within two years for almost zero money. But it taught me the discipline of writing a lot of words on deadline. Some of those were the longest books I've written. I mean, oh, absolutely terrible. And they are definitely dated and I would advise no one to look at them.
But they taught me a lot, I think, about productivity and sort of writing as a job and all that stuff, which I lacked because I'm not really a disciplined person in lots of ways. That was part of my recovery, actually. Work became part of my recovery, which I suppose is why I struggle with balance, because I'm sometimes scared of having the right balance, because I'm scared sometimes of dropping the ball of what I totally understand.
You associate with your identity in recovery. I then say recovery.
Yes, I'm thinking around now. You've turned it into a therapy session. But yes, I do actually feel like work was one of the things the forward momentum that work gives you was one of the things that took me out of the present moment of despair. You know, we talk a lot about how everyone should be in the present, and I've even talked about that. But there's a time when you don't want to be in the present, and that's when you're in the midst of terrible depression.
And so you actually want to be thinking of a future. When I was writing these books, you were thinking about this book being published and this and it just gave you a sense of the future. And work still gives me that. I'm never working for the present moment. I'm always working to finish a book. And then it's for that book to be published. And then so, yes, I think this is the problem. I struggle with switching off work and writing because writing still to this day feels a kind of therapy in itself and also a therapy.
And I'm picturing a future where, you know, depression was upset.
I want to ask you more about that. But it's so interesting hearing you speak, because I've had a minor revelation myself, which is that last year, 2020 was one of my most productive years from a work perspective. And I think I now realize that was me coping with mental health. That was my way of distracting myself and keeping this identity that was very important to me alive. And that's a very helpful thing that you just said. Vasseur Thank you.
I wonder if it's what you think you are more productive because of the pandemic as well. Yeah, I felt like I was more productive. I mean, in a weird way, I think I worked harder and was more creative and more active last year than almost any other year. And I think it can't be unrelated to the fact that what was going on.
I totally agree with you and I don't mean productive. I didn't break any banana bread. I didn't learn how to speak Italian. I literally just worked like work expands to fill a lot of time. And I was so lucky that I got to do that because as I write, it seems like you are very busy.
You are doing this, you doing books, you're doing tele.
Some say it's just a massive destruction thing. I've realised now, but I wonder if it's very difficult for you in particular because you are a writer, which means you work from home and you home school, your kids, not even just during a pandemic. You home school them all the time. And so is it difficult because there are no physical boundaries between your workspace in your home space?
Yes. Firstly, I'm a practical thing about homeschooling because people get different ideas for homeschooling. We live in Brighton and Brighton Beach. We are sort of alternative hub of every alternative lifestyle choice you can imagine. There is a lot of default homeschoolers in Brighton and so homeschooling in Brighton is a very different experience because you're not often in the home. In normal times, the kids are out of groups every. Single day, super social, but not always in the house, but I take your point, but in our house there's a lot of noise and a lot of life going on.
And I do some of the home school teaching when they're at home. And I do Fridays when they're totally at home with the kids. And there's a lot going on.
Weirdly, I'm actually more productive or get more done and my word count gets higher when as a lot of things taking up my time, often I'm at my most floundering, which I know isn't real good when I love it, though, when I've got nothing to do, when there's nothing going on and I'm just got a blank word document in front of me and I'm trying to come up with an idea and I've got all the time in the world, but I've got nothing.
I've got nothing. So in a weird way, I need the attention Push-Pull of life work to actually get things done. That was another revelation that I've just realized about myself as well.
I've just tossed it up and make you have written 28, but you're factoring in your face when you're factoring in those horrible things I used to write about.
I mean, you've written 20 without the branding books, but still that is, you know, can I say I've written 17.
Having written 20. Yes, I probably have actually. A few. Yeah, I think it's a lot when you can't remember the numbers of anything.
It is and has not getting the right work life balance. Has it negatively impacted your personal relationships at all because you talk so often about Andrea in such a lovely way and she does come across as a real hero in so many ways through your work. So it strikes me that maybe it doesn't negatively impact your personal relationships. But what's your take on that?
The Andrea of reasons to stay alive? That was sort of like us when we were in a very financially struggling days and mentally struggling in my case and recovery days. And yeah, I mean, there is absolutely no denying I wouldn't say I wouldn't be here without it because I like to believe I would be here without her. Life gives you reasons. But you find around you if you look hard enough. But yeah, Andrea was so great for that period.
I mean, we were young. Andrea was young when I first became ill. She was 24. I was 24. But we'd been together since we were 19. So at that age 24, being in a relationship for five years, that's a very long term relationship. At 24, you feel like it's a 50 year marriage at that age. So it was someone that I could be myself with. And don't get me wrong, I mean, I didn't put it all in reason.
Stay like I hinted at it and like we had some flaming rouzier and understandably, because I had gone from one type of boyfriend who vinegar's and dispute's we had before I came out were because I'd be that terrible boyfriend at in the morning who wanted to stay out till 4:00 in the morning. She'd want to go home and get some sleep. And then I went from boyfriend to boyfriend who can even go to the corner shop on their own. So I went from one sort of nightmare, extreme amount of pendulum to the exact opposite person who couldn't leave a house.
So that was horrendous. And I've still got massive guilt about that time and how hard, you know, we basically both lost our 20s, but I lost my 20s because I was ill. But Andrea lost because she was looking after someone who was me. So I've got a lot of guilt about that and I've still got that on paper. We're quite incompatible people. If we try to meet via Match.com, we would have never been matched or whatever, because in terms of personality and everything, even some of our tastes very different somehow seems to work.
You know, we do have sparks occasionally and frictions and all of that stuff. As anyone who's been in a 25 year relationship and gone through all sorts of intense things. But I feel like we understand each other more than anyone else on Earth and we're sort of on each other's side. And I think that's essentially what you need in life to be understood and to be have someone on your team and someone you have to wear the mask with. So much of life is a sort of presentation.
And even sometimes with certain family members, first time a little bit, it takes a little bit of energy out of you. And so it's nice to have someone where you can just be yourself with. I think that was one of the things that was so vital in life saving for me during recovery. I didn't have to waste any sort of nervous energy on pretending I wasn't feeling a certain way.
And what does she think of your work? Great. It depends which work. She has not been a fan of my social media activity. If I'd had a day wasting my day on Twitter, she's not a fan of that, but she understands that with the books. I'm not super stressed when I'm writing books. Even if I'm on deadline, I'm actually quite calm. Writing sort of calms me down and I try and sort of break away from it.
It's not so much when I'm at the computer actually working. What she gets annoyed by is when I'm with her, but I'm not with her. Because my head's somewhere else, and so she could literally say three questions in a row and I will not have heard one of those questions, and that was always the case at school. Teachers used to get cross with me for that. And I'm bad at listening if I've got too much going on in my brain.
Yes. So that will be a frustration. So if I'm trying to get a new idea in a book or something, I'll just sometimes sit there with my mouth open like a zombie and not quite be in the same room.
Your second failure is a really interesting one, which is not being open or honest about mental health earlier because there was a gap, wasn't there, between what happened in a beaker and you writing reasons to stay alive. Is that what you mean?
Yeah, I mean, reasons to stay alive. I don't know where it fits in the book. Something close to like book number 10 was reasons to stay alive. Lots of people think reason stay alive. In my first book, Reasons stay alive even when you don't count those horrendous business books, which I've never mentioned that any podcast or interview ever before. Thank you. Sorry.
And so I'd written a lot before then and I genuinely possibly wouldn't have written reasons to stay alive if I hadn't been asked to write. It was the only book I've ever been asked by anyone to specifically write. There's a person who I think you possibly know called Cuffy Rensin Brink who writes Yes, and she's quite well known in publishing and she's a writer herself now. She wasn't my publisher, but she was a friend. And I'd written a tiny blog for Book Trust.
I used to write lots of blogs for Book Trust. I was a writer in residence for six months, the Great Charitable Trust, and I'd run out of things right about and I was commissioned to write these weekly blogs. And once I just put it out there, I just sort of broke the ice. I mentioned the fact that I had depression and then that blog had far more traction and interest and support than anything else I've written. And then Cathy contacted me to go for a coffee and she just said I should write it.
And she had this idea of who should publish it in this time ever, and it stemmed from there. But even then, I didn't know how to talk about it because I hadn't actually spoken about depression until I wrote about it in that blog to anyone beyond my parents and Andrea who had to those people had to know because I was going through the breakdown with it. I mean, I lost a lot of friends during the years I was ill, but not telling anyone I was ill because my hometown friends, when I was living at home, they'd say, oh, don't go out into Nottingham on Saturday night or to do this.
And I would just make some rubbish excuse or not get back to them, wouldn't pick up the phone and say people drift away. And I literally shielded myself from it. And also I was sort of scads of friends because I was in a state of panic disorder, so scared of everything. I just wanted to be in my little cocoon away from the world. I was probably more that way because I had Andrea, because I had my parents, because I had that privilege set up where I could just sort of cut myself off.
But yes, it wasn't good because it was basically I had a lot of self stigma. I had a lot of shame about the word depression, about being depressed, about having panic attacks, about having some symptoms of OCD, all these things. I felt like I don't know, as a young man, I'd wanted to be someone who felt like I was in control and mind over matter. I had all these sorts of ideas of what I should be.
I mean, man up wasn't really a thing then, but that idea that you should just sort of put up and shut up and just sort of be tough. And I knew in my heart I was never really that person. But the mental illness experience, I really struggled. And actually overcoming the stigma was almost, in my case, to a degree, overcoming the illness itself, because so much of the stigma made my symptoms worse, because it stopped me getting help when I needed it.
I didn't want to be a person on pills, even though I should have been on pills. I didn't want to be a person with all of those things. It was stopping me get better. And I was scared of the Depression, so I didn't want to be depressed because I was depressed. I didn't want to be depressed because I was anxious. I didn't want to be anxious. And so actually coming to terms with depression was a big part of me getting over depression.
I had to get to a point where I was OK with having depression, which sounds like a paradox because depression is not OK and it was life threatening in my case and lots of people's cases. But I had to get to a point where I accepted it as an experience I was going through rather than a definition of who I was.
And now that you have been open about it and it's had such an extraordinary resonance with so many people around the world, it puts you in this position. I think Jemena Jamail described you as the king of empathy.
It puts you in this position where I know a lot of people come to you who don't know who will message you on social media or email you who are off to. Going through really traumatic life events, how do you cope with that?
I found that really hard for a long time because obviously as a writer who paid my dues writing 10 books, struggling writer, never been close to the bestseller list, never won anything. You know, I was just your average struggling writer who, like most writers, are you dream of having your breakthrough book, then Reasons to Stay Alive became my breakthrough book and that was great for a little while. And then it became number one in paperback. And at that point, and it was when the book came out as a sort of New Year's thing and it was winter.
And that January I sing in Waterstones Windows and everything and I'm so excited. But my inbox was quickly filling up and my social media messages from people who often were in terrible situations and wanting help with things and those kind of messages that you can't ignore, even though they're from strangers, you know, sometimes they were from people whose life was in almost immediate danger. You know, they would be typing in literally not because they knew of my book, but they'd be typing into a Google search box, reasons to stay alive.
My book and I remembered Contact Me. And it was far too much because I was in an anxiety patch myself. So I went through a period in 2015, 2016, whenever it was where I wished I hadn't written it. It sounds so self-indulgent, but even though it was helping people, I was mentally so fragile at that point. I felt like a fraud myself because I thought, well, they're getting advice from this book that's helping them apparently by saying it's helping them.
And why is it not helping me? Because I'm in this sort of state myself. I'm having panic attacks. I'm back sort of I could feel the old agoraphobia creeping in. So I was having to consciously force myself out of a house, forced myself to walk the dog feeling like it was an achievement to walk the dog and things like that, reasons to stay alive. Although people now who criticize it say, oh, he wrote it to capitalize on mental health and make money out of mental health.
It's reasons to stay alive was always seen by my not just by me, but by my publishers as well as this kind of side project. You know, it got smaller advance. It was a small book to write. It was a short book. I didn't actually spend that long thinking or overthinking reasons to stay alive. I wrote it as if no one was watching. I fired it off. And then all the time I was writing reasons to stay alive.
I was trying to think what my next novel would be. I wanted to write a children's book and it was probably out of all the books I've written, it's one of thought about while I was writing the least in some ways. And I'm not saying that's makes it a worse book. It might in some ways make it better. But I wrote it totally, not subconsciously. But then the publication of it made me so self-conscious. I can remember there's a Guardian interview.
I was the first sort of profile on it and about the first question in the interview. And it's one of those where the questions were in bold type so everyone could see the questions. The first question was on page 73, your father told you to pull yourself together. What do you think about people who say that? And then my mum was on the phone saying, my dad's really upset about what's written. And my mum and dad had read the book before it was published, gone for it.
They were fine. There's nothing too uncomfortable. And then the one possible, which is awkward about my dad telling me to pull me up together, it's picked out in the media. And then I just thought, oh, my God, I never want to write anything about my life again. This is terrible, all of that. And I needed some help with professionals like from mines and times change in terms of where to direct people to what to say, what not to say, because I was just getting back in a human to human way, actually trying to give individuals reasons to stay alive emails.
And it's just like it was far too much. But now I've absorbed that. I'm very glad I wrote that book. I definitely don't think it's my best book by any means. But it's possibly if I had to pick one book of mine to exist, I would probably still go for that one just because it has definitely been a practical use to people. But it was a very intense process of Bodhgaya change anyway, from being a struggling writer to successful writer was weird anyway.
And it's kind of weird that you don't get sympathy for because everyone wants to be. Yeah.
Anyway, sorry, I'm super intense now. A very, very good description of what that must have been like. I also think that there's a tendency and maybe it goes beyond this country, but particularly in this country, that once you write a book about something or once you launch a podcast about something and it becomes successful, you're then perceived as someone who's pushing yourself forward as an expert on that particular subject. And actually, that's not the case at all.
Like, I am not an expert on failure. I just happen to ask lots of people questions.
If I only came on here because I thought you had a PhD in philosophy, have a philosophy.
Failure, fraud, Elizabeth Davis is how exactly you've failed on both both amusing and slightly hurtful when people are like, well, what would she know about failure?
Because is this successful podcast and whatever. First of all, no one knows what goes on in someone else's life. Secondly, it's like saying to an orthopedic surgeon, well, you don't have any broken bones. So what would you know about orthopedic surgery?
But thirdly, it's like missing the point. And I feel there's probably a touch of that with you as well. You never set yourself forward as an expert on mental health. Absolutely.
I always been clear, certainly in the books I am very clear, but I'm definitely not a doctor. I'm not a neuroscientist. I'm not a psychologist. I am a person, a writer. If I consider myself anything, I consider myself professionally as a writer who went through an experience partly recovered from that experience, definitely didn't get to a state of 100 percent wellness. I didn't sit under a tree for 40 days and reach a state of enlightenment. I haven't reached Nirvana.
Yeah, I'm not on the mountaintop. I'm not snobby about other people's self-help books, but I don't really feel like I've written a self-help book in the sort of what people mean by a self-help book, because I don't give a bullet point solutions of what you must do or what time you should get out of bed or what you should do. This I'm speaking even when it sounds like I'm speaking universally. That's the voice of me now to the voice of me.
Then you see good reasons to stay alive. I had a very clear reader in mind. I think it always helps. Certainly for me. I don't know about you, but if you're writing anything, it helps to have a reader in mind, even if the reader is you to have an individual in mind. And I was very clearly writing reasons to stay alive for someone and that someone was the younger version of me who I felt very different to when I was writing Reasons to Stay Alive.
And I was just trying to find words from the future to that person. And I knew if I did that authentically enough, it would possibly speak to other people in similar situations or other people who wanted to understand that situation. So, yes, is trying to offer people hope, but it's not trying to offer people any kind of false hope. It's trying to offer people just a belief that things can change and things can be uncertain. But what I've noticed now is people now think that from reason to stay alive onwards, my message basically is the way you get over depression is you become a super successful writer or you get film deals or this that never and it's like none of that I would have helped me at the time and be that is not what I'm writing about.
When I recovered, I was still tens of thousand pounds in debt still at all my student loans to pay off, still renting a flat in Leeds. That's how I recovered. I'm not saying, you know, I was still very privileged in lots of ways, but this idea that it was just because I became this successful person or had a big check or something and that's what got over there. I never have written that. And I don't believe and I understand that people can select a few tweets here and there and say, that's what I'm saying.
But that's definitely not what I'm saying. And it's certainly not what I said in recent style over any of the books about depression. You mentioned privilege there.
And your third failure is your failure to check your privilege for too long and hands up. I think so many of us feel the same way. But tell me your particular experience of that.
Well, I think is because I've got lots of fatal flaws, but one of them is defensiveness. So I have a very knee-jerk kind of a gut reaction sometimes when I feel people automatically. And this certainly used to be the case, I think. But you've had it easy when you haven't. As you can probably tell from that last answer, I get frustrated when people belittle your own journey in some ways. So I felt and in those nine books before reasons to stay alive, I and over rejection letters and stuff, I knew as everyone does, everyone knows their own story.
Everyone knows their own. But also within that story, you're not always placing yourself as a statistic in the social context. You're a person going through your life knowing what you've been through, knowing what kind of school you went to and the kind of friends you had, knowing that you were bullied at school, knowing that you had your breakdown, you had problems with alcohol, knowing that you're agoraphobic, you know that and other people don't know that. So they're seeing a different picture of you.
So I think my problem with privilege was really a problem of feeling misunderstood and then getting defensive about it. And then therefore, because I was so aware of my own situation, I wasn't having enough empathy at that point to understand that. Actually, when you're presenting yourself to the world as other things come into play and if you're truly trying to be a kind person and you're trying to think of other people, you've got to realize that, A, everybody has their struggles.
And the question of privilege isn't a question of. Taking away your hardships, it's not saying that you didn't go to school. It's not saying that you had it easy or you got there through networking or you went to eat. And I'm not saying any of that is just saying that privilege exists. There are certain people in society who have other barriers, who have other things that they have to overcome. And so I struggled with that. And I think part of the reason I struggled with that was the nature of Twitter itself and the nature of social media debate, which, as we all know, is kind of nuance free.
It's combative and it's not exactly the place where healing happens or understanding happens. And so, yeah, if you go back, I wouldn't advise anyone to do this. But if you go back a few years to my timeline, I was getting into all kinds of arguments and I just cringed so hard at the way I sort of occasionally presented myself. And it's a learning curve. And I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent there. You know, I have weak days where I'm feeling, you know, I felt a bit like that.
This week is probably coming across in this podcast. But when you've been attacked or hounded, you start licking their wounds and you look a little bit like you're presenting yourself as a victim. Just because that's how you're feeling in that moment doesn't necessarily mean that if you take a step back, you know how privileged you are and you know how. But you're not necessarily feeling that every time. But I think as my approach to writing has always been to sort of like wear my heart on his sleeve, there's a good side of that.
But the bad side of that is when you're not being your most pleasant or empathetic self. That is also out there, too. So I think that's part of it.
I had such an interesting therapy session recently when my therapist was talking about accepting your whole self and all of the facets, all of the unpleasantness, all of the kind of dark sides where you cannot be the king of empathy every single day because you wouldn't be human and you'd be really bloody annoying.
So I think that that's a really good point.
I suppose I wanted to ask you about the two things that are connected.
You've spoken really adequately in the past about there being no hierarchy of suffering, the fact that wealth and privilege doesn't insulate you from mental health issues.
But I wonder if you think that in your own experience, it cushioned you that there was a level of privilege, the cushion that experience in any way or not? Yeah, well, definitely.
I mean, in all kinds of ways. I was essentially lucky. I mean, there's a lot a lot of people have, but I was lucky that I had somewhere to go. I was lucky that when I was ill, my parents could take me in. I could live without having to earn that point in time. That was an extreme piece of luck. I can't honestly say I was lucky in terms of the medical care I had access to, because given my situation at the time I was in such a state of agoraphobia and so scared of speaking, I didn't actually go for any care.
I went to the doctor, I got prescribed diazepam and the doctor wasn't particularly understanding, which is fair enough. It was via two thousand many GPS who were the understanding, certainly not in your control. And I had a bad experience because I was prescribed the wrong pills and that put me off getting help. So in a way, the barriers for my recovery weren't social. They weren't to do with a lack of privilege. They were to do with my own hands and agoraphobia.
So there is a frustration when people say, oh, well, you are privileged. So you had access to all the best when you didn't actually get the care, but a frustration. But I was definitely privileged to have people to have a support network, to have people and a place I could live. Admittedly, we had to leave out my parents house and then Andrius sort of had to start working and we were in that know about stuff. But yes, it still was a better experience than a lot of people get.
I mean, the statistics, but well publicized now. But they weren't at the time. For instance, if you were a young black man who had experience of any kind of mental health problem, the chances of that problem being misdiagnosed are so much higher. You're so much more likely to be misdiagnosed with something like schizophrenia if you are a black man than if you're a white man of that similar age, about time. And so I didn't have any of that when I was diagnosed.
I was diagnosed with, I think, pretty much accurately of what I was going through and all of that stuff. I probably wasn't seen as a danger to society through that experience and the way other people might be and all of that. So there's all kinds of privileges. But I think privilege also works on a deeper level, like I don't know if it's a probably a deep privilege of, like, Behnken. And from a young age, as a man, as a certain group in society, to feel like I'm important or my life is important, I have to prove sometimes.
I think so. Yeah, I don't know privilege. I'm still trying to sort of work it out and work my place. But obviously I am privileged to know a billion ways. Now, I still find it hard to sort of analyze exactly how privilege worked in my own recovery. I think because what is frustrating, I suppose, is that for me it felt so like I was on another planet. The earthly things, the material thing. I wanted to be in the world of stress.
I wanted to be in the world of difficulty because I wanted real difficulty, because my head was exploding. So when I had a relapse years later when we were living in New York, our house became flooded and the whole valley was written off our house and everything. And we had to move out of our house and everyone was super sympathetic suddenly because it was a real problem. I was super relieved that the house had become flooded because suddenly I had been lifted out of the depression I was in because I had something external to worry about.
So I think the reason I fell through the gaps of understanding privilege properly is because I had always felt so like my problems were internal and intrinsic to my own wiring. And I used to crave external problems, which obviously is a bad look for a privileged white person to be doing. And that's why I got so defensive. And I also I wasn't that well versed in what the problems were in terms of the mental health world about lack of privilege. And there's a lot more data on it now.
And it is very clear that there's all kinds. You know, if you look at suicide figures relating to class, relating to age and any kind of demographic you look at, there are massive discrepancies, nation to nation, ethnic groups, ethnic group by gender. It's very cultural. Mental health is a very cultural thing. So when a culture is and societies and equal, those inequalities are going to be evident in the facts and data.
I also think that there's an issue, and this is not an original thought, that mental health as a whole is such a vast umbrella term and it encompasses people who might feel a bit low and go for a jog and feel better them all the way through to someone with bipolar, someone who's been sectioned somewhat. And so it's it's very hard sometimes for people who talk about mental health to make specific reference to every single one of these elements. So we're all kind of gets lumped into one.
And there's this idea that if we just read a book about, you know, taking up knitting, that everything's going to be OK. And you're not saying that? Oh, you know, I'm not saying that.
I'm not saying that. But I'm also saying that there's a kind of mental health snobbery out there where if something helps someone but it doesn't help you, then that person is really scornful about that thing that helps them. And going back to the point of privilege, I think sometimes is a privilege in looking down on things that are actually life saving for the people. I used to be super snobby about, for instance, yoga. I used to think you have not gone through a panic attack.
If you think me calming my breathing down is going to help me in any way have this life altering experience, which is a panic attack, if you think that's related. And it didn't work like magic, but I genuinely think that me actually learning to control my breathing was having some sort of neurochemical effect on me. I think there's this British trait that unless something is literally prescribed by a doctor, that is literally the only authority we're taking on this matter.
And actually, there are some things with mental health. We are still so much in the dark ages, which is why there is no one antidepressant, there's no one talk therapy, there's no one treatment which blanket works for everybody. So mental health is so in the dark ages and it's so subjective. You kind of have to be, to a degree, your own laboratory. And to make it an effective laboratory, you sometimes have to be open minded.
I mean, when I was ill, I was trying to be as open minded as possible. I'm not a fan of homeopathy by any means, but my mum thought that I should go to the homeopath. So I went to the homeopathy and by homeopathy itself did not do a thing. But speaking to the homeopathy did do something because this homeopathy that someone who'd gone through depression and I was seeing a person who'd gone through suicidal depression, who was there in front of me better.
So it didn't matter what was in her tinctures. Nothing she would offer me would actually make me better in the physical sense. But having seen her in that room, that was a help because as she was, she'd gone through the death of her husband. She'd gone. Suicidal depression and that she was smiling and happy and enjoying her work. So what I'm trying to say, I suppose, is it's so easy to be sort of snobby. And you can see, John, this pandemic, it's so important, obviously, to have science behind things and to actually know what is right and what is pseudoscience.
I'm not saying we should head towards pseudo science, but I'm saying in terms of things that give people comfort but is a subjective thing. People think, oh, you've only got to read the most academic works about mental illness and depression to understand and terms. But there could be another person who stayed alive because they listened to Hold On by Wilson Phillips. And, you know, their life's not any less valuable than the person who is reading Andrew Sullivan or whatever.
I don't know. I don't really know how to say. I think there is a kind of mental health snobbery, actually, and we can get sort of inspiration from anywhere. I mean, some of the things that have helped me stay alive aren't things that are written down or understood could be just like the way a shadow moves all of a sudden sort of coming out or just staring at the stars. But if you start talking about staring at the stars as a mental health therapy, people would be, oh, that's just utter nonsense.
The idea that if you've been bed bound for six weeks with depression, that you could go out and look at stars. And yet, in my own experience, I definitely have not had the most extreme end of some mental health conditions. I know, but in the most extreme end of my mental health conditions, I've often had the most sort of whimsical or poetic or sort of Instagram cliche thoughts when I've been at my most depressed. There's a point related to this isn't specifically about mental health, but there's a guy, a famous guy.
I think George Clooney played him in a movie, a sailor, Steve Callahan, who got lost at sea and he was lost at sea for 74 days on this dinghy. And he was a philosophy student and he was down to his last supplies. He was convinced he was going to die. He was famished from hunger and he was in the worst state ever. He knew he was going to die. He couldn't sleep, was in physical pain. He couldn't see anything on the horizon, literally.
Yet he sat in his book, which is called The Dress, which is quite an inspiring book. He said that in those moments of desperation, he had never seen the world so beautiful. He said he felt like the stars were singing to him. He felt like the waves and the ocean had a kind of music. And he suddenly understood how beautiful the world is now for someone who wasn't in that situation, but in a lesser situation than they would think, well, that sounds like the most patronising thing ever.
If I'm lost at sea, what I've got to do is appreciate the beauty of the waves and the stuff that's not going to actually help my boats. I make the shore. So I sometimes think there's a case of missing the point. Yes, sometimes it's easy to be snobby because your experience has been worse. But I sometimes think people who haven't been at the point of suicide are being snobby about it because they don't actually understand that sometimes in those moments, something like a sunset can break through, it doesn't cure your depression, doesn't alleviate your depression.
But it might offer a glimpse that the world is a beautiful place that you want to stay in at that point in future time.
Oh, my God, what a beautiful, beautiful poem to bring this to a close we didn't get onto for failure, which is not learning how to drive, by the way.
But I feel I've been so, so considerably. I mean, even for a podcast, I feel I've been super rumbly today. But that was so good. I felt like I've gone through something. I'm reaching closure on something.
Well, I feel like you've given me pockets of revelation throughout this. You haven't been rumbly at all. You've been a really wonderful guest. Just tell me quickly before we go, do you and Mike and Michael just chat now? Do you just text each other all the time?
I would love to say yes to the other Besi loose lips if that was the case, but unfortunately not. So there's a chance I had to chat to her when I was on holiday and should phone because she's was phoning people who'd been in her audition. And I missed the phone call from Mike Michael. So, no, we're just sort of podcast the parents friends.
That's so interesting. You've never actually met each other.
Know how amazing to have such a symbol of the influence that your work has, that you've never met this person who is so influential in her own sphere, who comes from such a different life, and what a beautiful moment of connection, really, as what I'm saying.
Yeah, I mean, I think that's the beauty of the modern world. Isn't that I took a lot of bad stuff about the Internet and 21st century modern stuff that I feel like the fact that we can connect with people and influence people and change people's minds in different parts of the globe. That's a beautiful thing. And that's certainly a thing I would have been thankful for 20 or so years ago. Matt Haig, there are so many people who are thankful for what you do.
Thank you for coming on Hitsville, for your 28 books and for generally being just a source of inspiration for so many of us. Thank you.
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