Sarah Ditum

The banality of Matt Haig

The banality of Matt Haig
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It doesn't seem like a bad time to be Matt Haig. He’s written multiple bestselling books, including the reputation-making memoir Reasons to Stay Alive about his own experience of severe depression. His latest, The Midnight Library, is proving impossible for everyone but Richard Osman and JK Rowling to knock out of the bestseller charts. There’s a movie adaptation of one of his novels on the way. And we now know that his high-profile admirers run all the way to royalty (well, ex-royalty): Meghan and Harry chose him as one of the guests for their holiday edition of their podcast 'Archewell', to offer 'inspiration, perspective, and reflection' for these difficult Covid times.

On the podcast, Haig talks affectingly about his own struggles with depression. But for the most part, his 'inspiration, perspective, and reflection' sounds like this: asked what he’d tell the future about this nightmare era, Haig said, very solemnly: 

'The world woke up…We’ve been given a chance to change. [Portentous pause] Only you know if we did.' 

The only thing more excruciatingly banal than this is the way Meghan murmurs 'so true' at the end of every contribution.

Banality is Matt Haig’s thing. On Twitter, he offers pearls of consolation like: 'don’t forget to breathe today', 'Maybe music is the answer' and 'Today will not be the ideal day. It will just be a day. And you will just be a person. And that’s okay.' 

His problem is that he’s trapped in the strange afterlife of the role model. Reasons made him famous because the story of his breakdown and recovery was reassuring, and his honesty was brave and compelling: people related to it. But having been anointed as a sort of secular priest of mental health, he has to keep delivering more of the same. 

Unfortunately, very few people have infinite resources of wisdom in them. Matt Haig certainly doesn’t, which is why he’s reduced to sharing homilies like 'BE KIND TO PEOPLE YOU BASTARDS*. *and don't call them bastards, either' – complete with twee swearing. Every time one of his thoughts runs past my eyes, I end up wondering who, exactly, is going to feel better off because of this.

It’s possible to be very glad that Haig has found his way to better mental health (I certainly am) and very dubious that what he’s offering is going to be helpful for anyone else. Take the message of hope in his pinned tweet

'Two decades ago I nearly took my own life and knew I was going to give up. One decade ago I got dropped by my publisher and was told to give up. Today I get to share a trailer of a film based on one of my books. (Don’t give up.)'

I’m all for people not giving up. I’ve had depression, and not giving up is one of the best things I’ve done. But few people’s experience of getting better is going to match this kind of fairytale turnaround. I’ve never quite got over hearing the testimony of suicide survivors who’ve reported that, at the moment they couldn’t change course, they realised they desperately wanted to undo what they'd done. That, realistically, is the thing to stay alive for: a future version of yourself who doesn’t want to die.

It’s a modest hope, but it’s an attainable one. Whereas telling someone facing down a serious crisis not to give up because fantastic success might be just around the corner is at odds with the fact that it very probably isn’t. Instead, they can anticipate (hopefully) a gradual recovery, supported by medication or therapy or both, punctuated with heartbreaks and bereavements and disappointments. I’m not sure how much telling people to 'breathe' is going to ease that path.

Maybe, at least, Haig deserves credit for puncturing the stigma around mental health. Only, I’m not sure how much stigma really exists when it comes to depression. Over the last couple of decades, public cruelty on this issue has, thankfully, turned largely to compassion. There are conditions that really do rouse confusion and terror (I would be much less comfortable announcing that I had, say, schizophrenia than I was disclosing my depression a few paragraphs up), but depression, for all its horrors, is unlikely to elicit that response.

'Thinking about death makes you analyse what life is. Anxiety makes you curious and curiosity leads to understanding. I wouldn’t be a writer without depression,' Haig has said. Well, maybe. But more likely, having depression just means you have depression – if you can learn anything from it, it probably begins and ends with knowing what having depression feels like. Its causes are complex, and the solutions do not subsist in phony promises of future joy, or easy answers to the difficult stuff of human existence. Life is hard; make it easier on yourself by not reading Matt Haig. Oh, and breathe.