So we’re three days in to Dundee’s Literary Festival already! This evening I took a trip down to the festival’s hub, Bonar Hall, to hear Matt Haig speak about his newest Novel Reasons to Stay Alive. Although the title gives off a faint whiff of self help guidebok, it is actually Haig’s own account of his personal struggle with depression spanning over two and a half decades and how he dealt with the mental illness. With him onstage this evening was Jo Clifford, an accomplished playwright, musician Rachel Shermani and host Sasha, of whom I didn’t manage to catch a second name, a member of the Scottish Book Trust. Referring back to my trusted guidebook for the week, I did note that Linda Irvine from NHS Lothian was expected as present, unfortunately for reasons not given she was not present. However it did not detract from the evening as it appeared the evening was directed at the experience of depression and not the medical definition of such, a topic that arose in the talk and was clearly differentiated from.
Sasha welcomed us to the evening and began by asking Rachel to sing. Her voice resonated with unusual scales and melodies: calming and serene. After a deafening applause from a full audience, Matt began to read a segment from his newest work. He seemed a quirky man; confident in his speaking yet humble in his mannerisms, eyes only leaving the sight of his shoes to read from his book. He began by explaining that he had indeed attended many a book reading in which he chose the same two passages to highlight; one taken from his account of suicidal contemplation and another of “a bit lighter” nature. On this occasion, he had chosen to take another section in which he experiences a panic attack whilst making the journey to “the Londis for milk and marmite”. In his pre-amble he explains the fear and self-loathing that occurred in his mind ‘twenty four seven” and how the fear had manifested into an imagined future in a padded cell which brought about the agoraphobia. The piece was read with a quick and staccato like pace which set my heart to thump harder just as his must have on his walk. The recount was harrowing as his use of repetition and small, sharp sentences rattled around the room, recreating and conveying his sense of almost indescribable terror of the shop looming in the distance. He quipped that he should have named the chapter Indiana Jones and the Temple of Marmite”, an amusing, yet somehow plausible in this case, title.
Once he had finished his reading, he opened up about his experiences with mental health and depression, mystifying about the brain. “The brain can think about the universe, the moons around Pluto but it can’t think about itself and that scares me”. He spoke about how depression did not change his personality, that he was the same Matt Haig he always was; he was just ill. I found this point quite thought provoking and profound because as a society we fail to see depression as such, perhaps accepting it as a characteristic trait and maybe that is why it does not hold such as such a high regard as physical health. He then talked about the stigma around Suicide and how some people regard it as an ‘opt out’ or a selfish act. He uses the analogy of a burning building. “Its like being in a burning building and there’s no way out. If there’s no way out you might want to jump out of a window”. It is his external and physical representation of an internal, unseeing illness that brought the room to a silence of clearer understanding.
Jo Clifford then beings to speak. At this point I whip my head up in total surprise. Jo Clifford had not only attended the event this evening to give an excellent input of opinion of a literary degree towards Haig’s book but also to speak of personal battles with depression and Dysphoria. Jo was a child born into the wrong body as she recounts a memory of looking into the mirror and seeing the reflection of a little boy where should have stood a little girl. She recalls a train ride to school with her mother which passed a Gasometer surrounded by near by houses. She asked her mother how anyone could live around such a terrible smell of gas all the time in which her mother replied “You would just get used to it to the point of not smelling it”. This idea didn’t resonate with the child as she knew she would never get used to living in this boy’s body. The conversation opens up and both Haig and Clifford discuss how certain words didn’t exist in the times they lived in such as ‘mental health’ and ‘transgender’. It then brought up the importance of language and writing these struggles and emotions on paper as to relate as closely as possible as to how it might feel to be depressed. Both speakers agreed that they thought themselves the only people in the world who must have felt this way, completely isolated in their own minds yet how writing gave allowed them a sense of freedom – “words are a way out of yourself as mental health is internal’ said Matt as Jo responded with “writing saved my life. Think I would be dead by now without it”.
The floor was then opened as Sasha asked if anyone from the audience had any questions. One woman asked if Matt had any tips as to how to deal with a friend with depression to which he replied “Be there for them [and] not pressuring them into getting better”. Another woman asked what mental health treatment should look like in society to which the burning building analogy was solidified in its ideas. He spoke of how Mental and physical health should not be categorised separately but given an equal weight and regard and then maybe people will understand it better. “We’re not embarrassed [to talk to a doctor] about chest pain” Jo chipped in “so why should we be embarrassed to talk about mental pain?”.
Previous to this event, I thought I had a pretty clear idea about mental health but this evening has brought about a new vision to me of what it is to suffer such an illness. Because that’s what it is; an internal illness that can be treated just as any physical ailment can – not just treated in the medical sense, but treated by society and humanity as a whole.