I feel a moral obligation to offer hope in my writing; it’s authentic optimism that’s not cynical or cheesy. I start in the darkest place I can imagine, then find a way out of it. I’m fearful of things going wrong, which goes back to anxiety and depression, so what I want to hear are stories of survival from people who’ve known pain.
I was warned there is a danger in talking about depression too much and I wanted to resist being ‘Mr Depression’. Although I was honoured and appreciative that Reasons To Stay Alive (Canongate, £12) was a success, I didn’t want to be defined by that. I thought, what is the opposite of writing about suicide and recovering from mental illness? The most out-there thing for me was to come up with a story about Santa, which was inspired by my son asking me what Father Christmas was like as a boy (A Boy Called Christmas; Canongate, £12.99).
People find mental illness intrinsically hard to understand and deal with, because it’s not just about mental illness; it also taps into our belief in free will and choice, and questions people’s idea of who they are. Until you have a mental illness and a lot of those views are forcibly removed when you realise you are not always in control of yourself, people don’t want to challenge that idea. All we can do is articulate it and push for real change.
Mental health and physical health impact on each other in many ways. We have this idea of the mind and body as being separate entities, but the mind is a physical thing, we are physical creatures, we have a nervous system, which extends into our guts and our bodies send signals to our brains.
When you’ve had three years of being mentally unwell, you emerge feeling like you’re 400 years old, because time seems to drag when you’re in pain, which gave me the idea of writing How To Stop Time (Canongate, £16.99) from the view of someone impossibly old. I wanted to write a straightforward entertaining adventure and throw in my thoughts about life, wellbeing and existence. I visualised it as a film with Benedict Cumberbatch as the main character because he has an intensity and mystery to him – and now he’s actually starring in the film adaptation. It’s a dream come true.
I’m both in favour of and against social media. I worry that I deliberately create controversy to distract myself from my work. It’s good in that it brings mentally ill people together, but it’s not always good for your mental health. In Notes On A Nervous Planet, I talk about how technology is changing us psychologically, socially and politically. I struggle in knowing how good or bad it is, as we haven’t had time to analyse what it’s doing to us. There have been times when I’ve been ill, and social media has been a useful distraction, especially when you’re socially anxious, but that’s the bad side of it, too; communicating with avatars, not face-to-face.
Having had depression and anxiety helps with the media onslaught of bad news, as you develop a carry-on-regardless inner voice. I react to it on an instinctive level, but I know things can feel worse than they are. I think the world is in a terrible state, but it’s often been in a bad state; the thing that has changed is how we experience news in a more visceral, immediate, constant way, so there’s a lot more fear and confusion. Being mindful of that helps. So does switching off, getting outside and going for a walk, and speaking to people who aren’t totally wrapped up in the hourly news cycle.
I try to prioritise my life by imagining what I would miss if I didn’t have it. I wouldn’t miss social media, whereas I’d regret not spending time with my kids.
Having an attitude of kindness to yourself and to the world is important; people can be aggressive or hateful because of how they feel about themselves. Many are into helping humanity, but can be horrible to individuals they meet in their day-to-day lives. How you talk to a workman, a waitress or someone in a call centre on the phone, that’s all part of your political self.
‘Notes On A Nervous Planet’ by Matt Haig (Canongate, £12.99) is out now