How writing saved my life

How writing saved my life
Posted 18 January 2013 by Matt Haig

Apparently, more anti-depressants are prescribed in January than any other month. So I thought I'd write a little bit about words and mental health. In September 1999, in my early twenties, I suffered a breakdown.

 

After a few years of seriously heavy living, and various other life stresses, I became very ill indeed. I descended into a permanent state of dark anxiety and was diagnosed with panic disorder. The only way I know how to describe panic disorder is as a kind of high speed depression. I would close my eyes and see literal demons. I could hardly leave the house without my girlfriend standing by my side. I was overwhelmed by something I did not understand - my own brain. For about three years my mind never came to a comma let alone a full stop.

 

At my lowest point, in February 2000, I stopped believing in words. Until then I hadn't realised that the act of using language is an act of faith. ('In the beginning there was the word…') But it is. You have to believe there is a point of there being words, and that they can offer real meaning. Normally this belief is taken for granted, but that is because normally we are taking the world itself for granted. But when your mind crumbles to dust everything you thought you knew suddenly becomes something to question.

 

You have to build reality up again. And the bricks we use to shape our realities are called words.

 

And so I would stare at a page of a book and it made no sense. But then I went back to some books I had loved as a teenager and began to lose myself in them.

 

I also started to write.

 

The stuff I wrote was rubbish. But it helped. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Eventually I started writing short stories. By giving something a narrative shape I was beginning to believe in the shape of my life again. In beginnings and middles and endings. Pretty soon I was getting a handle on the panic attacks. I was able to beat the agrophobia I had developed too. I was understanding myself again, and what my views and perspectives on this world actually were.

 

'Is there any way out of the mind?' Sylvia Path famously asked. If there is, the exit route is through words themselves. Through reading and writing. Instigated by Professor James Pennebaker twenty years ago writing therapy is already a big thing in America.

 

Maybe they should start prescribing reading lists and creative writing classes on the NHS. In my case, the consumption (and creation) of words healed my mind more than the consumption of anti-depressants. I had been suicidal before I began writing. It gave me a focus for the mental energy that was consuming my mind like a forest fire.

 

And now, I realise I need to write. If I stopped being published tomorrow I would carry on writing, just as I would carry on reading. Hell, I would even pay to write, if that was the only way I could do it.

 

The idea for this blog came from a question I got asked two days ago. Actually, it was more of a statement. 'I don't know how you write.' It is related to another, more frequently voiced statement. 'I'd like to read, but I just don't have time.'

 

I write and read for the same reason.

 

I need to.

 

The world is a confusing place.

 

Books are our maps.

 

Without them, I quickly find myself very lost indeed.

Comments

An inspiring blog :-)

Kettleclock
14 January 2014

Brilliant article, Matt. Thanks.

Precious Williams
8 March 2013

Brilliant article, Matt. Thanks.

Precious Williams
8 March 2013

Brilliant article, Matt. Thanks.

Precious Williams
8 March 2013

Although I have never suffered from what you might call 'chemical' depression, difficult things happen and it is healthy to feel unhappy in response to unhappy things. I don't know how I would have got through those sad bereavements without the power of words, my own and other people's. Poetry, prose, fiction and fact, writing and reading. Oh, and deep, hot baths.

Josa Young
7 March 2013

Thanks so much for your blog post, Matt. I was trying to decide how personal one should or could be with blog posts, but I guess it is really a personal choice. I have dealt with a range of conditions over the years including depression and anxiety, and reading was a long-time escape for me when I couldn't cope with my life. Writing is a wonderful way to mull over the various issues and try to understand things and find a healthier way to process them. Thanks!

A. Colleen Jones
28 January 2013

Thank you for sharing. It is nice to know that others find writing to be therapeutic. Oh, but I believe the poet's name to be "Plath", not "Path".

S Bell
24 January 2013

Great blog, truly wonderful to have someone write so honestly about mental health.
Incidentally here in Wales (I'm not sure about the rest of the uk) we do have a book prescription service which mental health professionals can prescribe. Admittedly it's mainly self help/info type books but still a step in the right direction...

Bella
24 January 2013

Reading is my saviour. Depression lurks in everything, and sometimes the only deeply warm, comforting place is within a book - usually an old much loved friend.
My writing on the other hand is stopped flat by depression. I write for my living and while I do still manage client work, my own stories freeze in place - they won't thaw until I'm happy again. Which I am glad to say does happen!

Sam K
24 January 2013

Your honesty and openness cut straight to the heart of the matter. These words will light the way for so many readers and writers struggling with similar issues. They offer wisdom, encouragement and hope. Bravo, Matt.

Damian
23 January 2013

Great post. When I studied two random courses on evolution for the 'free choice' component of my degree (which I'm just about to finish, and is actually in Literature!), I didn't expect to find parallels between them and my literature studies. But the human evolution course talked about anthropology and how we can see through the evidence that people have left behind - AND through the way their brain are wired - that we try to sort our experiences into narratives. We are hard-wired to look for beginnings, middles and endings; it is the way we order and make sense of the world around us. So it's no surprise that reading and writing provide us with that order, even if it's artificial - a bit like a cast for a broke mind; it's the right shape, and it's not our brain, but it keeps it in the right shape until it heals.
As for books on prescription - as someone else has said, yep, it already happens :) http://www.overcoming.co.uk/single.htm?ipg=6320 This page explains the scheme and has links so that you can find places where you can access the scheme and where you can find out more about bibliotherapy.

Alison Runham
22 January 2013

Well said that man.
I suffer, and am just coming out of a really bad spell. But I have to say that writing thoughts down, any old rubbish, helps. Don't ever feel you have nothing to write, that's when you're thinking to hard. Just write. Scribble. All the Bla bla bla will come to a form when it's ready. Just try and find a little bit of faith.

Nigel Hatton
20 January 2013

'Books are our maps'. Absolutely. Lovely post.

Lucy
20 January 2013

AN excellent blog, and one which many of us who work as writers, or who write in order to find order in chaos will recognise.

Amanda Craig
20 January 2013

I write to try and understand, and make sense of the world that is mad. Crazy. I read to escape from myself.

Jackie Morris
20 January 2013

Well said.

Martha Elizabeth
19 January 2013

Hello Matt. I totally get what you're saying re writing about trying to find some kind of order, any order from words, sentences, paragraphs and then chapters.

Writing and music helped me claw my way back from the abyss and I find the two are linked for me in terms of creativity. I know what form the writing will take ie poem, haiku, short story etc etc by what I'm listening to as I type.

I spent 4 years in a self-imposed exile after my breakdown because I felt so ashamed due to some of the things I uttered during that time. I made a lot of enemies and said a lot of things I didn't mean as my brain slowly unravelled before me.

I wound up with panic attacks and agoraphobia. I still get the occasional panic attack but I know how to get through it now, it's not easy but I can ride it out and I come back to the written word, to music.

I haven't as of yet been able to entirely still my monkey mind but that will come in time. Thank you for writing this, it's been inspirational. All the best to you mate and for sure, keep on writing :)

Jonathan
19 January 2013

A poignant, personal tribute to the power of the pen. Nice one, Matt.

Malcolm Wyatt
19 January 2013

Truer words were never written. I too got my life back though writing - albeit the slower variety - after a stroke http://redoable.wordpress.com/about

Lafcadio
19 January 2013

Hi Matt - very thoughtful post - I wondered whether you know about Lapidus ('words for wellbeing') - fantastic group of therapists/writers using creative writing as a tool for healing/self-development?

Jenny Alexander
18 January 2013

Thank you for all these comments. Means a lot.

Matt Haig
18 January 2013

Thank-you for making me feel 'normal', Matt.

Amanda
18 January 2013

Excellent essay. As a child survivor of sexual abuse and violence, I read and wrote my way into a healthy adulthood. When I give workshops (especially if there are any kids present), I tell students that everyone should take up writing, whether they want to publish or make it their profession or not, as a way to make it through life's inevitable black spots.

And Sioned, I'm awestruck at the great common sense of doctors in Wales who prescribe books!

Linda
18 January 2013

I think you are very brave to write about your illness. Mental Health should not be hidden away. It should be out in the open so people can see how it impacts on people's lives and what effect it has on families and friends. Well done to you

Marie
18 January 2013

Thank you for your honesty - I have PTSD and when I wrote Snake Ropes I was at such a low point I was writing to save my own life. Thankfully, it worked. x

Jess Richards
18 January 2013

Thank you for your honesty - I have PTSD and when I wrote Snake Ropes I was at such a low point I was writing to save my own life. Thankfully, it worked. x

Jess Richards
18 January 2013

An excellent post on the power of the written word and its capacity to enlighten and heal. I too was sustained by others' writings during my most dire moments of Clinical Depression and they carried me while I got help.

Fantastic.

Jack Hope
18 January 2013

I am in complete sync with:"I write and read for the same reason.I need to.'
Writing has helped me not go back into the deep depression I was in.

Raeme67
18 January 2013

Thank you, Matt. Having spoken in public about my own depression and the healing effect writing has on it, I know how much courage it takes to 'come out' about this. Writing is most certainly my lifeline too, and when I've been in that place where "there is no light, but rather darkness visible" it's been the only thing which has kept me from plunging over the edge. For me it's a necessity - as much as food, drink and sleep. I write, therefore I am.

Lucy Coats
18 January 2013

Such an insightful blog and proof of the power of the written word. Reading has always been my salvation at low points as well as writing a diary. In Wales rather than prescribing pills doctors prescribe books from a reccommended list be borrowed from local libraries.

Sioned
18 January 2013

Thank you for your honesty in this post, Matt. I find writing helps me to excavate difficult parts of my past and make sense of them.

K.M. Lockwood
18 January 2013

I can relate having suffered from panic and depression, wait a minute, still struggling albeit much less. I write and read. Therein lies my strength.

Carolyn Mallory
18 January 2013

Couldn't agree more, Matt. I always find it amusing when people say 'I don't know how you have the patience to write'. If I didn't write, I'd have a lot less patience! Writing keeps me sane – writing both a personal diary and fiction. It offers me a way to say what I really think and feel. It also offers me a way to try and understand situations from other people's perspectives. I've kept a diary since the age of 11, and even though I write in it less frequently now that I have kids, any time I'm finding life tough, out it comes. As for reading, there's no other form of escapism like it.

Tasha Harrison
18 January 2013

Very heartfelt blog, Matt- I agree that writing should be prescribed for many illnesses of the mind. It's hardly taught at all in schools now, once kids get past the age of 14- just when they need to get out their confused feelings in a constructive way...

Bernie Steadman
18 January 2013

Wonderful words and so true. Writing saved my life as I too have gone through a similsr experience. I found that words and rhythms helped, poetry, music, great dialogue. Drugs are not necessary, although they can help in the short term. The best way to cope is to learn to like yourself and you can do that by doing things that you love. For me writing is one of those. Great blog. All the best

Zac
18 January 2013

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