Reasons to Stay Alive, Breaking Mad, Mad Girl: A Review
Updated: Jul 29, 2019
Over the past few months, I’ve had a lot on my plate. Yeah yeah, university is tough I hear you say, wow you have a part time job? Trooper. Well, no, not really. Crying to my head of school at the start of this week, I needed a break – and not even for those reasons. This year began with various medical problems to do with my lungs, some really funky symptoms to go alongside it, and then a week-long hospitalisation. It felt like I couldn’t catch a break – or a breath. Literally.
Whilst it’s easy to put on a dry-witted, sarcastic front to friends and family, it’s actually really fucking hard to be in hospital with an issue that is totally and utterly undiagnosed (and still is, by the way). Not to mention, scary and stressful when the ward is full of people who look on the verge of death for the same reasons you are. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of what’s going on with my crappy lungs, but to put it into focus, even stepping on my bed to shut or open the curtains can cause breathlessness. So, having to face day to day life knowing that your lungs are probably going to give up on you isn’t exactly easy.
Anyway, back to the very ugly tears, snot and incoherent blubbering. My head of school told me something really quite inspiring. Whilst I’ve known since the age of, well, exiting the womb I guess, that I put far too much pressure on myself for no reason whatsoever, she reiterated the fact. ‘Seren, you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. You need to take a break and take the time to actually relax and do things you generally enjoy – not things that’ll benefit your university degree, but things that will benefit you.’ I felt like a total tool for crying – and anyone who has seen me cry will know the absolute hideous embarrassment I feel afterwards, but I guess that’s just life. We breakdown, we cry, we finally get things off our chest, and we work on building ourselves back up. My incredible study mentor told me to take the week off to just reintegrate into my university schedule, and do things that I genuinely enjoy. And so I did.
After the meeting and the chat I had, I walked straight to Waterstones and headed for the mental health section. I’d been told about a book, Reasons to Stay Alive by a good friend of mine, and so I decided it was finally time to read it. Now, I’m not suicidal nor looking for reasons to stay alive. There are way too many places I haven’t explored and too many things I haven’t read or written about. But, I am definitely keen on figuring out ways to pick myself back up after my constant hospital visits, which have understandably triggered a myriad of shitty feelings within.
Matt Haig’s Reason To Stay Alive was fantastic; so fantastic that I read it in a day. He talks about being an anxious child, a sleepwalker, of reaching a paralysing breakdown in his twenties. This breakdown causes him to move back home with his girlfriend Andrea, live with his parents for a while, and slowly – very slowly, pick himself back up. He has crippling anxiety, which leaves him in fear of being on his own; even if it’s walking to the corner shop he’s frequented since childhood by himself. He talks about his separation anxiety and gives useful tips to boyfriend’s and girlfriend’s of people with depression and anxiety. Most of all, he discusses how traveling was something that gave him a small glimmer of hope amongst the anxiety and depression. Whilst the thought of traveling initially made him feel sick with fright, he confronted it to prove that he could do it – and it actually turned out to be something that alleviated his mental illness.
Anyone who knows me will know that I hop aboard an Easyjet flight quicker than you can say Palma de Mallorca. In the past twelve months alone, I have boarded 14 flights. In all brutal honesty, knowing that I can fly away at the drop of the hat has always helped me relax and recalibrate, and come back with a fresher mind. I also have the comfort of an incredible boyfriend, who, like Haig’s girlfriend Andrea, has been nothing but kind and understanding in my lowest moments. I don’t think I’d be half as positive if it weren’t for my regular trips abroad.
Haig’s book was fantastic for showing me that you can build yourself back up. I should know, as I’ve done it many many times before. But sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder; a reminder that you can do it, you will do it, and that so many others are going through the same illness as you.
I also picked up Anna Williamson’s Breaking Mad. Anna was a TV presenter on ITV when, in her twenties, she suddenly had a complete mental breakdown in the ITV studios. Whilst it seemed to be completely random and shocking, Williamson reflects on the event and remarks that actually, things were building up, she just couldn’t recognise it at the time. As a response to that, the book is very much about recognising signs of your illness and finding ways to beat them. In the book, Anna and psychologist Dr. Reetta Newell go through the issues of anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, insomnia, depression, PTSD, self-medication, physical pain – the lot. It’s an absolutely fantastic book, which again I read in about 2 days. It’s even helped me to develop and implement some small methods of my own in beating my current state of anxiety. Even the smallest of niggles can be talked about and eliminated before they turn into something bigger than they are. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book.
Finally, and it’s important to note that I read at insane rates, I had a look on Amazon so that more books could arrive in the post while I was quickly running out of pages of Breaking Mad. After quite a thorough browse, I found Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl. This book is hilarious, up front and cut throat. It will explore ideas of mental illness that you wouldn’t ever have considered or thought possible before. For me, it’s a stigma destroyer, and something I have found myself relating to in part. Gordon goes through the story of her crushing OCD, alopecia, eating disorder, cocaine addiction, severe depression and history with abusive men. She talks candidly, and in a hilarious manner. Making sure not to glamourise any of her issues, she’s open about her selfishness in her illness and what it meant for her family growing up. But, like all great mental health stories, there is a positive ending. Gordon isn’t cured – just like Haig and Williamson aren’t either – but she is in a much better place, with a family she has accepted, through trust and love. Whilst she does experience extreme bouts of OCD which make her doubt herself, and her deservingness of her husband, she seeks the help to fight it – and is also an avid runner.
If I’ve learned anything from these books, and this week, it’s that reading is a fantastic cure for stress. I am 100% guilty of spending WAY too much time online, and having my head stuck in books has truly helped me ween away from the constant shit-storms that you see online, as well as the negativity and the competitiveness of social media. The books have reminded me that I can and I will get through my current bout of anxiety. It’s reminded me that there are always ways to help myself. I have already established a damn good sleeping pattern (who know I could go to sleep at 10pm and wake up at 8am!?) and learned a lot about TAKING A BREAK. I’m also feeling a lot better about overcoming my own stresses in the weeks to come, and confident that it will be okay. After all, it always is.
Not that this is a coming-of-age novel, but I would like to dedicate this blog post/book review to my boyfriend and my mum, both of which are here for me constantly. I appreciate and love you both insane amounts.