Matt Haig:
don't go compare

We may be beset by social media insecurities and a pandemic but the lesson Matt Haig wants to emphasise is that things do get better

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“We’re in a comparison culture now,” says author Matt Haig. “Even this year in lockdown I think there was almost a competition about who was having the best lockdown and making the most use of their time.”

“There’s a gap between what we feel like we should be doing and what we’re actually feeling.”

Time, regret, comparison, anxiety, disappointment and existential FOMO (fear of missing out), are themes Haig has visited and revisited in his work. In his 2015 book Reasons to Stay Alive Haig candidly told the story of a suicide attempt in his mid-twenties, and how he learned to live again after a mental health crisis. His follow-up non-fiction book Notes on a Nervous Planet explored the impact modern life has on mental health and questioned how we stay sane in a world of career demands, consumerism, social media, air pollution, non-stop news updates and the realities of living in a fast-paced, ever-changing world.

Haig’s fiction has taken on similar themes. In his 2013 novel The Humans the reader follows an alien who takes on a human form as he is sent to earth. His mission is to destroy evidence of the solving of a mathematical problem that could help the human race make significant advances that the aliens have deemed the world is not ready for.

On earth, the alien is disgusted. He marvels at the “arrogant species, defined by violence and greed”. In a note back to his own planet, he writes: “They have taken their home planet, the only one they have access to, and placed it on the road to destruction. They have created a world of divisions and categories and have continually failed to see the similarities between themselves.”

But ultimately the alien is won over. He finds beauty and meaning on earth, and for all of humanity’s flaws, he finds beauty in people too.

These tender observations on the human condition are perhaps what Haig is best known for. Even those who have not read his books have most likely come across his Instagram page or Twitter feed, where Haig posts thoughts, inspirational quotes and advice on self-care.

Now, in 2020, a year of unprecedented challenges, Haig is taking on another story that addresses depression, anxiety, regret, and parallel universes. His new novel The Midnight Library, out this week, follows protagonist Nora Seed as she enters a world of limitless possibilities.

Nora is fed up with life. Riddled with regret over choices she’s made in the past, she lives in a suspended existence, always wondering what might have been if she’d lived her life differently and, in the meantime, not really living at all.

She decides to end it all. But rather than dying, Nora ends up in the Midnight Library, where she has a chance to live all the lives she could have lived if she’d made different decisions. Launched into parallel universes, Nora finds out what would have happened if she’d never given up competitive swimming, where she’d be now if she’d married the man she was once engaged to, whether she’d be happier if she’d packed up and moved to Australia.

It is an idea Haig has been sitting on for a while. “Since I first started writing books I’d wanted to do a story about parallel lives but I had no hook for it, I had nothing new to offer, so I put it aside and got on with other stuff,” he says. “Then I had this idea of it being like a library – imagining if there was a library where every single book was a different version of how it would be. I thought that was nice. It fits in with what libraries are anyway, as in a place of many, many different worlds that you can enter.”

Born in Sheffield and educated at Hull and Leeds universities, Haig’s younger years were blighted by a lack of confidence and low self-esteem that culminated in a spell of anxiety and depression that almost destroyed him. In 1999, at the age of 24, after six years of student life and summer jobs, Haig suffered a breakdown while living in Ibiza with his girlfriend, now wife, Andrea.

At crisis point, Haig and his partner moved back to the UK where he battled mental illness and attempted to rebuild his life.

Suffering from agoraphobia and stuck in the couple’s flat, Haig found that the one thing he could do was write. And since then, he hasn’t stopped. His first novel The Last Family in England was published in 2004, followed by 17 fiction books for adults and children, often in the speculative fiction genre. A film version of his 2017 book How to Stop Time, a novel about a man bestowed with the ability to live for centuries without ever ageing a day, is currently in production with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role.

But although Haig has found huge success as an author, it hasn’t always been easy. In 2010 he was dropped by his publisher and told to give up. Battling debt and drinking heavily, Haig relapsed into depression.

It is these experiences Haig looks back on when writing novels, non-fiction works, and posts on social media. He often shares his life story underpinned by a simple message: that things do get better.

“I can remember when I had depression and I often felt full of regret,” he says. “It was nice to explore that idea [in The Midnight Library] and in a way find a kind of therapy in the idea of accepting your own decisions and accepting where you are in life, [rather than] always imagining or torturing yourself over things you could have done differently.”

Although prominent on social media, Haig is critical of the ways platforms such as Facebook and Instagram create divisions and exploit insecurities. This constant threat of comparison and around-the-clock access to images that promote unrealistic lifestyles and the anxiety exposure can cause are what Haig describes as a “contemporary issue” that can have a drastic impact on mental health.

“We compare ourselves to other people but we also compare ourselves to ourselves, so we present this version of ourselves online which might not be quite the real truth, and then there’s the gap between what we feel like we should be doing versus what we’re actually feeling on the inside. That’s a contemporary issue that impacts mental health and mental illness in quite a big way.

“And we compare ourselves all the time not just to a small circle of people within our community but to literally the most famous or exceptional people in their fields in the world, so we are continually seeing people who are achieving things or doing things, and it has set a bar that’s unrealistically high. We all need a bit more self-acceptance and less comparison.”

Since Reasons To Stay Alive was published in 2015, Haig has been catapulted into the role of leading mental health campaigner. His quotes are often listed as inspirational words to turn to in times of difficulty, and fans of his work have credited Haig with saving them from their own struggles.

Haig has now settled into his role as a world-famous mental health advocate, with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex among his fans, but he admits the pressure weighed heavily at first.

“After I wrote Reasons to Stay Alive, which I thought was going to be one of my smaller books that only a few people would read, it became one of the biggest, and it happened quite fast and quite naturally, which was obviously great, but when the paperback came out it went up a level and everyone seemed to be reading it, and for a little while I really struggled,” he says. “I was going through a patch of anxiety and depression at the time and yet I was dealing with emails from people either saying they really liked the book and it helped them, or asking me for advice, and I struggled with both of those responses, even though I welcome them now.

“I struggled I think because I felt a bit of a fraud. I’d written this book called Reasons To Stay Alive and there I was, in the midst of anxiety and depression and not having all the answers.

“I think people who read my stuff now understand that I’m not a doctor, that I’m not a neuroscientist and I haven’t got a PhD in brain chemistry or anything. I’m just someone who went through an experience and recovered, to a great degree, although I resist saying I’m 100 per cent better. People feel less alone from reading those books and I think that’s great, but I’m not a magic wand or someone who can fix everyone. But I’m glad it gives people that feeling of being understood.”

Now living in Brighton, Haig and his wife home-school their two children. As ministers and scientists debate the reopening of schools next month, Haig has a message for worn-out parents who may face more months of homeschooling.

“The big thing is to realise it’s not school, and that’s OK. School is a very different environment where there are lots of kids so they have a very long day to get the same amount of knowledge in them.

“We don’t actually spend a full school day’s worth of learning. Certainly at the start of lockdown I was realising people were literally replicating the school day and setting out a timetable, but we’ve discovered two hours of focused learning in the morning is kind of enough, and then you have this bit of downtime activity and reading and watching YouTube videos about history or whatever.

“My main advice is not to beat yourself up too much about replicating the perfect school day. It’s more about keeping kids interested and curious and not overworked.”

The Midnight Library (Canongate) is out on 13 August

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