At the end of 2017, finding it hard to deal with my newly-acquired tinnitus, I attempted suicide twice — one week before Christmas and one week after, waking up both times marvelling afresh at my ability to consume vast amounts of drugs unharmed. I don’t recognise that person now. These days, nothing gets me down; and it means so much to me that I came through that wilderness of pain all by myself.
I once saw a television debate between the philosophers Ernest Gellner and Charles Taylor in which they suggested that humankind could be divided into the Tough and the Tender; I think I probably score high on the Tough side of the spectrum. I know that mental illness is real; it killed my son and has blighted the life of my best friend. But I do believe that many people could make themselves better. Resilience is like a muscle which grows weak with lack of use; human beings are born tough, but the fussing of an over-cautious society weakens them.
Mental illness has gone from being an ailment that we dare not speak of to one that we cannot escape; whenever I turn on Radio 4, I guarantee that the words “mental health” will be spoken within ten minutes.
But it’s not just a media problem; Ulrika Jonsson recently stripped off “to highlight the importance of men’s mental health” and to urge fans to donate to the charity StrongMen. What did her naked body have to do with it? I suppose 30 years ago it might have cheered some sad men up. But as it was, it was hard to define exactly who benefited.
Meanwhile, criminals are being spared jail for the sake of their mental health, the most recent example being when a cocaine-crazed driver left a nursery nurse with a fractured skull after running her over while talking on the phone and doing 63mph in a 30mph zone. Yasmin Jenkins was left in a coma and she is unable to return to work. But when sentencing her attacker, Clare Cassidy, earlier this month, Recorder Robert Lazarus noted: “You have a history of long-term mental health problems and I accept you are genuinely remorseful. I also note your mental health problems may deteriorate if sent to prison.” So that’s alright then!
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that he “avoided writers very carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can”. I thought of him as I picked up the latest book by Matt Haig, who has perpetuated his own troubles very successfully indeed. The Comfort Book is the latest in Haig’s canon of woe, preceded by Reasons To Stay Alive (2015) and Notes From A Nervous Planet (2018). It is, we’re told, “a collection of consolations learned in hard times and suggestions for making the bad days better”.
One of the signs of serious depression is the inability to be creative, but Mr Haig, who attempted to commit suicide aged 24, has been a veritable one-man library-stuffer, writing eleven children’s books and seven novels since he started out in 2004. He has, since then, also been signed up to something called The Mental Health Speakers Agency, along with Love Island’s Dr Alex and Blair Island’s Alastair Campbell. According to his profile, “Matt’s refreshingly honest and composed approach to a heavy topic makes him a hit time and time again” — which made me laugh as it sounds like an escort agency. Still, I’m sure it’s a lovely little earner; singing the blues will soon have you rolling in the greens.
Which brings us back to The Comfort Book. It’s very much what I think of as an UnBook, the sort of thing people who don’t like reading give to fellow illiterates at Christmas. If it were a garment, it would be a onesie. If it were food, it would be mashed potato. If it could speak, it would say “I’m here for you”. Keen not to startle us, Haig soothes us with an almost tangible hush: “You can place it beside your bed or keep it next to the toilet. You can throw it out of the window.” Option three, please!
He also reassures us that “You can tear out the pages”. But where to start? There’s so much to loathe: “We are all things. And we connect to all things. Human to human. Moment to moment. Pain to pleasure. Despair to hope.” “You were born worthy of love and you remain worthy of love. Be kind to yourself.” “Walking one foot in front of the other, in the same direction, will always get you further than running around in circles.” “It’s okay to be the teacup with a chip in it. That’s the one with a story.” It’s like that all the way through.
But do we really need encouragement to be any soppier than we are? We are already a society in which dealing with one’s emotions privately is equated with “bottling it up”, which must surely lead to mayhem in the future. Indeed, this is the central argument of the current war between the Windsors and Sussexes; that processing and mastering one’s feelings alone is some sort of sham. But seeing the photographs of the Queen having a laugh at Royal Ascot last week, and comparing her resilience to the Sussexes’ ceaseless whining, this seems a spectacular own goal. All we see in the wars of the Windsors is an attempt by the Sussexes to “strength-shame” anyone who won’t put their personal problems in the shop window for all the world to pick over.
Of course, the mentally ill have always been with us, and always will be. But surely every other person didn’t have issues until they realised that it would get them attention? Rather like what one does in bed, a person’s neuroses are generally the least interesting thing about them, unless they are profoundly dull. Look at Churchill; a lifelong sufferer from severe manic depression, frequently suicidal — “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through… I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water” — but he never let it get in the way of leading a tiny nation into battle against the might of the Nazi war machine.
When I was a girl, I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up. I imagined that adult life was dangerous and exciting, and I was eager to get out into the fray. But now the craze for over-protecting children (as I write, doctors have just begged parents to stop bringing record levels of children suffering from colds to A&E!) has spread to the adult world with its endless waffle about pampering, self-care and me-time — and “journaling”, of course, so we can all have a chance of producing our very own Comfort Book.
Talking of which, I must admit that I suffered a touch of “low mood” myself — quickly mutating to high dudgeon — on seeing my adored Stoics quoted in this quivering blancmange of a book. Far from feeling the need to cosset and baby ourselves, Marcus Aurelius said that the strong — which most of us are and which just a few, like my poor son, are not — should positively give thanks for misfortunes: “It’s unfortunate that this has happened? No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it — not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it.”
Indeed, if you must seek advice on how to live life, have a look at The Daily Stoic website; just ten minutes of study a day will turn your attitude around, as it did mine. There are even a few good self-help books — The Power Of Now, Feel The Fear And Do it Anyway — which see the world clearly as the big bad beautiful thing it is, and advise extreme boldness in engagement with it.
If you want to live your one and only life in a self-soothing fashion, go ahead. But don’t be surprised when you’re on your deathbed with only half a life to look back on. Because fortune favours the tough — and has a habit of swerving the tender.