‘The aim in this book isn’t to say that everything is a disaster and we’re all screwed, because we already have Twitter for that.’ — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 12
This book isn’t just for people who struggle with mental illness. It discusses the topic in regard to society as a whole, and how modern life, particularly in regard to social media, affects out mental health.
‘The question this time was a broader one: how can we live in a mad world without ourselves going mad? — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 9
Matt Haig’s ability to put across such strong messages in such a small chapter is phenomenal. He doesn’t drag it on to be something it’s not, simply for the sake of a long chapter. He’s short. He’s precise. He’s truthful.
‘I am trying to write about the messiness of the world and the messiness of minds by writing a deliberately messy book.’ — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 176
Thoughts on mental health are often fragmented. The thoughts take time to piece together. We don’t sit there, mid-panic attack, or mid-depressive episode, and bash out a novel’s worth of deep thoughts on mental health. We piece it together over the years. We learn.
Matt Haig portrays this wonderfully. His short chapters, linked together under the wider sections of the book, fit the tone perfectly.
The perfect combination of personal pronouns and polysyllabic language makes it feel like we, the reader, are have an intellectual discussion with Matt Haig. Not being talked down upon. Not being mansplained to.
The perfect combination of humour, and formal lexis makes it a more enjoyable read without deviating from the serious topic at hand.
‘There are days when I’d find it easier to talk North Korea out of its nuclear weapons programme than to talk myself out of checking social media seventeen times before breakfast.’ — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 152
If you don’t struggle with mental illness, you should read this to understand the people who do. If you do struggle with mental illness, you should read this to understand you aren’t alone. You’ll realise the little things you do don’t make you weak. Or weird. Or abnormal. Other people do them too, experience them too.
‘I am a catastrophiser. I don’t simply worry. No. My worry has real ambition. My worry is limitless.’ — Matt Haig, NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, p. 24
Mental illness can come back just as a rose can regrow. It’s odd, to compare something so horrific to something so beautiful, isn’t it? But it’s true.
We need to normalise that mental illness does not easily go away, and that for most people, it will not go away. This isn’t dark. It isn’t accepting defeat.
It’s being realistic. It’s realising the harsh truths. Harsh truths that, once acknowledged, will help you.
I don’t think there is a getting better; but there is a learning to cope. To say you’re getting better is, often, to kid yourself, because if you fall again you’ll only fall harder. If you ignore the signs that those evils lurking in your head are returning because you’ve, “Gotten better!” you won’t be able to help yourself.
Instead, you’ll hate yourself. You’ll hate yourself for being weak enough to let it return.
And you are not weak.
It is not your fault your mental illness came back.
Accepting beforehand that it can return will help you when— for if— it does.
It isn’t accepting defeat. It’s being realistic. It’s helping yourself.
That acceptance will help you come to terms with it more quickly; you’ll learn how to cope with it, rather than ignoring it and letting it fester like a weed, or an ant problem. A problem that, once it fully takes hold, is difficult to be rid of. But, if you see the shoot of the weed early on, or an ant of two scuttling around your kitchen, and you accept the problem then, and begin to deal with it then, it’ll be a whole lot easier.
Not to mention, ignoring that you may suffer a relapse in your mental illness can actually cause the relapse. As wrote by Neel Burton in Psychology Today, a common cause of a relapse is ‘poor understanding of your mental disorder in general, and of the symptoms of a relapse in particular’. Hence, ignoring the issue can lead to you ignoring ‘the symptoms of a relapse’.
So, accept that mental illness can return. Accept it, so you know what you are facing, how to face it, and how to help yourself.
Look after yourself; especially your mind.
The Kitchen is spotless. The ceramic tile floor freshly mopped. Black slate counter-tops, polished and shiny. Outside, the clouds are slate grey and the TiVo DVR in the Living Room warns of an incoming storm.
There’s a bang as the front door opens and closes, followed by heavy steps approaching the Kitchen. Cath immediately sets the table in perfect time for Rob walking through the door.
He sits at the table, grunting in approval, ignoring the mess his dirt-sodden work clothes are making of the chair, and the trail his muddy boots have left.
I’ll mop the mess when he goes to sleep… thinks Cath, as Rob tucks into his tea.
“What the fuck is this rubbish?” Rob says.
Her heart sinks. “It’s just sausage and mash, like you like it…”
“It’s not b—“
“Don’t contradict me. It tastes burnt to me.” The chair screeches as he stands up. He strides to the fridge and grabs a can of Fosters. The can spits as it opens.
“Sit down, sit down. I— I can make more.”
“Don’t be stupid. That’s just a waste of money. My money. That you use on your stupid kids. You can’t even cook right.”
“Our k— …Sorry, honey— sorry.” She glances nervously through the open Living Room door, where Charley and Adam are kneeling at the wooden coffee table over Adam’s school work.
Rob throws an empty can into the bin and sits back at the table as Cath rummages frantically through the fridge: Beer. Cheese. Beer. Butter. Beer. An egg. Beer. Orange juice. Beer.
A cheese sandwich will have to do.
She throws together the bread, the butter, the cheese and cuts it perfectly down the middle before placing it before Rob alongside a can of beer.
Rob stares at her. “A sandwich? A fucking sandwich?”
Here we go. Cath grips the edge of the table.
“I come home, from working all day, slaving away to bring home money and all you bring me is a pathetic cheese sandwich.” He stands up, grabbing the beer and the cheese sandwich as an afterthought.
He storms into the Living Room.
Cath exhales anxiously. She grabs some more beer from the fridge and follows.
He’s sprawled on the couch, flicking through the TV from one noisy channel to the next. Cath offers him a can— he snorts and takes it.
Closest I’ll get to a thank you.
Rob’s Timberland boots have traipsed even more mud onto the white carpets.
“Here, honey— I’ll take your boots off for you.” She kneels down at his feet and starts gingerly untying the laces.
“Leave them. They’re fine.” He kicks her away, getting even more mud onto the carpet.
Cath stands, lips tight, supressing a sigh and a harsh remark. She gives a warning glance to Charley and Adam who are still kneeling at the coffee table, working as if they were in a Library.
I’ll put the kids to bed when he falls asleep… Should be soon— Looks like he’s been at the beer all day.
Outside, the rain is starting to fall, the trees swaying as they desperately try to stay upright against the wind. Cath crosses and closes the curtains.
“…q-u-i-e-t” whispers Charley, leaning over her little brother’s homework. “Remember: ‘Q’ is always followed—“
“—By a ‘U’!” Adam interrupts, throwing his arms excitedly and dropping his pen. It lands next to his orange juice.
“Shhh!” goes Charley. Rob glances at them. “Okay next word…”
Adam reaches for his pen— but knocks over his cup. The juice spills over his work, turning the sheets orange and damp.
“For fuck’s sake!” Rob leaps abruptly to his feet. “Can you not fucking drink?!”
“Sorry…” mumbles Adam.
Rob storms into the Kitchen, returning with a rag clutched in his fist.
He throws the rag at Adam. It falls into his lap. “Clean this fucking table! You’re eight years old and you can’t even drink properly. Do I have to hold it for you?” He grabs the cup and holds it in front of his face. “Well? Do I?”
Rob slams the cup and his beer down on the table with such ferocity that some splashes out. “Do I have to put the rag in your hand for you, too?” He snatches it from Adam’s lap. He seizes his wrist and forces the rag into his hand. “Now move it in fucking circular motions like this.” Rob forces Adams hand to move in aggressive circles on the table surface, making the mess even worse. “There we fucking go.” He drops Adam’s hand and swipes up his can, spilling even more of its contents, and falls back onto the couch.
Adam keeps senselessly moving his hand in circular motions. His hand is shaking.
Cath stands watching by the window.
“Here, Adam, give it to me,” Charley whispers. She gently prises it from her brother’s hand and starts dabbing at the orange juice and beer. The sleeve of her shirt rides up her arm as she stretches.
Charley’s hand is shaking too.
Her wrist is green and purple.
When did that happen? Charley didn’t even come to me saying she’d been hurt.
Cath remains stationary by the window, mindlessly watching Charley help her little brother as if she is his mum.
Why are we still here? He’s their father but… he doesn’t act like one. But he does provide… he does bring in the money… I can’t just do nothing… she doesn’t even tell me when he’s hurt her…
Cath does what she usually would in this situation; she hands him another can. He mindlessly accepts it as he scowls at the TV screen. Thunder rumbles, followed by a flash of lightning 5 seconds later.
“Today, the London Eye has begun to be lifted into its new home on the South Bank…” chimes in the TV.
“Whose bloody idea was it to make this thing? The London Eye. What an eye sore! Pointless waste of money. They should stop moving it before it’s too fucking late.” He looks at Cath expectedly.
“Oh— oh yes, dear.”
Silence follows, broken only by the sound of the TV and the raging storm.
Eventually, Rob falls to sleep. His beer can falls from his hand and spills onto the carpet.
“Should we go to bed, Mum? I can help Adam if you want to clean this up…” Charley whispers, looking expectantly at her Mum.
“No. Not tonight, dear.” The two children look at her, confused. “I’m going to pack a bag. Get your brother ready, Charley; we’re leaving.”
Five minutes later, bags packed, coats on, they’re out in the rain. It’s surprisingly warm, like a shower washing away all the dirt. Cath turns her face up to the sky, drinking it all in.
Today is the first clear sky we’ve had in what feels like an era, and the beach is busy once more as people bask in the long-awaited Sun. Children are dragging their parents from stall to stall, begging for sugary doughnuts and fluffy pink candy-floss to fill their stomachs with. I sit, watching, in the shaded Bus Shelter, knowing full well when the bus comes I won’t hail it. Or maybe I’ll go to the café. It is a beautiful day, after all. For now, I look down, to avoid the blinding sun, judgemental stares.
“Will! Why aren’t you with yer mother?” an old man says, sitting down on the creaky shelter’s bench.
I look up, glancing around at the people walking past: a father flying his little boy around on his shoulders, an elderly couple with their hands entwined as they enjoy a stroll along sandy paths, a photographer capturing the waves as they dance. No one pays any attention to the man. I continue staring down at my scuffed shoes- I could do with some new ones…
The old guy moves closer, leaning on the rusty iron arm rest separating our seats. “Will! Don’t ignore yer old man!” he laughs and playfully punches my arm.
Who is this man? Is he talking to me?
“Ah, just messin’ with ya!” I shift a little further along the bench, as if trying to get more in the shade.
“Well, if your mother is paying you no attention, how about I take you out- a little treat- jus’ like old times! You’d like tha’, huh, Will?”
Why is he wearing a jacket? The heat is insane! Are those- yes they are! Pyjamas, he’s wearing pyjamas under that jacket! Surely not…
“Come on now, Will! How’re you doing? Your mother isn’t here, how abou’ I take you out, Will? A little treat, just like old times!” he smiles hopefully.
The bus is coming slowly around the corner- I fidget with the small hole in my sleeve.
“Yeah. Yeah I’d like that… Dad.” The man grins, showing off his gums. He unsteadily gets to his feet, grabbing my arm as he does so.
Looking around, I hail the bus as above seagulls soar, dive and flee with chips hanging from their beaks; a successful hunt.
“-Live in three-”
The lights illuminate the stage-
-as a balding man with CREW on his shirt signals to the crowd-
-and the Hostess flashes her I paid way too much for these teeth! smile.
“Heeeeeello, and welcome to We’ve! Got! History!” The audience chants along with her and erupts into applause, right on cue.
“I’m Jennifer Lowton, your ever curious host, and today on the show, well, have I certainly got something for you! A woman who definitely has history, the ever-glowing: Eleanor of Aquitaaaaaaine!”
The cameras turn as Eleanor strides out, long steps in time with the introductory music. Her cold, set face tramples the mixed Booooo!’s and Wooooo!’s, and she sits herself on a red, cushioned chair, adjusting her dress as she does so.
“Now,” our illustrious hostess continues once the crowd quietens. “Eleanor! Quite the history you’ve got here…”
Jennifer pretends to consult her notes that aren’t really notes at all. Just her shopping list that she was writing right before the cameras went live.
“Married… divorced… married again… a rebellion… a Crusade… you’re almost as bad as me!” she laughs to herself. The CREW shirt quickly commands the audience to laugh. She taps her ringless finger against the plush, red material of her chair.
“Yes, well… tell us about this first husband of yours. What’s his name? What does he do? What is the history?!”
Eleanor rearranges herself in her seat, puts her left leg over the right. “Louis. Louis the VII, I might add. The King of France, but he didn’t do a whole lot anything, really, if you know what I mean.”
Jennifer gives a knowing smile towards the audience. “In the bedroom area, you mean?”
“In the ruling area! The man, would you believe it, he did nothing to expand his territory, nothing to expand his rule; he didn’t even own half of France, and he was the King of France! The most useful thing he did was go on a Crusade, and even that failed!”
“A Crusaaaaade, you say? I’m ever so curious…” she glances at her notes, wishes they had something more useful than a list of PG Tips, avocado, and lemon juice. “Do tell us about this Crusade.”
“He dragged me on it, would you believe it? On his silly journey to save the Holy Lands. I would have been a better leader than that fool, not that I could do anything about it. I am just a woman.”
The men in the audience laugh, and their wives hit them on the leg.
“Oh! But I’ll tell you what was good; my uncle was there, in Outremer, Roger of Toulouse. Old Roger, now he’s from where I live! The good lands of Southern France, where we speak the good language of Occitan. Ohhhh, it was good to be able to speak to someone in my language.”
“But things didn’t go all to plan did they, El? Can I call you El?”
“Eleanor. And no. Louis saw Roger and I talking, and accused me of cheating on him!”
The audience gasp.
“I didn’t, of course.”
A few sceptical Mmmmm, suuuuuure’s come from the audience.
“He was just jealous because he couldn’t understand us, the utter fool. He never did bother to learn Occitan, despite a good chunk of his Kingdom speaking it!”
Jennifer’s hand was hovering near her mouth in fake shock. “What ever did you do?”
“Left him as soon as we got back to Paris!”
“Damn right, girl! We can applaud that, can’t we ladies?!”
More enthusiastic applaud is heard, directing by the balding CREW man.
“Now, this husband of yours, Louis. He had a few enemies didn’t he? A certain… King of England?”
Eleanor re-crossed her legs again and picked up her wine glass. The image proclaimed power, dignity, supremacy.
“Oh, yes. King Henry II of England. Henry held a lot of French lands, and Louis was not happy about it.”
Jennifer gave a smile. The kind of smile that, when directed at you, reveals a secret only you are aware of.
“Did you know Henry well?”
Eleanor sips her red wine, a colour that compliments the red rubies on her crown.
“I married him.”
“Did she just say-”
Jennifer pauses for the audience, and drinks up her own wine, just as she was drinking up all the views she’d be getting from this interview. Or maybe she wasn’t pausing for the audience. Maybe she was pausing to considering what plastic surgery she was going to get next with all the revenue from this episode.
“So, you married your now ex-husband’s worst rival?”
“That would be correct.”
“Oooooh, El, you slippery lady!” She looks backstage. “I think we need some more wine, here! Now, El-”
“-You and Louis couldn’t have sons, could you?” She continues speaking with a wave of her hand before Eleanor could jump in. “Which must be pretty vital for a King. Needing an heir, and all… So just how many sons did you have with your second husband, Henry?”
“Foooouuuuur! Louis must have been livid!”
“I assume livid is the word, yes.”
“But your sons didn’t quite like their father did they, El?”
“Henry always tried to keep power from them. Didn’t want them becoming stronger than he was. It was rather unfair, especially on my poor Richard.”
“So what did they do about this?”
Jennifer smiled her thanks at the CREW member who had brought in more drinks. She could say speeches with a smile, this one.
Eleanor accepts a second glass of wine with a curt nod.
“I told them to rebel against their father.”
Timed to perfection, Jennifer, mid-sip, chokes on her wine in shock.
“Let me get this straight. You told your own sons, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, to rebel against their own father, your husband?”
The crowd was in silent shock. The CREW member, totally enveloped in the History! of the situation completely forgot to get the audience to react.
“But Eleanor, where did you stand in all of this?”
“With my sons.”
“But where did any of you get the power to rebel?!”
“We went to Louis VII of France.”
The calls of, “Whore!” and, “Slut!” got mixed in with the applause from the members finding this situation shockingly hilarious.
“So, you rebelled against your husband, with your sons, against your ex-husband, who was your current husband’s biggest enemy? I can already see this trending on Twitter.”
“Trending on what?”
“Oh, I’d love to hear how this one turns out! Wouldn’t you, loving audience?”
“Who even is she?!”
“Well,” Eleanor takes off her crown. “It failed.”
“Noooooo!” gasped Jennifer, clutching her wine glass with the lipstick stain on it.
“What on earth happened next?”
“Henry imprisoned me, like a cattle, until the day of his death. And helped himself to my money to repay his debts, and fund a few monasteries while he was at it.”
“Until the day of his death… you mean… you outlived him?”
Some people in the audience Woop!
“Eleanor of Aquitaine: married twice, to two men who despised each other, partook in a Crusade, a rebellion, survived imprisonment, and outlasted both of her ex-husbands?! Well, my beauties, that’s Quite! A! History!”
Again, the audience joined in chanting the title. Well, those that had recovered from the whole ordeal.
“-that I don’t think will ever be surpassed on this show! Even more controversial than when Genghis Khan was on!”
Groans of agreement came from the audience.
“Tune in next time to We’ve! Got! History! and find out just why Vincent Van Gogh likes to eat paint so much! Ta ta, lovelies!”
The CREW member signals applause, and Jennifer, somewhat reluctantly, shakes Eleanor’s hand and smiles a goodbye at the camera. The lights turn off.
We, as a society, are fundamentally awful at talking about mental health. As soon as the topic comes up we avoid it like the plague—That’s harmful. That silence can be deadly, so it’s about time we break it and scream from the rooftops about mental health because it should not be ignored.
There is an enormous stigma surrounding mental health that needs to be challenged. Young people suffering from mental illness are dismissed because they’re “teenagers.” Women are dismissed because they’re “emotional.” Men are dismissed because it’s not “manly.” This stigma is damaging and needs to be erased— and this can be done by talking about mental health issues.
One quarter of the population of the UK will experience a mental illness at least one point in their lives. The stigma that surrounds mental health causes the subject to become taboo, which leads to people being too scared to speak out. Being trapped in your own mind is terrifying. Having someone to talk to is vital, otherwise it leads to a build-up of negative emotions that, one day, will just explode out of you.
Imagine a river in the rain. At first, the water level rises slowly; nothing too drastic, but different to the usual. The more it rains, the worse it gets. There’s a storm coming, and there is only so much rain the river can hold. It keeps raining and raining and raining and then— the river overflows.
That’s what it’s like to suffer silently through mental illness. Overtime, it floods uncontrollably out of you.
And to those saying: “It’s all in your head.” Well, yes. It’s a mental illness. It affects our brains and surprise surprise; our brains are in our heads. Does this make it any less serious? No. Should it be treated as seriously as physical health? Yes.
As author Matt Haig once said: “Mental health is physical health. Bodies and minds interact.”
Mental illness is not infectious. It’s not contagious. It shouldn’t be treated any differently to physical health. If I need a sick day because my brain simply cannot cope with life that day then I should be able to take a day off without any shame or guilt— just as I would be able to do if I was physically unwell. By talking about mental health, we can help to make people realise that it is, in fact, equally as important as physical health, and is just as serious an issue.
Anxiety and depression are both momentous in terms of how they affect people: 5.9 people in 100 suffer from anxiety and 3.3 in 100 suffer from depression, with a horrendous number of 20.16 in 100 people experiencing suicidal thoughts. These are the most commonly talked about and recognised mental illnesses, but there are, of course, other mental illnesses that are hardly ever talked about that need to be talked about and understood by more people.
Nearly as many people suffer from PTSD as they do anxiety, with studies showing that 4.4 in 100 people are at one point affected by it. So why do we only tend to focus on depression and anxiety? Just as many people suffer from OCD, bipolar disorder, anorexia, BED, and so many more mental illnesses that to focus primarily on only two issues is ignorant of us. Ignoring other mental illnesses causes people with those issues to feel alienated within society. By talking about a larger variety of mental health issues we can stop people from feeling isolated. We can help more people. We can improve lives.
I know, reading this, you may not suffer from a mental illness, but I can bet a friend, family member, or classmate does. So show them that they aren’t alone. I don’t mean walk up to them and yell about their struggles, but don’t alienate them for struggling. Attempt to understand what they’re going through and try to help them.
Sometimes, people just need someone to talk to.
Don’t get me wrong— it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to be able to fix their life, but it’s good to know someone is there who loves and supports you while you learn to fix it for yourself. Everyone needs someone to believe in you. Quite simply: it’s encouraging to know there is someone who cares and who listens.
I always thought there was strength in staying silent. But there’s not. Yes, it’s scary to put your thoughts out there, but it’s also so, so much stronger to speak up.
So be strong.
Keep the talk about mental health alive.