British author Matt Haig is delightfully unsnobbish about what he writes. His recent novels for adults have fallen into that space between ‘general fiction’ and ‘speculative fiction’, with The Humans and How To Stop Time featuring otherworldly elements while also casting a sharp eye on modern society. His children’s fiction – particularly a gorgeous trilogy focusing on the boy who became Santa – feels classic already. And his non-fiction – oh boy.
For many readers, Haig is best known as the author of Reasons to Stay Alive, an account of his own experiences with depression and anxiety that became a bestseller. If you are in any way engaged with social media, chances are you’ll have seen a quote from it, credited or otherwise: “How to stop time: kiss. / How to travel in time: read. / How to escape time: music. / How to feel time: write. / How to release time: breathe.”
Notes on a Nervous Planet is a follow-up to this account of what it means to be mentally ill in a society often indifferent to such suffering, particularly such suffering in men (in both his books and his social media, Haig is fiercely conscious of the dangers of telling men to ‘man up’ rather than to seek help and/or accept their vulnerability). Like Reasons To Stay Alive, it balances autobiographical chapters with research and straight-up narrative with lists; one section reminds us seven times in a row not to compare ourselves to others.
Haig’s thesis is this: even though mental health issues have always existed, our current world facilitates and even encourages them to a huge extent, particularly anxiety. We live in a world where our news is delivered to us 24/7 – as Haig puts it, “we live in a 24-hour society but not in 24-hour bodies” – and to not keep up with it is shameful; none of us get enough sleep but despite medical advice to the contrary, we wear this as a badge of pride. Our smartphones make us constantly available, which means we never switch off – and we know this already, but we need to hear it over and over before it properly sinks in.
That Haig freely admits his own struggles with constant-connectivity makes this a much more relatable read; he knows damn well that we find it hard to ‘switch off’ and that we may be socially penalised for doing so. He knows what it is to be hounded on Twitter, to be determined to set the record straight, to lose hours to online arguments with strangers that are on the one hand ridiculous and on the other can feel essential, because so much of our lives are conducted over these wires and what’s ‘on the record’ matters.
He also knows how these encounters creep inside his head, and how the nature of our modern world impacts on our brains. Mental illness is a complex thing but absolutely shaped by society and historical context – whether this is about how it manifests or the prevalence of certain conditions. Our modern world taps on the skulls of those prone to certain mental health conditions, particularly anxiety and depression, and nurtures the illness (and Haig addresses this without simplifying; never suggesting that we are only ill due to modernity).
This is a book that reassures and empathises without getting disgustingly sappy; a book that may sometimes reference yoga but also knows that at the worst times, nothing works except waiting out the pain. Haig’s capacity for empathy, so evident in his fiction, spills out onto the page; we know he gets it.
Like, he really gets it. Even when it’s bad. Properly bad.
For readers of mental-health-themed non-fiction, this is a rarity to be appreciated and celebrated.