When author Matt Haig’s mental health hit rock bottom, he struggled to leave the house. He tells Stylist how his partner’s support was a light in the darkness.
The thing you don’t realise when you fall for the love of your life at the age of 19 is how much you will change. How many different people you will both evolve into, and how many curve balls life will hurl at you.
Back when my partner Andrea and I got together, if we had an argument it was because I wanted to stay out dancing all night or have one more beer. I always wanted to be spending money, to be active, to be doing anything at any time of day. I couldn’t settle.
I should have seen that in itself as a warning sign. But I didn’t.
Then, aged 24, I became a different person in the space of a day. I became someone who couldn’t even go to the corner shop for my customary milk and Marmite provisions without having a panic attack, let alone go to a nightclub. I had a nervous breakdown. I fell into a pit. A pit of panic disorder and depression and suicidal thoughts. A pit so deep it would take me months – years, actually – to climb out.
Andrea and I had been together for five years when I got ill. When you’re 24, five years feels like a lifelong marriage, like you’ve been through everything together. Then we started going through something else. I was in pain, a total all-encompassing pain, that I found difficult to articulate or understand. I couldn’t listen to pop music for two years, only Classic FM at a low volume. Everything else was too stimulating. I had bad separation anxiety, so I felt worse whenever I wasn’t with Andrea. That was really difficult for her. Even though she hadn’t been the most party-orientated person, she still wanted to go out. It was a total 180° on my life, and on hers too.
We were ridiculously close at university, a joke fortress of a couple who created a moat around each other in order to stay together through our degrees. Our lives were massively intertwined, so when I crashed, her life hit the brakes too and it was very tough.
When we left university we had a lot of debt, but my depression was so severe, I couldn’t go out to work. Andrea had always been the more practical one, the one with the business degree. She planned to have a career in London. Then, suddenly, we needed to rethink everything because of my illness. She decided that, however we earned money, we’d need to do it from home. My separation anxiety was so bad, she decided it was impractical for her to work in an office as I’d be calling her at work.
So we set up a small PR company in Leeds. We had some music industry contacts from working in Ibiza, where we’d lived for three summers during our student years. Needless to say, Andrea was the driving force. I wasn’t up to much apart from writing press releases.
I was a nightmare boyfriend at that time. I was suffering from acute agoraphobia, anxiety and depression, and expressed suicidal thoughts to her quite frequently. It’s the thing I feel most guilty about. Even though, rationally, I know what I was feeling couldn’t be helped, I think the burden was immense. She sees it differently. She thinks we became closer as a couple, which is true – but it must have been hard in her 20s, holding my trembling hand in the supermarket and protecting me from the expectations and questions of friends and relatives.
Life changes when one person in a partnership has mental health issues. I can talk about me. I can talk about Andrea and me. But I cannot talk for every person in every relationship. Since I wrote Reasons To Stay Alive in 2015, people often say I’ve opened up the conversation on male mental health. It’s a bit hyperbolic and not that reflective of the readers I interact with. I think around 80% of my social media following is made up of women, and when I do an event the room is about three-quarters female.
Here’s a very real thing that happened to me on social media last week: a woman contacted me and said her husband likes my books and what I post online about mental health, but refuses to follow me on Instagram or Twitter. He will not follow me because he’s scared someone might notice; he thinks being seen to follow me will ‘out’ him as someone with depression.
Men are scared and we are conditioned not to show anything that might be perceived as ‘weakness’. We’re starting to have better conversations about mental health, but when you break it down people still find it hard to talk about it on an individual level – especially men, who seem to find it hardest.
Men are privileged, which translates socially and economically. But the flipside of that is this huge expectation to be a breadwinner. To be a Spartan warrior. To be this strong, ridiculous cartoon of manhood. Us men… so many of us have fenced ourselves in emotionally. We are not allowed to be vulnerable and we aren’t that in tune with our emotions.
When I was younger, I don’t believe I was really thinking about the stigma of mental health, but I did have a very limited vocabulary with which to discuss how I was feeling. So if the women in these men’s lives are willing to come forward, then at least I’ve helped them open a window into their partner’s feelings.
I do feel, strongly, that the responsibility for fixing men shouldn’t fall to women by default. But in most serious relationships, and not just heterosexual ones, a partner is the obvious person to talk to first. They are there on the frontline. With depression you can be quiet, you can retreat and want to push people away, and the person you’re in a relationship with will feel those things first.
The hardest question – and it’s the question I’m asked the most – is what advice Andrea and I would give to people who are in similar situations. It’s difficult. Relationships are subjective. For me, the most helpful thing Andrea did was listen. She was someone I didn’t have to wear a mask in front of. Whatever I was feeling, I would be able to say it to Andrea. She wasn’t trained in mental health care, she was my girlfriend. It wasn’t necessarily about her saying the right thing. It was about coming from a position of care and non-judgement.
But for people who are in her position, and for her at the time, it’s important to realise that there are things you just can’t do. After three years, I became better. Not totally better; I have dips, but they pale next to the gratitude and appreciation I have for being alive. But Andrea couldn’t magically make that happen. Partners need to know that the other person is not 100% their responsibility. You can be there and you can be supportive. But there isn’t a magic wand to wave.
In a strange way, it can be tougher when you start to get better. When I was at my worst, things were much clearer. There were no question marks about the fact I was ill. I couldn’t leave the house. Andrea could feel my erratic heart rate, she could see my eyes wide with terror, she could feel my sweaty palms pulsating, she could sense my fear and nausea and lethargy and despair.
So much depends on the nature of a particular relationship, but it can be incredibly hard for a partner to work out where the personality ends and the condition begins. You don’t know whether someone is just being bloody difficult or whether it’s part of a condition they can’t control.
I hope the next generation find more people to be themselves with and have to wear fewer masks. Right now, we are still fighting the stigma around mental health. Going to the doctor with a leg pain is easy, it doesn’t make you feel like you are questioning your true self. But if you want to kill yourself, then it feels as if it’s much more about you as a person.
We are getting better. We know the right things to say, but it will take time. I have hope and faith for the boys and girls growing up now. I think they’ll be a bit fluid in what they accept they can feel and what they can do about it.
In the end we have love. Love. Love. Love. I’ve now been with Andrea for more of my life than not. I think what we’ve been through has made us closer, but it’s not the route we would have chosen. Love is having someone who is true and real and loves you whatever you look like or whatever you do. You know it’s love when it doesn’t come with a thousand conditions or footnotes, it’s just there. It’s really about freedom, love. A proper relationship shouldn’t confine you or control you, it should just allow you to be yourself.
How do we help end the male mental health crisis?
Simon Gunning, CEO of CALM, says: “We need to challenge conventions of masculinity. Why does our society say men have to be strong and silent? A young boy will openly say he loves his best friend but a teenager will feel awkward because he’s already feeling the constraints of society on how he’s expected to behave. Question assumptions, challenge norms and encourage others to express themselves. It’s a powerful thing. It brings so much relief and joy.”
CALM runs a free confidential helpline 5pm-midnight; call 0800 585 858 or visit thecalmzone.net
A spokesperson from Samaritans says: “People worry that they’ll make a problem worse if they talk about it, but it’s usually a relief for everyone involved to be honest and discuss it. Start with a question like, ‘You seem a bit down, how are you feeling?’ Ask open questions and be encouraging. Don’t interrupt or try to offer solutions. Bear in mind it may take several attempts before a person is ready to open up.”
Samaritans offers free confidential support around the clock; call 116 123 or visit samaritans.org
Dr Phil Cooper MBE, nurse consultant and co-founder of State Of Mind Sport, says: “I work in the NHS and know men don’t volunteer to come into a mental health service on their own. But being part of a group like a sports club where people share their ups and downs can help them manage mental health issues. In a dressing room there’s a camaraderie. Blokes will give each other stick but they’ll also be really supportive. I help run mental fitness sessions in sports clubs and they’re rammed every week. It’s a place where men feel comfortable enough to speak up.”
Stylist’s guest editor Adwoa says:
I’ve been thinking a lot about male mental health and how we can help men to be more vocal about their needs and how they feel – and who better to explore this than Matt Haig?
We’re celebrating Stylist’s 10th birthday in 2019 – and to honour the occasion, we’ve asked 10 of our favourite women to guest edit an issue of the magazine. Adwoa Aboah is our second star guest editor; see everything from her special issue here.
Notes On A Nervous Planet by Matt Haig (£9.99, Canongate) is out now
Images: Getty, Unsplash, courtesy Matt Haig