Reasons to stay alive

I saw this message from author Matt Haig on Twitter last weekend and it affected me so much I couldn’t write about it at the time.

Twenty years ago, when he was in his twenties, Matt tried to take his own life. He didn’t succeed, but the attempt left him severely ill as he summarises in that tweet. He wrote about his crisis in his book Reasons To Stay Alive, from which I have borrowed the title of this post.

Why did this message affect me so much? It’s largely because the words he uses to describe his condition also exactly describe what I was like seven years ago when I was admitted to an acute ward in a psychiatric hospital. I wasn’t exactly suicidal, just so exhausted that I didn’t really care what happened next. I was however put on a kind of `suicide watch’, the reason for this being that, apparently, even while sedated, I kept trying to pull the tube out of my arm. I was being fed via a drip because I was ‘Nil by Mouth’ by virtue of uncontrollable vomiting. I guess the doctors thought I was trying to sabotage myself, but I wasn’t. Not consciously anyway. I think it was probably just irritating me. In fact I don’t remember doing it at all, but that period is very much a blur altogether. Anyway, I then found myself in physical restraints so I couldn’t move my arms to stop me doing that.

Eventually I was deemed well enough to move to a general ward and shortly after that I was discharged (with follow-up counselling and medication).

Experiences like that – which I sincerely hope none of you reading this ever have to go through – make you feel very isolated because you are lost inside your own head and body. Knowing that other people go through similar things, and not only survive but prosper, helps a lot. You feel a bit less of an outlier. Of course I’ll never appear on stage at the National Theatre, but although the intervening years haven’t exactly been plain sailing, the last seven have brought far more positives than negatives.

It’s hard to explain why Matt’s message had such a resonance. His experience was clearly far worse than mine, but when I was discharged from hospital the doctors made it very clear just how ill I had been, and that if there was any recurrence I should get help as soon as possible. As well as writing about it on this blog, I did a piece for Time to Change Wales, encouraging people to ask for help if they need it.

Anyway, this brings me to the point of this sermon. Yesterday I received this by email:

It’s from Niteline, an organisation whose volunteers offer students free confidential counselling, and it came with a suggestion (which I will follow) that I should share it with students before and after my lectures. I’m not sure how many students will read this blog, but I thought I would share it here too. If it encourages just one person who is struggling to find someone to talk to then it’s worth it.

4 Responses to “Reasons to stay alive”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m so glad you came through it, Peter.

  2. Thank you, Peter. Having gone through a similar although not quite as intense experience as you did, I very much appreciate your efforts to make this more public. Too many people do not understand depression and anxiety. I didn’t until it happened to me a few years ago and am still dealing with it and have to accept it’s not going to go away. It’s not a weakness, in fact, the opposite, but try telling that to your boss or a potential employer in the US.

  3. How did you cope with the physical restraint, Peter? Your account makes it sound like you were sufficiently out of it that it was only an incidental irritant, in the scheme of things? My only brush (so far…) with physical restraint was as a child, when I suffered from regular bouts of intense pain due to the high arches in my feet. I sometimes had to put myself through some quite bizarre contortions to reduce the pain, which contributed to my reputation as something of an oddball at school. On an otherwise unremarkable day in the early to mid 70s I was taken to Blackburn Infirmary and strapped to a table, on my back, which is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. The doctor then injected what I presume was a muscle relaxant into the soles of my feet, with what seemed to a small boy to be a monstrously large needle. My parents do not remember this episode, and refuse to accept that they would have authorised such a treatment, but it is not something one easily forgets. My high arches were cured, by the way, never troubling me again, so on the whole I’m glad they went to the bother.

    I also follow Matt, for the same reason, despite never having suffered quite such terrible anxiety or depression; I’m so glad the pair of you came through.

    • The restraints were not as bad as you might imagine: basically a strap that went across my body and was fixed to the sides of the bed to stop my lower arms moving. My legs and ankles weren’t restrained. I wouldn’t say it was comfortable, but it wasn’t severe or painful. I wasn’t (apparently) being very forceful so more severe restraints weren’t used.

      There’s quite a lot of controversy about the use of physical restraints in psychiatric institutions, incidentally, with what seems to be a general feeling that they are used excessively.

      I should say that the strong sedatives used are also a form of restraint. Looking back, though, I think the decision to sedate me was very sensible and proportionate.

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