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The Comfort Book(3)
Author: Matt Haig

   The trouble was that I had a very binary view of things. I thought you were either well or ill, sane or insane, and once I was diagnosed with depression I felt I had been exiled to a new land, like Napoleon, and that there would be no escape back to the world I had known.

   And in one sense I was right. I never really went back. I went forward. Because that is what happens, whether we try for it or not, we move forward, through time, simply by staying alive. And slowly our experiences change. I, for instance, discovered little moments of happiness or humor within despair. I realized things weren’t always one thing or another thing. They were sometimes both.

   And as soon as we notice all that space inside us, we have a new perspective. Yes, there is room for a lot of pain, but there is room for other things too. And indeed, pain might be a total asshole, but it can inadvertently show us how much space we have inside. It can even expand that space. And enable us to experience the equivalent quantity of joy or hope or love or contentment at some future point in time.

   So, in other words, it is important to always realize our own vastness. Our own rooms. We are multiplexes of possibility.



The subject in the sentence

   And yes, we might feel that others are judging our worth via metrics like income and follower counts and weight and chest measurements and all the rest of it, but always remember we are more than can be measured. We are life itself. We aren’t the narrow band of feelings in a single moment. We are the vessel that could contain any feeling. We are the subject in the sentence. We are more than the sum of our achievements. We are more than the feelings we witness. We are the infinity that remains when you subtract them.



To remember during the bad days

   It won’t last.

   You have felt other things. You will feel other things again.

   Emotions are like weather. They change and shift. Clouds can seem as still as stone. We look at them and hardly notice a change at all. And yet they always move.

   The worst part of any experience is the part where you feel like you can’t take it anymore. So, if you feel like you can’t take it anymore, the chances are you are already at the worst point. The only feelings you have left to experience are better than this one.

   You are still here. And that is everything.



For when you reach rock bottom

   You have survived everything you have been through, and you will survive this too. Stay for the person you will become. You are more than a bad day, or week, or month, or year, or even decade. You are a future of multifarious possibility. You are another self at a point in future time looking back in gratitude that this lost and former you held on. Stay.




   The best thing about rock bottom is the rock part. You discover the solid bit of you. The bit that can’t be broken down further. The thing that you might sentimentally call a soul. At our lowest we find the solid ground of our foundation. And we can build ourselves anew.



Ten books that helped my mind

              Letters to a Young Poet—Rainer Maria Rilke


          Poems—Emily Dickinson


          Henry David Thoreau’s journal


          When Things Fall Apart—Pema Chödrön


          The House at Pooh Corner—A. A. Milne


          Bird by Bird—Anne Lamott


          Meditations—Marcus Aurelius


          Tao Te Ching—Laozi


          Serious Concerns—Wendy Cope


          Dream Work—Mary Oliver




   At the university, doing my master’s degree in English Literature, I continually felt stupid, and the reason for this was that I had chosen a module called “Critical Theory.” This involved reading a lot of French postmodern and post-structuralist philosophy, which even when translated into English contained so many apparently deliberately and playfully obscure sentences that I had to stare at each one for about half an hour to even begin to fathom it. In particular I studied just enough to know that there is always a gap between the signifier and the signified. The word “dog” is not a dog. The word “water” is not water. A painting of a pipe is not a pipe. TV footage of a war is not a war. On the whole, these theories came across as really complicated and obtuse ways to state the depressingly obvious: we are always grasping after a meaning we can never quite reach.

   But when I became ill, they took on a broader meaning. I felt like a walking signifier, signifying a person I could never quite be. There was a gap between what I looked like and what I felt like. And the only way to bridge that gap was by talking and writing about what was going on inside me. And yes, in the philosophical sense, words are never quite the thing they describe, but that is also their use. They can help externalize internal things. The moment we try and turn a thought into words we place it into a shared world. This shared world we call “language.” Once we take our personal unseen experiences and make them seen, we help others, and even ourselves, to understand what we are going through. What we say aloud can never quite capture what we feel inside, but that is almost the point.

   Words don’t capture, they release.



Words (two)

   So, yes.

   Words are important.

   Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words can comfort.

   There was a time when I couldn’t speak.

   There was a time when my depression was so heavy my tongue wouldn’t move. A time when the distance between the open gate of my mouth and the storm of my mind seemed too far.

   I could manage monosyllables, sometimes.

   I could nod. I could mumble. But I sounded as if I were in slow motion. Underwater.

   I was lost.

   To want to speak was to want to live. And in those depths I wanted neither. I just wanted to want, if that makes sense.

   I remembered reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at school. I remember reading about how, as a child, she had stopped talking for five years after suffering the most horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. When the man was killed by her uncles, eight-year-old Maya felt such guilt for his death that she stopped talking, becoming effectively mute for years. It was through a family friend and teacher, Bertha Flowers, that Maya was exposed to great writers. She read Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens and Shakespeare and the poets Georgia Douglas Johnson and Frances Harper. Slowly, through reading and learning, Maya found her voice again, and never let it go. By the late 1960s this mute girl had become one of the key voices of the civil rights movement. A voice that not only spoke for herself, but for millions of people facing racial discrimination.

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