I know of Aaron Gillies through his Technically Ron Twitter account, with its shrewd observations on the absurdity of politics and life, so I was keen to read this.
How to Survive the End of the World offers a painfully honest and sometimes funny account of his experience of major anxiety – how it feels to experience it, the problems it has caused him, the lengths he has gone to in avoiding talking about it, and what happened when he finally asked for help. He also offers some advice on the coping strategies that have worked for him.
This is the strongest part of the book. People who have similar conditions have found it reassuring (though he is careful to point out that everyone’s experience is different). People who do not may learn something and be more empathetic.
I felt the book was on less firm ground when he reached beyond his own experience. I wasn’t sure that the overviews he gave of the different treatments would make sense to me if I didn’t already know about them. There are some odd interjections from celebrities at various points in the text which don’t add much. It’s almost as it someone from his publisher’s riffled through their contacts and told him to call these people and get something quotable over lunch.
The best of the interventions isn’t from a celebrity but from a group of young people with mental health problems who speak very clearly and movingly about their conditions. Gillies does a very good takedown of the current media obsession with blaming social media for everything from gang violence to children not learning musical instruments in schools. He points out that social media also enables people who feel isolated and unable to talk about their condition to find likeminded people and share experiences.
There is a narrative out there that we don’t talk about mental health problems enough. It is usually expressed by a celebrity talking at length about their mental health problems (often while promoting their latest album/film/book/reality show appearance). So on one level it seems we do nothing but talk about it. But on the other, we really don’t. It’s a lot easier to feel compassion for the sad but glamorous actor whose work you so admire than it is for Bob from Finance who is terse in emails and never laughs at your jokes. Bob from Finance might actually want something from you.
Gillies does not underestimate the negativity that people can experience (after all, Twitter) but I felt he did kind of suggest that if we only talked about it, things would be better. What if it isn’t? What if you open up to friends and family and are told you think too much or you overreact or you just get an exasperated rolling of the eyes?
What if you do reach out to a doctor? At a time when children feel they have to make a suicide attempt to get a referral for specialist help, or when people with eating disorders are told they’re not thin enough for treatment, how will it feel when you finally get up the courage to ask for help and are told that sorry, we can’t help with that, but you can join this waiting list?
It feels like this book is trying to draw in lots of disparate things – memoir, self-help and a wider overview of mental health in society. It didn’t always succeed but if you’re looking to understand more about living with anxiety (including your own) it’s a good place to start .
I received a copy of How to Survive the End of the World from the publisher via Netgalley.
View How to Survive the End of the World on Goodreads
Want to read more? Try this thought-provoking piece on the mental health ‘conversation’ from Hannah Jane Parkinson in The Guardian.