Love hurts – but so does mental illness

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“Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiii mi corazonnnnn…” crooned the wavering falsetto – and as the radio gleefully crackled and spat in the corner of the cafe I grimaced and slid a handful of coins across the coffee-stained table. The year was 2007, the location Honduras, Central America and, once again, I had lost the bet.

The game of chance my little travelling gang had been enjoying so frequently was simple – how many seconds into a song played on local radio would the singer last before uttering the word ‘corazon’. Heart. In this instance it was approximately seven – and although my Spanish was limited, even I could pick up on the torrent of grief and woeful tale of spurned love that followed. Latin Americans don’t take affairs of the heart lightly.

Back in England it was business as usual, and songs on the radio took on a less desolate timbre. But when those sad melodies crept onto the airwaves there it was, time and time again, that same word once more. Heart. And every melancholy tune cataloguing the destruction of this essential organ seemed to be about one thing and one thing only – the woes of amour gone wrong. I felt like the world was on the edge of despair and it was all down to romance.

But, of course, it’s not just the romantic catastrophes that can tear you in two. Anyone with experience of chronic depression and anxiety will know how difficult dating or maintaining romantic relationships can be when you’re trying to keep the black dog on its leash. But life without romance still holds its fair share of heartache. Try telling that to Taylor Swift, I know.

I haven’t had much opportunity to experience tragedies of the heart of late; thanks to my illness my love-life has been barren as the Kalahari. However having spent the last four to five years on-and-off very ill and debilitated, I’ve experienced a different kind of loss – that of a large chunk of my twenties. While I should be in the prime of my youth – out adventuring, building a career, experimenting, humping everything with a pulse, I’ve had to watch life pass me by while an avalanche of self doubt, misery, anxiety and chronic pain and exhaustion prevents me from really connecting with the world around me. It makes me unbelievably sad. And I mourn the loss of these opportunities far more than I probably should.

Forget catching Dave snogging another bimbo at the bus stop, looking back on a recent life that’s resembled a rolling desert of despair, and all that’s been wasted, is truly heart-breaking. As if depression and exhaustion aren’t enough to deal with on their own, it’s common for a sufferer to feel mournful and traumatised even when they’re in recovery. An illness like that blows a devastating hole through life as you know it, and that’s hard to get over.

At least in the aftermath of a tragedy or relationship break-down you can off-set some of the pain you feel against the good times once shared with the lover you’ve parted with, or the loved one that’s departed this world. Mental illness presents a double edged sword – it can cause you insurmountable grief for seemingly no reason.

I think it’s this lack of logic and sense driving the arrival of depression in people’s lives that can prevent them from appropriately grieving for what they’ve been through, and what they’ve lost. But grieve you should. As with any traumatic event in life, whether romantically tragic or not, I think you have to spend some time wading through misery in its aftermath – crying out the tears that are trapped in your body – to get to the other side.

If this means weeping into a Doritos packet while listening to Michael Bolton, then so be it. Shriek, rant and rail, sob, claw at the walls – do what you must to feel what you need to feel when depression has stormed in and out of your life.

Then when the time is right you can move on. And maybe get onto Taylor Swift about changing the record, literally.

 

Fleeing the comfort zone

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Watching the rows of silver heads bobbing up and down in front of me as the little orange bus hurtles over speed bumps, I have to stifle snorts of laughter. It’s half two on a Thursday afternoon in suburban Berkshire and I’m travelling into town solo on local transport in an endeavour to force myself out of my comfort zone. And I’m the only person on the bus without a freedom pass.

The road to depression recovery is long, meandering and bedecked with obstacles but mostly it’s just incredibly weird. For me the last year has comprised a lengthy detour from the 9-5 London life I once knew, and today it finds me sitting next to a pensioner named Sheila animatedly debating the perils of cheap haircuts. And I kind of liked it.

After vast expanses of time spent deep inside your own head fighting imaginary demons, you’re more than a little unfamiliar with the outside world. It’s like being five years old again but painfully socialised and self conscious while finding yourself navigating the world afresh without a hand to hold. You’re also acutely aware that most people your age don’t consider getting on a bus by yourself and striking up conversation with a stranger ‘massively brave’, like you do.

I’m fast learning that confidence is an infinitely bizarre concept and it seems that once smashed into a squillion pieces by mental illness, it has to be rebuilt slowly and carefully from the floorboards up. This means exposing myself bit by bit, through tiny baby steps, to things that stress me out. When my end goal is being able to fly to New York by myself, the journey begins with a six-minute bus journey that takes me less than a mile from my door. It’s no moonwalk but it’s enough of a giant leap for me and my delicate nervous system.

Once the bus journey doesn’t reduce me to a quivering shell of nerves, I can relax right? The work is done? Wrong. The next step in my cunning plan to conquering public transport and thus world domination is to put myself on longer, scarier journeys on my own. Trains, trams, boats. Further from home. Further out of my comfort zone. It’s a torturous, exhausting process and I hate it already – but because I don’t want to be trapped in an anxiety prison for the rest of my life, it has to be done.

Full recovery is learning by doing. I have to keep forcibly placing myself in situations ‘normal life’ would never have afforded me the sheer oddity of experiencing.

I’m the girl who travels one stop on the London Underground, only to cross over the platform and hop on a tube right back to where I started.

I now know exactly which brand of weirdo I can expect to stroll through a coffee shop door on a Monday morning when everyone else is at work, after forcing myself to sit still, read a book and drink nine cups of tea for three hours last week.

To do something useful with my time and force myself into the outside world I volunteer at a local toddler’s group once a week. I now know the essentials in the psychology of two to four-year-olds, and frequently find leftover bits of glitter down my trousers and wedged inside my shoes for days afterwards.

I now know that random conversations with little old ladies at the bus stop make me smile.

My daily life has become unrecognisable from what it once was when I took my mental health for granted. Obviously I know I’ll have to go back to ‘normal life’, and work, eventually. I want to. But it’s good to know that I can force myself into unfamiliar situations even if I don’t feel like it, and that they will surprise me.

Going through illness and depression has forced me to take life detours I never would have chosen if my days were more straightforward.

Routine only becomes boring when it’s repetitive. Making it routine to do something outside of your comfort zone each day opens a very unique window on the world and it’s something I won’t be stopping even when I’m fighting fit again.

Music to mope to

 

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“Stop wallowing!” “Lethargy breeds lethargy!” “Crying doesn’t help!”

If you’ve been through depression you might recognise some of these well intentioned but severely unhelpful platitudes. And while keeping your mind and body active is an integral part of battling the black dog, being told to stop ‘moping about’ when you’re feeling genuinely terrible is about as useful as instructing a plant not to grow towards the light.

Sometimes you just need to fester in your own misery a little. Roll around and get utterly disgusting in the filth of your own sadness and self-pity – then dust yourself off and get on with the day. Got a pounding headache? Stiff shoulders? Ringing ears? It could be your body’s way of telling you to release all that accumulated tension through a good old fashioned weep. It helps me, every time.

When I crave release through tears I like to listen to melancholy songs. Thinking about your favourite aardvark dying, or what life would be like if Hollyoaks was axed from TV just doesn’t do it for me – I need mournful, anguished crooning to send me into a watery abyss. Here are some of my favourite tracks to listen to when I need to get in touch with my inner sad – I hope you enjoy them, in a blubbery sort of way.

 

Al Green – How can you mend a broken heart?


Remember that bit in Notting Hill where Hugh Grant and his floppy hair are sad after Julia Roberts chooses her arsehole boyfriend over them? Cue lots of dark, dolorous shots of poor Hugh moping around London by himself, being sad, to the tune of Al Green. Which is just the perfect song to soundtrack the misery of unrequited love. “How can you mend a broken heart? How can you stop the rain from falling down?” You can’t, Al, you just bloody CAN’T. Sob.


Bonnie Raitt – I can’t make you love me


This song’s been covered so many times people are often surprised when they hear the original. It’s my favourite version anyway – romantically tragic, beautifully sung and a real tweaker of heartstrings.


John Martyn – May you never


Of all John Martyn’s down-tempo songs, this one reaches deep into my soul. It’s just so tender and full of love. And that guitar… Sigh.


Michael Bolton – I said I loved you but I lied


I didn’t say they were all respectable songs, did I? The song always manages to get me a bit emotional, but really I wanted to share this one for the music video. Ponies galloping on the beach, flames, EAGLES. Michael Bolton’s lustrous golden locks blowing in the wind while he does his Jesus-standing-on-a-big-rock pose. It’s magic.


Elliott Smith – Needle in the hay


Elliott Smith was a man who truly knew darkness and depression. You wouldn’t think it possible for this song to become more saturated with despair, unless you check out the Kermit the Frog cover…


Songs Ohia – Farewell transmission


This gently lilting song conjures up slowly meandering rivers and flickering moonlight. To me, anyway. And the lead singer, Jason Molina, tragically died last year after a long battle with alcoholism – making it all the more poignant.


Tony Rich Project – Nobody knows


There is no-one sadder than Tony Rich (is that his name?) in the known universe. That is all.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Swim and sleep (like a shark)


There’s something eerie and spine chilling about this song that has my tear ducts overflowing in no time. I think it’s just too beautiful for me to handle.


Regina Spektor – Somedays


I’m a sucker for a bit of melancholy piano and this is one of my Spektor favourites. I like to listen to this if I’ve had a particularly shit day and just need to revel in how truly rubbish it’s been, just for a little while.


The Dresden Dolls – The jeep song


I love this song more than words can say. The singer is haunted by the spectre of  a past love – in the form of his black jeep – and belts out fantastic lines like “I guess it’s just my stupid luck, that all of Boston drives the same black fucking truck”. We can all relate to feeling awful every time you see something that reminds you of an old flame, and this song’s the perfect distillation of that one very particular, uncomfortable emotion.


Robyn Hitchcock – End of time


Sadness tinged with hope, beauty touched with despair…it feels like I should be swaying with a glowing lighter in hand when this song plays. Perhaps it’s a bit weird to do that in my living room, but needs must…


Eva Cassidy – Songbird


The first few chords of this song kill me every time. The rest of it is pretty darn tear jerking too…