A letter to heartbreak – Maya Angelou, the light and the dark


I miss all my boyfriends. You’re not supposed to say that. But it’s true.

Despite all my best efforts to have as few as possible, I’ve had three serious ones in my life – ones who I could have seen myself marrying, if the time had been right.

For someone with such a terrible memory, I remember quite a bloody lot about all of them – almost as much as the one from seven years ago as the one from this year. And I miss a lot, too.

How warm I felt when driving around that one’s uncle’s New Zealand dairy farm, and the soaring elation of standing on top of one of the huge hills, with a view in all directions. How the other one’s neck smelled when you leaned in to kiss it. The bone-crushing panic of realising you weren’t going to see that one again for six months (New Zealand again). The overwhelming joy when that one told you they loved you, too.

How his just-opened eyes collected with sleep after a long, warm night next to you. How the skin on his knuckles felt when you brushed your thumb across them, or how that one used to like to hold hands with one little finger tucked inside your palm.

How you admired their ambition, how their hips looked when they walked, how the texture of his cardigan felt on your back, how the weave of that one’s jumper lay across his chest just so.

The weird phrases they used to say, the slang they used that no-one else did. The way he moved his hand when trying to make a point; the incredible, moving-mountains-type smile he used to crack at you when you made a joke.

The nicknames they gave you, the way they encouraged you in your plans, the way they used to breathe, how they used to listen. The things they liked you to do when no-one else was there, the slightly embarrassed look they gave you when you touched their face in public.

The feel of their hips against yours when they gave you a hug; the shy look they gave you as you walked down the train platform to meet them, the way they could really get into a debate without getting angry. The passion you shared for that song; the pain you felt for them when they were tired, or frustrated, or sad. How they took their coffee, the amazing things they could cook with eggs.

The ridiculous beauty of their stupid guitar playing, and the way their hair felt in your hand, and fell over their face. The way they drove the car, their reliability in texting you back, how they humoured your indecision over what to order in restaurants, how their eyes used to roll when you faffed around getting ready.

How full of hope and joy and yes, sometimes fear (because you knew it could all end without warning), you felt when looking at them. How lucky you felt.

The poisonous, metallic feeling at the bottom of your chest when you realise they’re gone and not coming back. Different every time. Startlingly familiar nonetheless.

And while the pain lessens, it never goes away. You never quite forget. The injuries simply multiply, softly, and without warning. Even telling yourself not to get too attached doesn’t quite work. They seep into your psyche like water into cracks in the road.

It’s like that incredible Maya Angelou phrase: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Even if I’ve forgotten more than I realise – the feelings, I will never forget.

You’re not supposed to say that. You’re supposed to move on each time; nuke the memories of the last one with excitement from the next. You’re supposed to get stronger – although why getting your heart smashed in over and over would make you stronger, I’m not entirely sure.

And yet. You can’t just carry on getting hurt over and over. You can’t just keep on letting the injuries of years past build and build until there are only holes where the fabric of your heart used to be.

Instead, it might help to try and collect the tatters and the patches, seeing them with compassion, for what they are, what they represent. All those different people. Those experiences. That love, that trust, that hope. The silence – literal and not ‒ after they leave.

The key is to not become cynical, and close your heart to everything, forever and ever. (I might do that temporarily, though. This isn’t a sodding self-harm manual.)

Because, well, I hate cynics. They suck the joy out of what is already difficult enough. The temptation is to be cynical. But the truly strong thing is to carry on sitting, walking, standing up, breathing, moving, laughing – and the hardest thing, trusting ‒ when all you want to do is give up; end it all.

The hardest thing about heartbreak or grief isn’t to get up after it just happened. It’s to keep on getting up, the day after that, and the week after that, and the month after that. And the bloody year.

A wise friend of mine recently said, heartache and grief feel like you’re carrying a heavy jar where your chest used to be. That jar was full of all the things you loved about that person (those people?) – but heartache makes it empty. No matter what you do, where you are, who you see, that jar feels empty. A hidden vessel, just beneath your ribs.

But slowly, surely, the jar starts to be refilled. I like to think of it like sand – coloured, beautiful, light-reflecting sand. With time, patience, compassion, and maybe a bit more time, random experiences tip a little more bright, silky sand into that previously-empty space.

Before you realise it, the jar isn’t quite so empty, and the sand and shells and glitter that used to make you you, start to come back. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway.

And I know for sure that you need light to make things shine.

Yes, the memories of past boyfriends are always there, dark shadows threatening to cloud your worst days and most difficult moments. Without warning, a memory will come back, threatening to cut off your breathing, a thousand times a day. On terrible days, the thoughts will cycle, over and over. But you keep breathing. You have to.

Because maybe, if the heart is a sheet slowly ripped through with holes, it makes sense to remember that without the holes, no light gets in.

Welcome to the inspirational bullshit club!

This week, the relatively-new young women’s website The Debrief published an article called “The Facebook Statuses That Are Giving You Emotional Contagion – Hit Unfollow Now”, by Stevie Martin (@5tevieM).

It struck a chord. Because I am the sixth status they highlighted. I am the “mate who posts OTT inspirational bullshit”. Yes.

And even though they (very nicely) put this bit under the “People you should never unfollow” section, I still sensed a hint of irritation (the words “OTT” and “bullshit” were a dead giveaway). Allow me to explain.

TheDebrief-bullshitLess than two months ago, my boyfriend broke up with me (that’s not it, bear with me).

Even writing that seems foolhardy; like some fatal admission of weakness. Surely, as a young, free, single woman I shouldn’t even acknowledge it – “he broke up with me”. I should write, “We broke up”, or “It just ran its course”, or “Meh, whatever, more fish in the sea, no biggie”.

Sometimes it feels like when your relationship breaks down, you’re expected to cry for a bit and then just go, “Too bad, his loss, move on”. I should be channelling Beyoncé, says the received feminist wisdom, thinking that if some guy I believed in and loved proves himself not to be worth my belief or love, then what else is there to do but pack up and move the fuck on? “Next”, as more than one of my friends has said, not unreasonably.

And yes, to some extent, that is how it feels, and there is a world of truth in it. Some days, I’m like, “Erm, [ex-boyfriend’s name] who?”

But actually, some days it’s more difficult. Because when all is said and done, the split was one-sided. So there we go.

Even after the initial shock of that person no longer being there (and worse, actively choosing to no longer be there), there’s still a lot of pieces to pick up, thoughts to banish or nurture, memories to temporarily block out, parts of your personality to box up that are no longer as needed or as relevant when you’re single, such as being more patient and understanding, or less selfish, or really good at that thing you did in bed (What? It’s true).

And sometimes, motivational slogans are the ONLY thing that gets me through. Same for song lyrics, or snippets of books. They’re the only thing running through my head reminding me to GET SOME PERSPECTIVE, or cheer the fuck up, or remember that life is good and love is out there and that I’m not alone.

And if that’s not your bag, then fine. If you have other ways to cheer yourself up, or prefer to chug through life in a miasma of cynicism and practicality because that’s what works for you, then go ahead. Honestly, I admire it. But it doesn’t work for me.

Despite my belief in rationality, calmness, lack of drama, realism, honesty and completely straight-talking (to the point where I’ve got into trouble) I ultimately can’t deal with too much reality in my own head. And I am not the type to escape into drugs or alcohol to get away from it (beyond a couple of G&Ts and Dairy Milks, anyway).

When you’re single after having not been, the reality is always there, knocking.

Reminding you of your shortcomings and things that aren’t going so right, that you could always sort of mask when you were with someone else, or that were compensated for because you had someone else to focus on.

Sometimes it’s as simple as wishing you could talk to them about whatever just happened, but you can’t. Sometimes it’s that profound feeling of loneliness that hits you, cold in the chest, for no real reason as soon as you step into a hot, packed train. Sometimes it’s the once-joyful memories that used to be shared, that pop uninvited into your head, and are now just evidence of the different paths you were travelling on all along, or that creeping feeling that you’re going to be alone for ever.

Or that raging anger at the fact that some people seemingly find a partner without too much hassle, while the rest of us keep getting our hearts smashed, as if we ACTUALLY LIKE being dysfunctional and heart-broken. You know, for giggles.

I can’t cope with all that shit alone (or other on-going crap, such as my parents’ not-always-great health, the state of my bank account, what the economy might do to my job prospects, whether I’ll ever afford my own place, or hell, even my middle-class guilt at caring about all that).

It makes me feel desperate, panicked and sad. I need my slogans, if you want to call them that. I need my collective wisdom in pithy, memorable sentences to remind me that others have felt similarly and survived (without going to bed for a month). I need the knowledge of crowds and the kind words of strangers.

I was all over this kind of inspirational shit when I started exercising. And I’m all over some other sorts right now.

And sometimes, I see things that are so helpful, and that feel so relevant to life in general, that I post them on Facebook and *gasp* SOMETIMES, on Twitter.

The bad ones are awful, and I hope I have the serenity to never post one.

The good ones help give me hope and power and thirst for life. And for that, I am grateful. And if I post one that pisses you off, then I’m sorry.

So yes, I am that “OTT inspirational bullshit” person. For anyone who hates this, you can just hide my posts or unfollow me. For anyone whose day might be just momentarily improved, once, or a few times after, then great.

Anyway, The Debrief said that you should never unfollow people like me, because, I quote: “it’ll be 4am, you’ll have had your heart broken and be scrolling through your newsfeed desperately trying to avoid clicking on your ex’s profile when suddenly you’ll see ‘8 reasons you should let go and move on’ as shared by your mate who posts OTT inspirational bullshit. And it won’t feel like bullshit.”

They finish: “Nobody ever got hurt by a little uplifting bullshit, OK?”

AMEN TO THAT, OK? Welcome to the inspirational bullshit club. 🙂

25 reasons NOT to freak out about turning 25

Everyone else is writing these big age-conscious lists, so I thought I’d add my nice two pence (Hey, listicles, if you can’t beat them, join them. Um, *that* sounds dodgier than intended.)

It’s true that when I was 17 – hell, even 21 ‒ I definitely thought I’d have my shit a bit more together by now, when it comes to all those traditional markers of “growing up”. Not sure how, but I did.

Ever since then, it’s been dawning on me that I may have been sold a big fat illusion (along with the rest of my “whiny, endlessly-adolescent, poverty-stricken, city-living, responsibility-dodging Millenial” friends, APPARENTLY).

When I graduated from Uni for the first time I quickly descended into a black depression that lasted for months – nay, years ‒ that was only mildly helped by getting my first job after six months’ thankless unpaid internships, and then dramatically worsened by my then-boyfriend deciding to sod off.

The-DebriefBUT then I saw this list, on recently-launched site The Debrief (which seems generally cool), about why everyone should freak out about turning 25. And, instead of nodding along, I had a realisation.

BECAUSE, while everyone’s telling me I should freak out, and for years I’ve kind of BEEN freaking out, I actually realised that I’m 25, and you know what? I’m OK with it!

I KNOW! Imagine!

I had the obligatory middle-class, graduate, privileged quarter-life crisis that rears its ugly head every now and again. BUT, even though most of the things I was worrying about haven’t been resolved – I STILL don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford a flat, I STILL don’t know if my job is what I want to do forever, I STILL haven’t written that bestselling book, and I STILL haven’t got a ring on my finger, or know if I ever will, I STILL haven’t been to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Fiji or Australia (I know, cry for me, right?) ‒ it’s ACTUALLY TOTALLY FINE.

So here’s my two pence on why I’ve decided there’s REALLY no need to freak out over the big two-five (even if you don’t have a partner, your dream career, any hope of buying a flat, and still find toothpaste on your crumpled shirt three days a week)

  1. Relationships: You’ve probably had your heart completely obliterated at least once, if not a few times, by now, so even if you’re still not sure what the hell’s going on with your love life, you  at least know more about what NOT to do
  2. Flat-sharing: It can properly suck but you’ve shared enough different houses to know that people (even if it’s your boy/girlfriend) don’t mean to be annoying when they leave the mouldy bath mat on the floor for the twelve- billionth time that week. You know your habit of leaving your dishes till morning makes your flatmate want to nail your head against the wall too, so hey, let’s each just do what we can, OK?
  3. Work: With any luck, even if you’re still doing internships and junior jobs, you’re likely to have a few years’ work experience under your belt. So, even though *certain* people might insist on treating you as if you’re still a new graduate, you’re actually way more likely than ever to have an idea of what’s going on (plus, you’re young enough to actually work the computers)
  4. Pretending to like shit because “everyone else does”: Gone. So you prefer to stay at home in your slippers or go to your favourite pub with your mates or fling oil paint at canvases while drinking tequila and singing along to Magic FM (or whatever else you love to do) rather than rub up against grope-happy strangers in some overpriced club with sticky floors, crap music and flabbergastingly-expensive drinks? Yep, and you don’t care who knows it
  5. Accepting that friends come and go:  Equally, you’ve lost a few friends along the way and realised that it’s sad but hey, you’ve got other mates now who they don’t know either, and these things probably happen for a reason
  6. Keeping better track of your chocolate and cheese and G&T addiction: You know what you can and can’t eat to blow up like a balloon (or fade away like hay in a breeze) and even though you don’t always get it right, you’re getting better at it, and feeling better for it too…sometimes
  7. Getting your butt in gear every now and again: Similarly, you’ve had enough years out of Uni to go through the cycle of feeling crap, joining a gym, getting into it, not going, leaving, re-joining, and actually going, to reach the point where that spin class is becoming least a semi-regular habit – or something that actually, you really kind of love
  8. Surviving harsh words: You’ve probably fallen out – and hopefully made up ‒ with a good friend at least once, and lived to tell the tale, most probably with the help of some frank words, copious amounts of wine and several seriously great hugs
  9. Pay: With any luck you’re making a bit more money than you were at 21, and even if living in the city means saving is nothing more than a mythical theory, you’re likely to have a bit more left over than before – or at the very least, have a few more experiences and nice things to show for what you *did* have
  10. Tolerance levels: You have less and less tolerance for rudeness. Someone being an idiot on the tube or bus? Pushing in front of you at the checkout, making a snide comment or fobbing you off on the phone or email? Er, nope, ain’t nobody got time for that. Kill it with kindness. Or, you know, a four-letter word
  11. On marriage, kids and houses: You’re old enough to know  people who are getting engaged and shacked-up and married and pregnant and mortgaged, and happy for them, but you’re still young enough to feel secretly relieved you’re still young, free and single (legally, at least). I mean, do you really want to spend hundreds of pounds and your weekends on replacing guttering, freaking out about table arrangements, and buying washing machines? No.
  12. Buying a house (LOL): And while you’re more likely to hear some friend of a friend talk about buying a house these days, you’re still young enough to chuckle “Oh yeah, you and whose jackpot lottery ticket?” into your drink without feeling like a pariah
  13. Life isn’t over by 25: Ok, so it’s mildly alarming that Lorde and Cara Delevingne are practically yet to go through puberty and Zadie Smith was writing her first novel while still in nappies, but by now you’ve realised that life isn’t over by 21. Rest assured that AWESOME people like Harrison Ford, Sheryl Crow, Alan Rickman, Vera Wang and Tina Fey were well into their thirties before they had their first big break. Hell, even J K Rowling was 32 before the first Harry Potter book came out
  14. On “travelling”: You’ve probably accepted that even though backpacking for months around South East Asia might no longer be a viable option compared to attempting to get and stay on the career ladder, you’d actually prefer to see countries in easy two-week stints where your clothes are generally washed, you don’t have to carry six months’ worth of stuff in your backpack, and never need to sort out twelve visas in one go
  15. Old and happy: You’re still young enough to feel 21 when you want to, but old enough to know that actual 21 year olds are more irritating than a ladder in your tights and an alarm clock on Sundays
  16. On leaving pop culture behind: You already had your favourite pop stars in place before pretenders like One Direction and Justin Bieber came along. Isn’t Harry Styles like…12? (And even if you do like them, you’re young enough to love it and old enough not to care, hello Taylor Swift, looking at you)
  17. “Crafty” discounts: A “Young Person’s Rail Card” might say 25 and under on it, but you know that if you renew at the right time you can get the discounts well into age 26; plus stuff like European Inter-railing passes actually legit go up to and include age 26
  18. Knowing your mind a teeny bit more: You’ve had quite some time to peruse all those blogs about feminism and/or other issues you find interesting and decided whether to get properly involved or not – or at least, decided what you think enough to have a sort-of discussion about it
  19. Absolutely no desire to relive Uni: You’ve graduated – quite literally – on to other conversations than that HILARIOUS time that Hugo did that vodka thing in “first year” and when Sarah got locked out of her second-year house wearing only a tiara and her pants. First year? That’s seven years ago now. MOVE. ON.
  20. Conversation stopper: No-one really cares about where you went to Uni anymore, and the ones that really do serve as a helpful indicator of whether you can be bothered to get to know them (tip: nope)
  21. Finding your happy limits: You’re getting better at judging when to stop on a night out. Six cocktails down and holding your heels in your hand because you can’t feel your feet anymore? Um, how about some hot-buttered toast, tea and gossip in the kitchen, plus a litre of water and a sensible rehydration salt packet before bed (and if you don’t want to wear high-heels, you just don’t. Fair play to anyone who does but wow, I’m done)?
  22. Respecting yourself…most of the time You’ve got the one-night stand thing down, if you like that sort of thing – you’re either always at yours or at theirs, but you’re big enough to know that whatever you say goes, and if not, you’ll pass thanks. ALSO – smear tests and STI tests, GET THEM DONE. It’s really not a big deal, I promise
  23. Pets: You’ve either bought your own pet or know someone who has, and you get to have dog or cat time without being nagged to go walk it or feed it by your mother
  24. Cooking: You have at least one or two great recipes that come out time and time again, but your friends are still only having “dinner parties” once in a turquoise moon, so it still impresses when you rustle it up instead of ordering pizza
  25. The world is your Oyster (card): You’re still young enough to have A LOAD of stuff left to do and learn and see and achieve which is simultaneously completely terrifying and totally exhilarating.

But the absolute BEST thing!? You’re well on your way to not giving three shits about what anyone else thinks. Remember, the people who mind don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t mind.

Twenty-five. You’re going to love it.

On “success”: a carrot cartoon for life

I saw this cartoon on the Psychologies Magazine Facebook page today, and it really resonated. Not only is it super-cute, but it cleverly conveys a few messages that I often struggle to remember. When I do remember, they have the power to instantly improve my own sense of happiness.

  • Don’t compare your insides with other people’s outsides. This is especially helpful when you’re having one of those days when you feel like a failure or like you never get anything done, and everyone else seems to succeed when you’re failing. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else, realise that pretty much everyone has their own demons in some respect, everyone is dealing with something. Realise that, respect it, and carry on with your own good self.
  • Success, happiness and achievement aren’t always measured by their outside appearances. Maybe what makes you happy isn’t overt, or showy, or shiny, or glamorous, or especially cool. Or maybe you don’t make as much money as that lot over there with their swanky apartments and holidays, business trips or social-media-friendly parties. Or you don’t feel you look as good, or have as much going on. So what? Be yourself, whatever that might be (or at least, try and figure out what that could be). If you love something, or something else other than the “norm” makes you feel happier, do it anyway, and let the show-offs (with their big fuck-off carrot leaves, GOD!!) do their “overt” thing. The older I get, the more I think happiness lies in redefining your own meaning of success.
  • Often, people make a big deal out of something because they’re feeling a bit crap about it inside. They make a big noise or shout about how great they are, and you feel like you have nothing to say back. Maybe they really are great, but if they need to say it, they’re probably trying to convince *themselves* too. Or, maybe they really *are* just an arrogant twat. In which case, easier to ignore!
  • Something that looks like a failure might actually come good in the end. Even rubbish things in life can sometimes turn out OK, say a bad break-up or a crappy job or a terrible argument. After my last break-up, I felt completely broken, and it took me a long time to realise that I hadn’t entirely wasted that time or those feelings. At the time, it looked futile, but after a while I learned things and moved on, and that experience became part of the whole of who I am, bad bits and all.

Quite a lot of cheese from a cartoon about carrots, hey? Haha.

On getting my arse in gear: In defence of motivational sayings

I love motivational slogans. I love their pithiness, their optimism, their bite-size portability and their inevitably cheesy array of colourful, artistic backgrounds. I have a couple pinned up around my desk at work and in recent weeks I’ve been Googling them on a daily basis, saving my favourite ones with an enthusiasm somewhere between obsession and glee.

But honestly? My first instinct is that I’m a teeny bit embarrassed to admit it.

As much as personally, they spur me on and keep me going, it often appears that chilled nonchalance that the most well-adjusted, cool kids seem to affect without thinking, doesn’t chime too well with a cheesy slogan or five.

From where I’m standing, it often seems like you’re supposed to get the results you want – whether that’s (say) writing for a national publication, eating healthily or doing more exercise ‒ without breaking too much of a sweat, sacrificing any element of your social life, feeling sorry for yourself, or really kicking your own arse.

If you’re a real success, it often feels, you’ll do something because you love it, because it comes naturally, because you were born to do it.

Especially in my industry, journalism, where people chase a story with grit, or write a winning features piece, or craft a hilarious comment based on their own life, where everything has a neat story arc, a personal story, and all the ends finally dovetail in quite nicely, without too much hassle.

Granted, it’s better to be nonchalant than a desperate, arrogant arse.

But neither are you supposed to admit that actually, you live your life according to someone else’s one-sentence maxims.

The kind of thing a lot of people say if you talk about “following my dreams” and “positive thinking”.
The other thing they say is “BOLLOCKS”.

It seems far too naïve, too childish, too simple. As you get older, society seems to say, you’re supposed to get more cynical. More unshockable. More disappointed. More negative. More “realistic”, more hard-hitting, more focused. “Positive thinking” slogans?  That’s all a bit too cheesy and contrived, thanks.

And although in some ways, I agree  – for example, I love comedians who create hilarity out every day, mundane situations, and I’m a great advocate of the “gotta laugh or you’ll cry” maxim when things get tough.

But personally, adopting a totally cynical viewpoint – where cold, cruel “reality”, rather than bumper stickers, lead my mental state ‒ doesn’t lead to realism for me.

It leads to near-crippling depression, where the world stops being manageable and appealing, and becomes an overwhelming wall of negativity, pain, tragic events, bitchy comments, jealousy and insurmountable obstacles.

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Ruby Wax on mindfulness: How our brains drive us mad

Ruby Wax on mindfulness, Conway Hall, London

Ruby Wax on mindfulness, Conway Hall, London (sorry for the rubbish quality, it was pretty dark where I was sitting for some reason, and my phone couldn’t cope)

So-called ‘poster girl for mental health’, and full-on comedian Ruby Wax explains where science meets mindfulness and helps me figure out just how it could help my own mental well-being

Before anyone even comes on to the stage at the strangely church-yet-village-hall-style venue that is Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, Holborn, a kind-yet-tired-looking man to my left starts telling me about his mental health.

Somehow, before I’ve even had a chance to really say anything, he’s told me that he had to give up work soon after his depression diagnosis and that for him, like 25% of those prescribed pills, medication didn’t work, so he’s been trying other ways to wrestle with his own mental demons.

He’s come to the talk with a group of people for whom trying to keep the black dog at bay has also seemingly become a daily struggle. And they, and me, make up just one line of the buzzing crowd of people – men and women, from teenagers to pensioners ‒ thronging into the hall with impatience to hear famous comedian and sufferer of depression Ruby Wax speak about that recent buzz word in mental health: mindfulness.

That’s what I tell the man to my left: “She’s talking about mindfulness,” I say, “It’s basically a way of focussing on the present – a bit like meditation but without the Buddhism,” I venture, sounding more confident in my definition than I feel.
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