A week ago Lauren Chassebi and Mel at Geek Magnifique each published a wonderful open letter to the other, addressing mental health and self-worth. With their kind permission, I have a written a response to both letters. Lauren’s letter can be read here, whilst Mel’s letter can be read here.
Dear Lauren and Mel,
I hope you’re both well. I just wanted to write to say how much I loved your letters, and talk a bit about the things you spoke of.
I’ll have to confess that I am approaching the issue of mental health I think from a slightly different perspective – it’s an issue which I’ve only recently become familiar with – and so I don’t know if I can offer any concrete advice; but perhaps sharing some thoughts I’ve had and things I’ve learnt could be of help to someone somewhere down the line. (And I’m not going to lie – I have a habit of writing long letters; so I apologise in advance; hopefully it’s not all waffle.)
My story is more than familiar to Mel, so Lauren; I’ll bring you up to speed: I met and fell deeply, deeply in love with a girl in America. We had a transatlantic long-distance relationship. It was intense, passionate, public, full of love – and fast-moving. I visited her twice; we got engaged on my second trip (after only three months), and within a further three months, she had broken it off and was with someone else. We had a whole future planned, a visa under way, I had (and still do have) $4000 and was due (and could not wait) to go back stateside.
This hit me hard. Incredibly hard. Perhaps unpredictably hard – but my god, did it hurt. Sunday* will be the the sixth week since it ended. I think I’m almost past it, but it still hurts, and I’m sure it will be a longtime yet until she is out of my mind completely.
So that’s where I’m at. As I said, I’m hopefully over the worst of the fallout, but the last eight or so weeks (there was a ‘break’ prior to the end, which was hell masked as purgatory) have been the most difficult of my life. I have never been so low, and that’s where and how the issue of mental health has come into my life.
I want to move on to your letters, but I need to first give a flavour of just what I’ve been consumed with, so you can better understand why your letters have meant so much to me.
The break up brought on serious, prolonged bouts of depression, with a cocktail of unwanted thoughts, leaving me feeling completely worthless. The strength of these feelings was entirely unfamiliar to me, although the truth is, I’ve always had something of an issue with confidence, and I’ve always been something of an anxious person, so perhaps such a crisis has been on the cards for years. But it has been this break up, and everything it has wrought and represented – the sense of betrayal, rejection and worthlessness; the lies; the idiocy and naivety I feel; the fact she moved on so quickly (not least with one particular person) and the consequent wonder of what I actually meant to her; the immense heartbreak; the gut-wrenching validation of painful suspicions; the mercilessly graphic images of them together; the fact that so much of what I thought meant so much to her can truly be overwritten so swiftly and so easily and happily re-lived with someone else; the loss of who I thought was my soulmate (she was convinced we were and I agreed); the fear that no one will ever again feel about me how she did at least in the beginning; the breaking of dreams, plans and promises; the loss of direction and purpose; the purging of pride; the overall collapse of my entire world – which has finally broken the levee.
This, I think, is the best description I will ever manage when trying to convey everything I have been feeling. I’ve wrestled with, and more generally thought about, it for a long time. It has been cataclysmic; and both my mental and physical health have suffered as a result.
All of which – finally – brings me to your letters.
Mel – you are a very close and cherished friend who I have known now for probably six (?) years. You have accompanied me through this crisis with more support than I think anyone could reasonably expect from anyone other than a significant other and, despite previously writing about it, it is doubtful that you will ever know how invaluable you have been to my getting through this. I turned to you when I was at my absolute worst, and that’s a state of mind and stream of communication (read: consciousness) I never wanted to inflict on anyone. You know that the day I found out about my ex and her new man (or at least the day I had my suspicions confirmed) I fell apart all over again. And you sent me the letter you had written to Lauren. First of all, the very idea of a letter swap touched me. But it was what you said, and what you wrote, that helped.
“I think you should read it. It’s an open letter to anyone struggling, and I want you to believe the words.”
Reading the letter now takes me straight back to that day. Tragically, I was sitting in a pub drowning my sorrows, just wanting to be numb. When I read it, I had to put in a lot of effort to fight off tears. (Though you should know that previous things you’ve written meant there was nothing I could do to stem the flow; and you unfortunately saw this recently, right before we had a lovely lunch over which I would not stop talking. A veggie burger with bacon still tickles me; please consider my cap doffed.)
The point is, the words you wrote were exactly what I needed to hear, and they could not have come at a more crucial time (and I think you sensed that). It’s so obvious it almost goes without saying, but; when someone tells you that you are like no one else they’ve ever known and you do things for them that no one else would ever do; that they want to make love all day, hold you in their arms and stroke your hair until you fall asleep as they tell you they love you; agree to marry you and share tears of happiness on that most incredible of days; only to coldly end it a few months later, presuming you would remain friends and immediately getting together with someone else – the sense of worthlessness you feel is truly immense. It was like a snake: whether suffocating me in a pernicious, constricting coil, or simply opening its jaws and swallowing me whole without hesitation and without mercy. You were right: it is easy to forget your worth. It was so hard to remember. In fact, if it wasn’t for your letter, I don’t know if I ever would have.
What you said about crying is certainly worth keeping in mind. I’ve actually never seen crying as a sign of weakness, but I did wish I would’ve cried less – I just couldn’t. The tears were constant. I never knew I had so many. You know that favourite scene of ours in New Girl – about which I tweeted you just yesterday – the cookie? When Schmidt tells Nick that he’s out of tears and all that’s left is “yellow goo”? Well I don’t know if that’s scientifically accurate, but it didn’t happen with me. They never ran out. I was constantly on the verge, and more often than not something would give.
“You deserve to ask for what you want”. This was difficult. I didn’t want to be a burden on my family or friends – although they experienced enough from my regular breakdowns into misery and upset. I didn’t want to put everything I did on you. I’m sorry. And what made this more difficult was the fact that what I wanted, no one could give me. I just wanted the pain to stop and the images (of them) to go away. No one could make those things happen, and as a close family friend said to me, nothing anyone says will make you feel any better, unfortunately. You just have to do your best to ride it out – and it will hurt. Regardless, this is such important advice, because when you’re feeling worthless, you don’t feel worthy of people’s time or attention, because deep down you already know that nothing they say is going to make a difference and you’re probably not going to heed their advice anyway, so you don’t want to waste their time and be even more of a burden. So thank you for reminding me that people do care and they will want to help.
Lauren – hello, Lauren! I’m sorry for taking so long to get to your beautiful letter. I do tend to go on a bit…
I should begin by saying that it was something else on your blog that first caught my eye. When Mel mentioned the letters, I looked up your blog, had a nose around – it’s wonderful – and read the self-care book reviews. The one I most wanted to read was Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, but I didn’t feel strong enough to explore something like that when everything still felt so raw and I wasn’t completely understanding the bleak, existential thoughts I was experiencing. It just so happened, however, that during a big heart-to-heart with my Mum, she recommended it. Someone had recommended it to her and she was currently reading it on her Kindle. I said maybe, but I was still apprehensive. So imagine how I felt when I got home from work the next day to find a crisp new copy on my pillow. (I cried a tiny bit.)
This book really is amazing and I encourage everyone to read it. He has a way of expressing what I’ve been feeling in ways that I think are easier for others to understand than were the ways I had described them. His language is simple but in no way banal. It is a beautifully-crafted book. I am really comforted by the fact that my Mum has read it too. To anyone who is struggling: read this book, and if possible get the people closest to you to read it too. It can only be a positive that they may better understand what you’re going through.
Turning to your letter, Lauren; you pick the perfect words. A waterfall is accurate: not only did I feel like the rocks being pounded by the cascading water, but I also felt like I was drowning underneath the weight of all that water that was my thoughts. Now, with hindsight, I can recognise that those clouds are indeed temporary; but I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s not always so easy to view them like that.
Whilst it’s sometimes difficult not to succumb to the emotion, I think it’s important to know that, as you say, it’s okay to feel sad. The worthlessness and pain I felt was so relentless and felt impossible to shake; like it had simply become my existence and that was it. It felt as if sadness had come to define every second from which my days were comprised. I think at times people did expect me to just ‘pull myself together’, but it’s not that easy when all you can do is expend strength trying to keep the constant unwanted tears at bay. And you feel worse for it: you feel like you’re letting people down, and that maybe it is indeed that easy and your inability to do so is just another example of your weakness and worthlessness. And if you can’t even accomplish that much, then how honestly will you cope with anything more? And so what is the point of anything at all? It’s a vicious circle, but nevertheless, I think it is important, as the onlooker, to empathise, and as the person suffering, to keep in mind that you shouldn’t feel guilty for the sadness with which you are afflicted. So, thank you.
Your advice. I do need to drink more tea! (That’s one of the benefits of summer warmth receding; hot drinks are welcome!) I’ve definitely written off days with TV from time to time. Sometimes it’s just so needed. (New Girl is my show of choice, as Mel will confirm.) Music definitely helps. There is one album I must have listened to three dozen times over the last couple of months, in which I’ve found a great deal of solace. And talking. My goodness, does talking help; even if you get emotional every time you open your mouth. At times I felt like there was a weight on my shoulders and I could happily have let it push me down and I would simply never get back up. That felt like a good idea. It feels better to have that weight lifted if it can be.
I’d like now to offer some advice myself. Well, not necessarily advice, but some thoughts. I’ve learnt a lot throughout this experience. I’ve learnt just how low I go (which, in all honesty, is good to be aware of for the future) and I’ve learnt painful lessons about love and other people. I’d like to clarify that this is not relationship advice(!) Rather, it’s some observations that may be of help during times of crisis.
If someone drops you from their life, it will hurt, whether they’re a spouse or a friend. The unhappy fact is, though, that some people who do this just will not care about how they’ve made you feel. They won’t even think they’ve done anything wrong – they may even blame you. You will want them to care, just a bit, but they won’t, because they’ve already moved on from you and quite possibly had done before they had the courage to be honest and end it. It’s so difficult, but you have to try and accept that they don’t care, let that fact go, and do your best to move on too. The fact that they don’t care is hurtful in itself, and holding on to that additional pain makes the whole thing even harder to process. They are not worth another moment’s thought, and they don’t deserve your emotions.
If it’s a spouse, you may well be tortured by the thoughts and images or what they’re up to and with whom. This is absolutely the most painful aspect – it was for me at least – and is a serious struggle to shake. They almost pushed me over the edge. However, one day they just didn’t come to mind anymore. From time to time she has done, but by and large this is no longer the case. So as upsetting as it is, just try to keep in mind that those thoughts and images will go. They will. Hang in there.
You may be compelled to compare yourself to them. You may think, “if they’re getting on so well, then why can’t I?” Well, firstly, this was their doing and one person will always come off worse. Secondly, it doesn’t matter how they are. You matter. You may feel jealous and bitter that they have walked away not just unscathed but happy, whilst you have had your heart broken and/or world turned upside down. For the record, I don’t think it’s so bad to feel a bit of jealousy or bitterness (I haven’t really, and I honestly think this would’ve been easier if I had, to at least stop me dwelling on the sadness). Those feelings of bitterness and jealousy, I’ve repeatedly been assured, are natural, and you have to process them just like every other feeling. But comparing yourself to them doesn’t help and ultimately won’t make a difference to how you’re really feeling. I’m reminded of a lyric by my favourite band:
“I don’t compete because I don’t need to be
in front of someone who wants to compete with me
Who needs another aggravation
or a f****d up situation?”
A positive perspective, but not necessarily the easiest to assume. We can but try.
If the person who ends things turns nasty, it is proof that what has happened is not your fault. It’s unlikely that you have done anything to warrant the treatment you are now receiving. This aspect is problematic because it means that the person being dropped is suffering twice: not only are they struggling to deal with the drop themselves, but they also begin spinning trying desperately to figure out what they could possibly have done to receive the treatment they are being dealt. It’s them; not you.
Lastly – and perhaps most importantly – the way I see it, the person who ends it holds all the cards – all but one. You do not deserve the treatment you are receiving. You deserve far, far better. And you will have better. You will, simply by definition, because their behaviour is so spiteful, uncalled for, and unjustified that anything else would be better. But it’ll be more than that: you will receive the love and companionship that you – by dint of your suffering, your past efforts, and simply being a human being – deserve. And that’s the one thing they can’t take away from you. That’s the space they can’t touch.
For the record, it’s highly likely that I will in the not-too-distant future completely ignore some if not all of these things, and feel glum and unhappy again. But I think that’s okay. We all do our best. We are only human.
Finally, Reasons to Stay Alive is filled with lists. Here’s five places I want to go and things I want to do (in no particular order):
1) Park Güell, Barcelona. I saw a girl wearing a Barcelona t-shirt earlier and it reminded me of this magical place. The multi-coloured mosaic architecture is spectacular.
2) The bar in Cuba that Ernest Hemingway used to frequent. I want to have an ice cold beer next to the life-size statue of him.
3) The bookshop off a canal in Venice I once saw in a picture on Facebook.
4) Somewhere snowy. I want to share a kiss with my love (whoever that turns out to be) in a lodge atop a mountain with a beautiful snowy landscape in the background.
5) Gainesville, Florida to see my favourite band, Less Than Jake, play a show in their hometown.
I popped out for lunch during writing. I’d be lying if I said that there haven’t been times amidst all of this when I’ve laughed and felt genuinely happy. But today as I walked through the town centre, I looked up at the bright sun and just smiled. I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that.
I hope you both can smile too.
It has been a pleasure and a privilege to write to you.
Thank you for the hope and inspiration. Please keep doing what you’re doing. You make a world of difference.
* This Sunday has now passed.