It’s hard to believe that we’re already halfway through the year. So much has happened, and yet so little compared to what might have been. June has swung between the sublime and the ridiculous, without much in between. From blissful, life-affirming moments of joy, to some pretty dark moments of bitterness and frustration which I’m sure are getting as tedious to read about as they are to live through. Sorry about that – I’ll try and keep them brief this month.
Nurturing my soul
For the most part, it’s been a month of sunshine, seasides and special memories. Five months on from my disastrous winter seaside retreat, June has been a month of “reclaiming my life” (as my therapist calls it) – and reconnecting with my love of the sea has been the best possible medicine for my jaded soul.
We started June with a gorgeous weekend in Southwold and Benacre, Suffolk, to celebrate the marriage of two wonderful friends – Emma, who kept me (just about) sane during our time at university together, and her excellent new husband Alex. I’ve not felt so alive all year as I felt crying, laughing, drinking and dancing my way through their beautiful day.
There’s something uniquely moving about a wedding – especially one with so many familiar faces from my past – that gets me feeling all emotional and hopeful about the future. Emma and Alex’s marriage couldn’t have been better timed in that sense; I really needed the joy and optimism, nostalgia and giggles that their perfect day provided.
1. Southwold, Suffolk
It was also the ideal excuse for a weekend by the sea. We enjoyed a long, slow, surprisingly unhungover Sunday, moseying around Southwold in the sunshine, admiring the lighthouse, and catching up with old friends over fish and chips on the beach.
It was my first time on the Suffolk coast (or at the sea, full stop) since the week of the car crash, and there was something so healing about being back by the shore.
I love the vast, mysterious magic of the sea – its power and its beauty, its ability to nurture and destroy, and the enchanting rush and roar of its waves. I could sit and listen to it for hours, breathing in that fresh, salty air, savouring the feel of the sun on my skin and the wind in my hair.
Indeed, that Sunday morning Josh and I spent a precious, peaceful hour sat on Southwold pier, lapping it all up over a pot of tea, while I read a book that changed my life.
I’d been meaning to read Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive for ages, and after the darkness of the previous few months it felt more vital than ever. It didn’t disappoint. I’m not sure I have the words to adequately do justice to the rawness and authenticity with which Haig writes about his struggles against depression, anxiety and suicide.
Reasons To Stay Alive makes for challenging yet reassuring reading. It is utterly, powerfully (at times, overwhelmingly) real in its depiction of mental illness, and beautifully hopeful in its message that “things really do get better.” I cannot recommend it enough for anyone who lives with depression or loves someone who does.
2. Clacton-on-Sea, Essex
The absolute highlight of June, for me, was five wonderful days with our godson and his mum, who came to visit us in London. We did a pretty great job of wearing out 19-month-old N – cramming in visits to the Olympic Park, the London Aquarium, Women for Refugee Women, and the London Eye, as well as a day-trip to Clacton, on the Essex coast.
There’s something so pure about the adoration of a toddler who thinks you’re the next best person in the world after his mother. I spent those five days feeling like I might burst from all the love and joy in my heart, soaking up every opportunity for kisses, cuddles and toddler chatter, and creating beautiful memories.
As adults, it’s so important to be reminded from time to time of the wide-eyed excitement that can be gleaned from such simple pleasures as splashing in a water fountain, or the feeling of warm sand between your bare toes.
3. Brighton, East Sussex
My third and final seaside visit of the month was also my most indulgent. Back in April, when I interviewed behaviour change specialist Shahroo Izadi for Less-Stress London, we got chatting about the car crash and its ongoing impact on my life.
In her wisdom, Shahroo suggested that I should recreate the conditions of my January retreat – time alone, by the sea, for rest, relaxation, reading and writing – in order to separate all those positive experiences from the trauma of what happened on my way home.
It seemed so obvious as soon as she said it, but I guess the most obvious ideas usually do need someone detached from the situation to point them out. Immediately after our interview, I went home and booked myself a night at the Brighton Harbour Hotel – accessible by train, seconds from the seafront, with an on-site spa and complimentary gin decanter in each room.
Coming as I’d planned, directly after five days of entertaining a toddler, #SarahRetreats 2.0 was blissful: A leisurely Thursday morning train ride, a fantastic veggie lunch with an old friend, followed by 24 perfect hours to myself. I strolled along the seafront, and down the pier. I sat on the beach, reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – the autobiography of one of my all-time favourite women, feminists, and writers, Maya Angelou. I lay in my enormous bed, looking out to sea, thinking, writing, reading, sleeping, and dreaming.
I woke up feeling so refreshed and restored. And, despite the slowly creeping panic that built in my chest as the train rattled back towards London, I made it home unscathed, having successfully proven the point: I can take myself away without the whole world crashing down around me.
Reclaiming my life
For all the personal healing that’s gone on in June, there’s also been an ongoing battle within me about entitlement. In therapy, as I mentioned, the focus throughout June was on reclaiming my life. Reclaiming it from trauma, from depression, from anxiety, hyper-vigilance and fear. But the problem with PTSD is that it makes you feel unworthy of all that. Trauma tells you that you deserve this pain. Depression makes you feel ashamed for wanting your life back. It makes you feel guilty for reclaiming those precious moments of happiness. And anxiety tells you that recovery is impossible; that your life is irreparably broken.
There’s some truth in the latter: you will never, ever be the same person again. When I first left hospital, I felt frustrated by the thought of having to start so many things from scratch. But in June I realised recovery is not simply a question of going back to square one and starting over. Instead, you start from a completely different place – and that’s where the frustration has really kicked in this month.
Relearning square one
As I wrote in May’s update, June was supposed to be the first month of really rediscovering my exercise routine, and getting back into the habits that make me feel good. After months sitting in bed feeling sorry for myself – unable to run, swim, or even some days leave the flat – I was chomping at the bit to get going again. Then the neck brace came off, my neck and back gradually felt stronger, and I continued to do nothing.
Despite my eagerness, despite the training guide and nutritional goodies provided by Herbalife, and despite having an incredibly supportive husband/coach, my training stalled before it even really got started. In what’s felt like a frustrating metaphor for everything else in my life, my early attempts at rehab running have demonstrated (perhaps unsurprisingly) that I’m in a worse state now than I was when I started, post-honeymoon, three years ago.
I’ve never been a champion athlete. I’m a slow runner, a slow swimmer, and my flexibility and coordination are nonexistent. But this time last year, after months of solid, persistent training, I was running my fastest ever 5K and 10K times. Now the only PBs I’m beating are for my slowest, worst, and must frustrating efforts of all time. My calves are tight, my stamina is shot to pieces, and my back hurts after mere minutes of any remotely strenuous activity – like, you know, loading the dishwasher or light jogging. I’ve stuck a Strava ‘Recovery Training’ widget over there on the right somewhere, so you can track my incredibly slow progress over the coming months…
Being more gentle with myself
It’s really fucking hard, and dispiriting to realise how quickly all that hard work can disintegrate into nothingness. Instead of being back at square one, I’m several steps further back, and fighting just to regain what I once took for granted. And it’s not just true of my fitness and physical health, but of my mental health too. Years of therapy and self-care gone out the window, and I’m relearning all over again how to cope with the challenges life throws at me.
Recovery is an incredibly frustrating journey – slower than I’d like, and harder than I’d like, both physically and mentally. But I’m also trying to be more gentle with myself. To show myself the same love and compassion that I strive to show others.
It’s hard work, but so many moments in June showed me that it’s worth it. That there are reasons to stay alive, reasons to keep fighting, and that none of it is quite as impossible as it sometimes feels. It does get better; I just have to be less impatient. Learning that patience will perhaps be my biggest challenge this year!
In the spirit of being more open about this journey, I was interviewed in June by journalist Harriet Williamson, as part of her ‘Illumination’ series on creativity, mental health and self-care. The post was actually published in early July, but since I’m running late with my monthly update anyway, here it is: Illumination 02 – Sarah Graham.
Writing has definitely always been a part of my self-care, so it’s what I instinctively do when I’m struggling anyway, and I often write some of my most raw and authentic work when I’m in a really bad headspace.
That said, it can also have the exact opposite effect. I’ll have days on end where my mind just feels full of thick, dark fog and I can’t get my brain to cooperate on even the most basic tasks – let alone find the words necessary to move and engage my readers. That can be incredibly frustrating. It’s usually writing something personal or creative (unrelated to my paid work) that gets me out of that slump though – and there’s always something therapeutic about handwriting in a proper notebook, with a beautiful pen! So I find it works both ways: sometimes inspiring, sometimes paralysing.