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Thursday 30 April 2020

Letters from Lockdown

Fairy-tale ending

No one ever told the comedian Shappi Khorsandi that ‘love at first sight’ isn’t magic – it’s a chemical reaction. She had to find that out for herself

Looking back at the stories I was told as a child – Cinderellas, Snow Whites, Rapunzels – it seems absurd that no one in my life stepped in to say: “When you fall in love with someone the moment you meet them, it’s not ‘magical’, nor is it ‘fate’. It’s a chemical reaction. Whether or not the union continues to thrive after the heady mixture of dopamine and norepinephrine has subsided is hugely down to chance.”

Not my mother, nor my teachers, nor a police-officer; not the lollipop lady or my GP; nobody who was responsible for my well-being ever stepped in to give me this vital truth.

This idea that The One will suddenly come into your life and you Just Know only happens for a very tiny minority of people. And, even then, it’s fluke. Those initial chemical feelings will have been just as intense for another couple who will break up because, once the sex had waned (and it does, it always, always does), you are left with another human with all their complexities, and being able to stick at it and go through your entire life with that person and remain happy is a gamble.

Long after I stopped believing in Santa Claus, they let me carry on believing that ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ da-da-da dee-dee. But, I guess, ‘Someday your prince will come – but you have gigantic boundary issues which lead to toxic relationships with controlling people and, in time, the way they chew their food, or pronounce a certain word, will make you want to claw your skin off, and when you have sex you’ll be fantasising they are someone else, da-da-da dee-dee’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I met the man I married when I was 32. We were dizzy with that feeling of being in love. We married, had a baby and, five years after we got together and our child was two, he left me.

The ever-after (happily or not) fairy tale was still deeply embedded in my core value system, so as far as I was concerned (and I was very concerned) my husband had no business falling out of love with me. We had a child. He should put up with the marriage as my own parents have, miserably, for 50 years and counting. His parents, however, split up when he was a child and “normal” to him was flitting between two homes; “normal” for me was being in the same home with two parents who, throughout my childhood, regularly erected a pop-up battlefield.

My marriage breaking up was traumatic and the suffering lasted far longer than it would have done had I understood what “loving” someone actually meant. Love isn’t a chemical rollercoaster. There’s often a rollercoaster at the start and it’s amazing – get on it if it comes for you – but the actual love, if it’s there, comes later and it’s more like a gentle row on still waters on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Love isn’t something you catch then it’s there forever. It’s a verb: you love… you are loving… it’s something you do. “I know I treated you badly, I know I hurt you, but I love you,” doesn’t and shouldn’t ever make sense.

But I didn’t know this. My idea of what love was had shattered and then so too did I.

I had an agent at the time who took me aside and told me flatly: “You’re becoming the divorce bore. You’re letting your personal life affect your work. I clear rooms when I mention your name in meetings.” I couldn’t argue, I was crying backstage on The Jonathan Ross Show right up until we went on air. And I did sit listlessly on TV panel shows which can catapult your career into the millionaire realms, and wasn’t given second chances.

A decade ago, “mental health” wasn’t talked about like it is today. You were simply regarded as “mental”. I should have been able to say to that agent, “I’m not well. I cannot do Live At The Apollo or 8 Out of Ten Cats this year as I am broken and am rebuilding myself. I need to be in a white robe, in a quiet room, listening to whale music and running some pretty felt tip pen shades on to one of those adult colouring-in books. And I’ll do that for as long as I need to.”

Accepting a situation in your life that you didn’t choose and cannot change is the only way you have of getting past it and yourself. Compassion for the person who did choose the situation is also a big help in moving forward. For a long time, when people asked me “What went wrong?”, I’d launch into a tirade against my ex; the “He did THIS to me and THAT to me” venom festivals began. Eventually I figured out it was no one’s fault. He was exactly the same person, with the same values, that I had first met and fell arse over tit for. When we were mortgage- and child-free, dancing together at a Scissor Sisters gig, we could gloss over the fact that our ambitions and the way we viewed the world differed wildly. It didn’t matter because we were dancing!

Looking back, the answer to “What went wrong?” was actually “nothing”. Nothing went wrong. We were incompatible from the very beginning, but, when we met, the chemical reaction was so powerful that we ignored the red flags waving wildly and screaming, “Just enjoy the sex, then move on!” As Maya Angelou wisely put it, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Both my ex-husband and I failed to see each other as we really were because our belief in The Fairy Tale had been so strong that we didn’t want to.

Stand back for another quote from a great writer: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Haruki Murakami’s words in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running were a game changer for me.

I don’t suffer the break-up anymore. My ex and I are friends, I’m fond of his fiancée, our son has a mum and dad who can have a cup of tea and a laugh together. It’s not the Cinderella story, sure. But, to me, getting here is the fairy-tale ending I had dreamed of.


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