I learned to live with my secret heartache. This is how

Illustration: Katty Huertas

How do we deal with the pain we accumulate? Heartache is human, says Cathy Rentzenbrink. We have to accept our own scars and tell our own stories

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By Cathy Rentzenbrink on

“Oh must you tell me all your secrets/When it’s hard enough to love you knowing nothing.”

Life happens and often it hurts. So, what do we do with all this pain? This Lloyd Cole lyric sums up one of the most essential human dilemmas. We have a fundamental need to express ourselves which coexists with a terror that, if we do, other people will either not care or will run away from us.

For years after the long and complex death of my brother, Matty, I tried to appear normal and cheerful, friendly and likeable. I was scared that if I showed my pain, people wouldn’t like me. I lived in a continual state of dishonesty, hiding my sadness and occasional madness from the world like they were dirty, guilty secrets. I’d got used to this when my brother was still alive but very ill. I’d be upstairs with him at the pub our parents owned and then I’d have to go downstairs and do a shift behind the bar. I’d have one flight of stairs to hide my heartache and get a smile on my face, and I always managed to do it.

Then I wrote my first book, The Last Act Of Love, and I admitted to all of this. I told the agonising story of how Matty was knocked over on his way home from a night out, how I knelt by him in the road and went with him in the ambulance on the way to emergency brain surgery. I told how I prayed for Matty to live, not knowing that there were fates worse than death. I forced myself to recount the details of our attempts to bring him around, of the gradual erosion of hope that led us, eight years later, to court, where it was agreed that his nutrition and hydration could be withdrawn so that he would die. I explored all my misery and shame, and wrote about how I felt that I would always be stuck in my story, that I was marinating in grief, unable to move on, no matter how much I wanted to. The act of writing liberated me a bit and it was a relief to feel I was being honest with the world, including the people closest to me.

Cathy and her brother Matty, 1983

The huge reward I reaped from putting a piece of honesty into the world was that other people were honest back and they told me their own stories of pain and heartache. I’d thought that the ability to appear OK on the outside while crumbling into bits on the inside was something specific to me, but I realised that lots of people feel the same. The more I talked to people at events or read their letters, the more I saw that lots of people are living with a thing, a burden, a story, an event that they remain entangled with. I heard stories of death and disaster, of brutal loss, of betrayals and accidents, of being lied to by a partner, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of unwise actions that are cruelly punished and of sheer bad luck. I began to feel a fellowship with other people who had been battered and bruised by life. I thought of us as the walking wounded: capable of getting up and moving around, but often worried that our plasters and bandages might slip, that our badly-patched-up wounds might rupture.

Wrestling with our stories is not an easy matter. I think of mine as an octopus – all those tentacles waving around all over the place

As well as telling me what had hurt them, people told me what helped, what kept them going. I was also asked a lot about whether things could have been done differently for me. Would anything have made a difference? Yes, I thought, I would have a lot of advice to give to my younger self if I could travel back through time; I wonder if that would be useful for other people to know.

At around that time, I went back to therapy. I sobbed in the chair as I choked out the story. “I’ve written a whole book about this,” I said. “I thought I was better. Why can’t I just…” I was crying too hard to talk. The therapist smiled gently and said, “We can’t do anything about the event, but we can look at your relationship with the event.” I left his room feeling a little less weighed down and felt like this was a big and helpful shift in thinking for me. He also told me about “content and process”: the idea that we all have our own stories which are specific to us – our content – but that the process by which we heal and live and try to accommodate our stories is what we have in common.

Cathy and Matty, 1989

Wrestling with our stories is not an easy matter. I think of mine as an octopus – all those tentacles waving around all over the place. It is often complex because we humans have a tendency to do almost anything to distract ourselves from our pain, so chaos and destruction often follow on from the first wound and create scars upon scars.

I saw this in action one day when I took my son, Matt, to Kew Gardens. He was five at the time and very attached to a set of Playmobil ghosts. The day before, we’d been to a funfair and he’d won a big sword in a plastic scabbard. It was the sort of dangerous-looking thing I wouldn’t let him buy, but because he’d won it, I was letting him play with it. We met some friends, stayed longer than we planned and ended up having to rush off. Halfway to the gates, we realised we’d left the Playmobil ghosts on the table in the café. We ran back and searched, but couldn’t find them. Matt was distraught. “I don’t want it to be true, Mummy,” he cried. In his distress, he whacked the plastic scabbard against the bench and that broke. “Look,” I said, in a not very nice voice because I was tired, too, “you’ve made everything worse by getting in a tizzy about it.” And, as he lay down on the floor and flailed his arms and legs around and sobbed as though his little heart would break, I realised that I’d just seen loss in action. We are angry and sad that something has happened, we don’t want it to be true and in our distress we do things which make our situation worse.

I let Matt cry himself out and then we had a cuddle and went home. Children feel things deeply, but not for long. And maybe it would be better for grown-ups if we could allow ourselves to – safely – have a tantrum, rather than bottle it all up.

When it comes to wrestling our stories, there are different ways to do it. I feel really pleased and proud when people tell me that reading my book has inspired them to seek therapy, or to have a conversation with an estranged loved one, or to start writing themselves. But I know it’s really hard. I spend time in prisons where the saddest stories are to be found. One day, we were talking about all this and a man said, “Yeah, you’ve got to able to tell your own story or it all turns to chaos.”

It felt like the truest thing I’d ever heard.

Cathy and Matty

I also know people who can’t face it. They choose to endure and manage the symptoms, rather than risk rooting around in the past. I respect this view and feel nothing but compassion for it, but I’m with Maya Angelou on this one, who says, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” If we keep our secrets hidden inside us, they are inclined to fester and ferment. During all those years of apparent cheerfulness, I was besieged by psychosomatic illnesses and had a raging drink problem. I literally tried to drown my sorrows, but it didn’t work. I was like a big water balloon that I kept topping up with booze. It didn’t take much for me to start leaking all over the place. Only seeking to understand my story and allow myself to feel the darker feelings of anger, fear and grief has brought any sense of release.

If we love, we will lose. If we live fully, we run risks

I have learnt that our story is part of us. I love the idea of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where a broken pot is mended with gold so that the cracks become part of an object’s history. Our scars can be beautiful. It’s a big step if we can think of ourselves as beautiful in our brokenness, rather than pouring all our energy into yearning for how things were before. I also think a lot about jigsaws, as I find them calming to do if I am feeling anxious. I do simple, colourful ones with Matt, and as I piece them together, I think how it is useful to imagine that sad and difficult things are pieces of our own life jigsaw. What happens to us will always be part of us, yes, but not the whole picture.

The other day, tidying up, I found six bottles of Difflam spray in different cupboards and drawers. This is a throat spray that I used to need all the time because I was always losing my voice. I realised that I haven’t needed it for a couple of years. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I stopped losing my voice when I no longer worried so much about what would happen to me if I told the truth about how I felt.

I am still terrified, of course. It’s not that I don’t feel fear – it’s that I now feel that the benefits of living honestly are worth the risk. Or I hope they are. I’m a work in progress with all of this and, of course, writing books really ups the ante. I have to be careful and not allow myself to climb into a bit of despair by reading my one-star Amazon reviews or dwelling and brooding on negative comments. There will be no shortage of people ready to tell me that what I have to say is pointless and worthless. I will try to think of Lloyd Cole and smile. Or maybe I’ll think of Nina Simone. As I was writing my book, I kept humming her to myself. “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” I realised that actually what I need to do is to learn to better tolerate being misunderstood. Because it happens in the modern world. People will misunderstand me and I’ve got to get better at tolerating that. It’s only a bad thing if I allow it to stop me saying anything at all.

I’ve started to think of life as a journey from innocence to experience. Heartache is human. If we love, we will lose. If we live fully, we run risks. We can’t save ourselves or our loved ones from the pain of life, but if we find a way to tell and accept our own stories, and to live with our scars, and appreciate and honour them in other people, then we can look up and around us and see that there is beauty and kindness in this often cruel world.

Cathy Rentzenbrink's A Manual For Heartache is out in paperback now


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Illustration: Katty Huertas
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