Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


I’m preventing a personal meltdown by indulging in guilty pleasures

The world is becoming a scary place. And Sali Hughes is responding with displacement activities

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By Sali Hughes on

The news is sending me completely crazy. You? Donald Trump, racism, corruption, misogyny, whistleblowers, conflicts of interest, rowing, aggression, global warming and bloody bastard Brexit. I am close to the end of my tether. I desperately need time out. It’s not about being passive or in denial. I continue to sign the petitions, engage with the news and very much look forward to “welcoming” the new president to London for his state visit. But just as necessary is the act of disengagement with matters of global importance. As the world sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss, this is absolutely the time for displacement activity – pointless, ostensibly empty activities that serve as balsam for the brain. These are my coping mechanisms, my “guilty measures” – cheap, arguably unworthy, but wholly necessary acts in preventing personal meltdown. They may not be lofty, but they keep me off meth.

Childhood regression

My partner, apparently having been to 1982 for the grocery shopping, came home with a packet of McVities Trios last week. My kids and I sat eating them in front of old episodes of The Crystal Maze and I was momentarily transported to a time in my life when the most taxing activity of the week was making a necklace from coloured paperclips, while, in hindsight, my parents were every bit as terrified of the Cold War as I am now of Trump. And everything was OK. The Protect & Survive public service announcements ended, the doom-laden leaflets stopped dropping through the letterbox with my Bunty and, gradually, we exhaled. There’s no reason why this won’t happen again. And, while we wait and see, I’ve discovered that a retro supper of fish fingers, beans and mash followed by something additive-laden from Betty Crocker is surprisingly anaesthetising.


Sitting in my pyjamas, staring at rolling coverage of previously unimaginable horror, was starting to make me feel like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. In recent weeks, regardless of how despairing I’ve felt, I’ve got up, showered, dressed and slapped on a bit of make-up before looking at the news. Putting on my armour makes me feel more prepared, it gives my day more shape and somehow feels less defeatist than wallowing. I’m also trying to be asleep by midnight because there’s nothing lonelier than feeling like the only British person up, while every American in my online echo chamber is tweeting with their head in their hands, going completely mad with hamstrung despair.


While many are turning to Orwell and Plato for terrifying insight into the rise of tyrants to positions of global power, I watch back-to-back episodes of Say Yes To The Dress. Not because I crave a strapless snowball by Pnina Tornai, but because every episode ends in exactly the same way – with a bride’s tears over some fugly white monstrosity and subtle undertones of father-daughter incest. Likewise, every episode of Don’t Tell The Bride follows exactly the same trajectory, whether the happy couple are dressed up as druids or jumping from a plane. When I’m not watching crap on telly, I find myself forgoing the usual crime novels to reread books I already know like the back of my hand. Heartburn by Nora Ephron, all things Mitford or Austen – there are no nasty surprises here. Only great writing and evergreen characters that stop me from barricading my home and sitting under the kitchen table with a shotgun.

I can watch hours of Dr Sandra, a YouTubing dermatologist specialising in the lancing of cysts, the draining of infected spots and the extraction of fat, hardened blackheads

The mundane

I spent all last weekend clearing out my wardrobe into charity bags and taking photographs of garments I no longer wear. I put them up for sale on Facebook and began packing them in recycled Jiffys and writing out labels. I then went through the kitchen cupboard, clearing out knackered frying pans and cooked up all the dregs of mismatched pasta for my kids’ tea. When everything is so chaotic, if felt good to restore some order to my own home. These mundane tasks were nothing but displacement activity, of course. Mindless busy-work to keep my brain off the news and doom-laden social media posts, which nonetheless gives me a small sense of purpose and autonomy.


Go and see T2 Trainspotting. It’s bags of escapist fun and, more helpfully, sank me into a 1990s reverie, where my adrenalin gushed not over impending doom, but from the monotonous bassline of Underworld’s Born Slippy, and when exercising my democratic right meant choosing between Blur and Oasis. Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie are reassuringly unchanged; Danny Boyle’s feelgood instinct towards satisfying endings does not fail him. And, for 102 minutes, you won’t be able to check your phone for whichever unconstitutional hate-crime Trump is committing next.


My most antisocial guilty measure. I can watch hours of Dr Sandra, a YouTubing dermatologist specialising in the lancing of cysts, the draining of infected spots and the extraction of fat, hardened blackheads. My partner is thoroughly disgusted and there’s a good chance you will be, too (your poison may be one of the many YouTube videos of people folding towels, giving facials, plumping cushions – all bring about the same “ASMR” sensation), but for un-squeamish me, whose favourite pastime is removing splinters with sharp tweezers, there’s something extremely gratifying about seeing a problem cleanly eradicated to everyone’s satisfaction, wiped away and stitched up to heal. It’s a simple, binary outcome that portrays a sort of neatness when the world is in such a bloody mess. Plus, it saves my family from my predilection for home surgery.

Passive consumerism

Equestrian wear, mobility aids, toddler furniture, the kind of massive, ghastly pashmina wraps not seen outside of Fulham wine bars since 2001 – you name the catalogue, I’ll pore over it, cuppa in one hand, Sharpie in the other. Catalogues from which I have no intention of shopping, but which arrive daily for my attention, soothe my soul. Who is buying this stuff? Might I actually have use for a banana isolator and grape scissors? How does that model feel about posing on a comode? These are the things I ask myself when I’ve spent days searching in vain for meaningful answers to infinitely more complex questions. Likewise, shopping-but-not-shopping online – the act of sating your impulses by filling your basket but never checking out (I’ve lost count of how many pairs of personalised Nike trainers I’ve designed, and I neither run nor wear flats) is like window shopping without having to get on a bus.

The internet

Careful, now. For every poodle on a swing, there’s a photo of a bunch of white men signing away someone’s uterus. I rely heavily on the internet for news and information, but there are days when I want it to slow my heartbeat, not quicken it with rage. For these times, I go to Savage Lovecast, a weekly podcast hosted by Seattle agony uncle and relationship expert Dan Savage. Savage is perfect for my times of woe, in that, these days, he invariably kicks off by getting a furious and necessary Trump rant out of his system, before switching down gears to the calm dispensation of sane, liberal and wise answers to complex, often downright filthy sexual dilemmas. He makes me feel that anything can be fixed between consenting adults. The Desert Island Discs archive also works. I just add bubble bath and avoid any presented by Sue Lawley, whose chilly manner drives nails into me.


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Photo: Getty Images
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