Broke, lonely and overwhelmed through an overwhelming feeling of failure, Catherine Gray reached an emotional low. But as she reveals here It took surprisingly simple rethinking to bring them back from the edge.
An edited excerpt from The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary by Catherine Gray
When I was 33, I was suicidal. I had moved home with my mother, had no savings for my name, no partner, and was convinced that I would end up alone. Left behind by all my happy, successful friends, I increasingly sank wine to numb my despair. A year later, however, I had become a completely different person; one who couldn't imagine ever wanting to leave this life. How?
I decided to do two simple but also diabolically difficult things. First I gave up drinking, and then knowing that alcohol would return to my hand if I couldn't find a way to change my mind, I learned to locate the forgotten joy of the ordinary.
Our standard is to be disappointed with our normal life. "Enough" is a constantly moving goal: you rent, so you want to buy. You have a good job, now you want the next one. I wanted a lot of money, a house with shutters and awards on my mantelpiece, a husband and three dogs. And until I got everything, I reserved the right to be unhappy. But to counteract my urge to forget myself, I made it my business to learn how to be happy by default and not annoyed by default – turning myself into a positive-looking searchlight rather than a negative-looking drone.
I learned to wonder in everyday life. I have found that if I do not allow ordinary delights to go unnoticed, I will get a buzz if I only see one dog – Sam, the clerk – swimming on the beach at Brighton.
When you add up a grinning dog that squirts around like a seal, has a buttery toast, and sits on a packed train – all the things that go right in a day – it can mean that an ordinary day feels extraordinary. My goal is to be happy with what I have, who I am and with the world I am currently occupying. This is my trail of discovery of the ordinary and humble things I learned to find joy in …
Notice the sunset We almost don't give Heaven enough recognition. In the country, you see a ball of flame lighting a band of sullen, thin trees on the horizon as an airplane throws a comet path across the sky. Meanwhile, on a clear night in our cities, sorbet powder bombs explode across the sky above the beauties of Regency. And we go past it. We don't stare at this nocturnal phenomenon enough with sagging jaws. Not every night is spectacular, but many are, but we don't notice it unless we're on vacation and have a sundowner. Now I stop enjoying this free painting created before my eyes.
Local mini-breaks I recently stayed in Kent for three nights and came home as rested as I would have if it had been southern France. Why? It costs half the price. It took two hours to get there. I didn't have to check in online and download a boarding pass, deal with delays with low-cost airlines, or, on the other hand, buy a devilishly expensive taxi. The joy of a mini break is freed from the daily chores of washing, grocery shopping and the 32 things around you that need to be done at a given time. And we don't have to go anywhere to see this release.
Not every night is spectacular, but many are, but we don't notice it unless we're on vacation and have a sundowner
Clean my house It is not the act of cleaning itself, it is the decompressing effect that cleansing and debugging has on your mental health, the natural high that you get when you are proud of your immediate surroundings and put them in order. Recently, after an emotional shock, I spent most of the next day cleaning up and cleaning my apartment. I didn't plan it, it just happened. I couldn't stop. Four hours later I had a radiant home and a much happier spirit. Cleaning is an act of self-respect. I do it because I love living in a fragrant place where there is no trash can that can serve as a biological weapon or as parts on the linoleum that stick to bare feet. I do it because I deserve to slip in freshly washed sheets once a week, and so do you. Your home is an expansion of your brain. If your environment feels messy, your brain will too.
Check off a to-do list Did you know that only 59 percent of to-do lists are ticked off each day? In my case, it's more like 40 percent because my to-do eyes are much bigger than my stomach – but that's still a feat. I have three lists on the go at the same time – daily, weekly and "Just do this", each of which I write a single task on. Now I always try to remember what I did that day and not just what I didn't do. When I start freaking out, I repeat these mantras:
I will never reach the end of my emails.
The house will never be "finished".
I will never get to the bottom of the pile of laundry.
Walk everywhere I have not yet passed my driving test. I tried last year and failed. I've never driven a car except in an hour's drive. But if you are driving, you cannot read, and it is frowned upon to watch people or just stare out of the windshield – all things that are immensely pleasant when you are a passenger on public transportation. I go at least an hour a day. There is no stress or cost for parking: if I show up anywhere, I just go inside.
Be economical I was living on a tight budget in my early 20s and often ate 69p Greggs. And yet I also remember that I occasionally got into a taxi to take myself home from the train station after a day in London instead of walking 20 minutes. Now I'm terrified of my frivolity and never take a taxi. It's a smug, ordinary pleasure doing things like cutting out coupons, buying cheap vintage picture frames, and then spending little on assembling a print. Or, take your own bottle of tea instead of paying a morally wrong premium for a takeaway meal. And charge three in the supermarket for the price of two offers.
Embrace an empty diary It is endemic to complain about being busy: extremely busy = good; usually busy = you are idle in life. I used to think that you had to be busy doing one thing to say no to something else – which is crazy. It is important that the busy vortex around us subsides. To keep my busy level healthy, I always ask myself: "Do I really have to do this?"
This is an edited excerpt from The unexpected joy of the ordinary by Catherine Gray, published by Aster, price £ 14.99