In 2015, Cathy Rentzenbrink’s first book The Last Act of Love was published. It’s an incredible memoir about the impact of her brother’s road traffic accident on her and her family. In the introduction to A Manual for Heartache, Rentzenbrink talks about what happened after The Last Act of Love came out; the stories other people told her about their own grief, the advice they asked for in order to support others dealing with loss.
This is the book I wish I’d had when the worst happened, full of the advice I wish I’d been given. It’s also the book I’d like to have beside me for whatever the future may hold. I wanted to pull all my thoughts together in one place, to have something to refer to when life took another twist, or started to look bleak around the edges.
In short chapters, Rentzenbrink covers how we hide our stories because the pain is too much to bear; how grenades are thrown into our lives and the guillotine comes down on what’s gone before. She gives us ‘An Etiquette Guide for Bad News’ and suggestions of what we can do for ourselves. She talks about her depression and anxiety, what helps and what doesn’t, and she gives advice to both her young son and her future self.
I’ve read A Manual for Heartache three times this year. The first time was on the 1st of May, a week before my marriage ended. I didn’t know my marriage was about to end until the moment it did. It was, as Rentzenbrink calls it, a grenade moment.
In the immediate aftermath, in the mess of what now and how do I cope and trying to carry on doing my job and co-parenting my stepson, I took to carrying A Manual for Heartache around with me. I took it on visits to see my trainee teachers; I took it to the job interview I had two days later (I got the job); I took it to my friend’s where we drank bottomless cups of tea while I cried and she stroked my hair. Sometimes I took the book out of my bag and held it or put it on the table next to me. I didn’t re-read it, I didn’t need to. It was enough that it was there, that it had been sent to me at exactly the right time. A coincidence, no doubt, but a very welcome one.
The second and third readings were prior to interviewing Rentzenbrink at two festivals: Jersey Festival of Words in September and Off the Shelf festival in October. The conversation at each of these events was different; we were in different venues, in different cities at different times. But there was one thing we discussed on both occasions which took on more resonance for me than it had when I’d read about it.
Just past the midway point in the book there’s a chapter titled ‘Emotional Time Travel’.
Since I stopped treating time like the enemy, I’ve started to have a bit of fun with it and have invented a new game I call reclaiming. The first success I had was with rain. Rain has often been present when things have gone awry with me, and I began to suspect it was a contributing factor rather than a coincidence. I’ve learned that when faced with any situation, our brains start scanning for previous experiences so that we know how to respond to this new challenge. This was helpful when we needed to know what to do when a tiger hove into view, less so in a world where we are constantly bombarded with stress and stimulation. This is how we get triggered. I realized that when I sit and stare at the rain, my mind starts up a slideshow of all my previous breakdowns and pretty soon my mood is dipping because all I’m doing is remembering miserable episodes. I decided to see if I could rewire my brain.
One of the things Rentzenbrink did was buy some ‘magnificent mini wellies, grey with white and yellow daisies’ which she wore to both of our events. They were joyful and I took great delight in making her wave her foot in the air so the back row could see them. She then talked about playing in the rain with her son and how much fun they’d had, how she’d created new memories to override the old ones.
Not long after mine and Cathy’s second event, a friend asked me the question I’d been dreading: what was I doing for Christmas? I hate Christmas. I’ve hated it for years. The reasons for this are not ones I want to explain to anyone I’m not close to. This makes conversations with acquaintances and colleagues difficult. Responses from them which include references to Scrooge make me rage. But Cathy’s success at reclamation had triggered something: did I really want to feel miserable every year about an event that’s pretty much unavoidable? And, for several years now, the build-up to Christmas, the anticipation of the day, has been far worse than the day itself. I’m single again, I have no obligations, I can do whatever I like. What if I try to reclaim Christmas?
So far, I’ve got an advent calendar for the first time in a decade and I’ve bought new decorations for the tree, including some amazing Kate Bush ones. I let my stepson do the decorating.
As for Christmas Day, I’m spending it on my own, making my own rituals. Panettone for breakfast; a long walk listening to my favourite music; plenty of cheese, and binge watching a TV show (a re-watch of Breaking Bad this year). I’m looking forward to it.
There’s a line in a novel being published next year which says, ‘Any book is a self-help book, if you read it right’. A Manual for Heartache isn’t any book though, it’s a wise friend, a comforting hug, a light cutting through the darkness.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.