Lately, I’ve become obsessed with looking at houses on the internet, or what a friend calls ‘property porn’. I’m not alone in this (it seems to be a particular affliction of women) but for me at least it’s a yearning for change that has nothing to do with property and everything to do with emotional restlessness. I love my house. My rambling roses have finally made it to the top of the trellis after three years of gentle cajoling. My street is swooning with blossom in spring. My neighbours are charming. Why would I move? There are sensible reasons. Getting rid of the mortgage, being self-employed in the current economic climate and facing up to approaching senility are some but, hand on wounded heart, it’s not those I am trying to escape. It’s not even about moving physically. It’s about trying to move on emotionally after a painful end to a relationship. I know that house-hunting is a displacement activity. If I think about the future, I don’t have to think about the present. I can picture a cottage by the sea or a rambling garden in the country – despite the fact I am resolutely urban and, as my teenage daughter puts it, look ‘stupid’ in the country. I can spend hours staring at houses on the internet, even (oh, shameful secret) measuring up my sofa to see if it fits into some stranger’s home. I can dream a million dreams but I know that there is one unavoidable flaw in this equation – me. It’s easy to leave a house. It’s not so easy to leave a heart. As the Buddhists put it, wherever we go, there we are. The one person we can’t escape is ourselves.
It’s what, in the psychology of addiction, is called ‘doing a geographical’. We imagine that by moving on physically we can slam the door on the past and leave the bottle, the drugs or the binge eating behind. New place, new me. It never works. Counter-intuitively, the only way to move forward emotionally is to stay still. No distractions and no avoiding those difficult feelings that appear, unbidden, at any time of day or night. As a therapist of mine put it, stay in the pain room. I used to hate it, and could (and still can) come up with a hundred distractions to keep busy and avoid facing myself, but little by little I learned first to recognise the emotion that was causing me pain (so much harder than it sounds – is it fear? Anxiety? Sadness?) and then deal with it. Toxic emotions that aren’t addressed always resurface in some other way. More relationships are ruined by the past than by the present. Waiting for pain to pass takes time, patience and resolution. No magic pill or seaside cottage will hurry the process but, as that friend said to me, as long as you don’t do anything daft like actually sell your house, dream away. And when the pain has passed I might do something sensible – such as buy that affordable little terrace down the road. Come and meet Sally at our event, at 6.30pm on Thursday 3rd May 2012 – she’ll be in conversation with editor Louise Chunn, discussing life, love and how to survive it all. More information here.