Bright Lights, Big City: Columnist Al Jenning confronts his past, with a trip to London

We all have that one place that we love to visit, but it always stirs up some unwelcome memories. Whether it be a bar where we saw the bloke, we fancied necking somebody else, or whether it is the place where something traumatic happened to us. These places can be anything. I mean we all have these cruxes. For me, mine is the city of London.  I have a weird relationship with London. It’s the place that I began to discover myself, but it was also the place where I started to have problems with my mental health which drove me to a nervous breakdown.

I was eighteen when I moved to London from a small town in East Yorkshire. I enrolled on a three-year Musical Theatre course at a university, and I thought I had made it already. I was so happy to get out of the town that I felt stifled and trapped in for so long and finally I could finally live my life. I had so many dreams for the future. I thought I would move to London, sail my way through a course I thought I was going to love, meet incredible life-long friends and finally meet that Mr Right that I had been longing to meet – naïve right? I guess at eighteen years old we are all slightly naïve. We have dreams and expectations that are completely unrealistic, and we have nobody there to give us a reality to check.

The first few weeks were hard. I couldn’t imagine how homesick I would be, to the point where I used to cry myself to sleep at night because I just wanted to cuddle my dog and spend time with my family. I made an effort for the first few months not to visit home, and try to cut everything off and start fresh, and it was hard. When my parents came down to visit me for the first time after being there for three months, I was so excited. I settled in eventually and my first year was really enjoyable. I made some great friends, and I met a guy who I liked, and it felt like it might go somewhere. Alas, it wasn’t to be. He passed away from a short illness in early 2012.

Coming back in the second year was even worse. When I moved back, it was as if something had changed, and I wanted to be anywhere else but there. I wasn’t enjoying the course as much as it was and I guess, I kind of put myself on the outs. I didn’t want to socialise. I wanted to be alone all the time. I wanted to put in as little effort as possible. Turn up, do what I needed to do then get out and go back to my flat. I couldn’t work out what was wrong with me. I kept missing lectures and classes, and I just didn’t want to do anything. My sleeping patterns were all over the place, and it felt that like I was missing out on so much of my friend’s lives and I wanted to be a part of it.

During this time, I lost the guy I guess I fell in love with. The pain was unimaginable, and I felt that I had nobody to talk to. I didn’t tell my family, because they hadn’t met him, and they didn’t know that was seeing somebody. I had put myself on the outs with my course mates and I don’t think that any of them knew what was going on. It got to a point where I needed to speak to someone professional and I booked an appointment with a doctor to talk to them about it. I got to the appointment and I bottled it. I felt like I was a failure. That day I went back to my apartment and opened a bottle of vodka and had a good old drink. Thinking that I might find the answer to my problems at the bottom of the bottle. I didn’t. I just found myself spewing up violently for hours and my flatmate trying to help me into the bathroom. If that wasn’t a cry for help, then I don’t know what was. I knew at that point that I had hit rock bottom and that I needed to escape.

I looked for every possible way out. I knew I didn’t want to go back to East Yorkshire, and I would be damned I was going to go back with my tail between my legs as a failure. I applied for so many jobs in London but couldn’t find anything. I failed the second year of my course, and I guess that was it. I was going back to the north. I wanted to have one more mad night out though. Me and few people I knew went for one more night out in Soho and ended up dancing in HEAVEN till 5 am. I went back to my flat and saw an email from TUI advertising positions as Event Hosts in the Mediterranean. Somehow, I got the job and I flew to Spain a few weeks later.

I’ve had a distant relationship with London since. I’ve only visited for day trips or some event or show. It feels weird now.

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It feels like every time I go back, I open a door to my past, and suddenly I’m this carefree eighteen-year-old again. I have a nickname given to me by a very close friend; Sally. That’s because I have this strange relationship from the character of Sally from the Sondheim musical, Follies. She is one of the central characters in the show, which is about a reunion of showgirls, where an unrequited love story takes place. Throughout the show, Sally becomes more helpless and fragile from confronting her past and Ben, the man she once loved but ended up marrying her best friend. It’s a strange connotation to make you might think but I can relate to it. When I’m in London it’s as if movies from my past play through my mind and I can remember all those thoughts, the feelings that I went through, now 10 years go. I see it all. The good. The bad. The ugly.

I made a decision last year to try and put a few of those ghosts to bed. I booked a few nights in a hotel just down the road from where I used to live, and I went to look at some of the places that I used to frequent as that naïve kid I once was. It was a really weird experience, and I didn’t like it, but ten years I felt strong enough to put myself through it. I saw a couple of people from university in the Broadway that I knew from uni, but I kept my distance. I wasn’t quite sure whether I was ready to have a conversation with them. I wanted to remain invisible.

It was a good thing for me to do, but I now have to make a conscious effort to focus on making new memories, so I’m doing just that. I’ve been writing this column whilst hurtling down the East Coast mainline. I’m on my way to London to visit a friend who is celebrating his ninetieth birthday this weekend and whilst I’m there I’m determined to make new positive memories. I’m going to do things I’ve never done before like take a river cruise up the Thames.

With just a few minutes to arrival, the anxiety is growing. I’m scared that as soon as I get off this train I’m going be that person I was all those years ago, or I’m going to see him around every corner. I have to remind myself that I’m not that person anymore and I’m stronger, wised and a hell of a lot more resilient. I’m always going to have that person in a box somewhere in my head, and I’ve come to accept that. I’m not going to be ruled by him, but it would be nice to see a little bit of him again.

Wish me luck!

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