Catherine Gray: ‘How a sunset saved my life’

Broke, lonely and overwhelmed by a crushing feeling of failure, Catherine Gray hit rock bottom emotionally. But, as she reveals here, it took a surprisingly simple rethink to bring her back from the brink.

Catherine Gray
David Yeo

When I was 33 I was suicidal. I had moved back home with my mum, had no savings to my name, no partner and was convinced I was going to end up alone. Left behind by all my happy, successful friends, I was increasingly sinking wine to anaesthetise my despair.

However, a year later, I had become a totally different person; one who couldn’t imagine ever wanting to leave this life. How? I decided to do two simple yet also fiendishly difficult things. First, I gave up drinking and then, because I knew that alcohol would wind its way back into my hand unless I found a way to change mentally, I learned to locate the forgotten joy of the ordinary.

Being disenchanted with our ordinary lives is our default. ‘Enough’ is an ever moving target: you’re renting, so you want to buy; you’ve got a good job, now you want the next one. I wanted pots of money, a house with shutters and awards on my mantelpiece, a husband and three dogs. And until I got all that I reserved the right to be unhappy.

But to counter my urge to drink myself into oblivion, I made it my mission to learn how to be default happy rather than default disgruntled – to turn myself into a positive-seeking searchlight, rather than a negative-seeking drone.

I learned how to mine wonder in the workaday. I discovered that if I don’t let ordinary pleasures slide on unnoticed, I can get a buzz just from watching a dog – Sam the staffie – swim on Brighton beach. Once you add together a grinning dog splashing around like a seal, buttery toast, getting a seat on a packed train – all the things that do go right in a day – it can mean that an ordinary day begins to feel extraordinary.

My aim is to be happy with what I have, who I already am and the world I currently occupy. This is my discovery trail of the ordinary and the humdrum things in which I have learnt to find delight…

You don’t have to be on holiday to appreciate a spectacular sky, says Catherine. Image: Geraint Rowland Photography/Getty Images

Noticing the sunset

We don’t give the sky nearly enough credit. In the countryside you’ll see a ball of flame setting light to a gang of sulky, skinny trees on the horizon, while a plane blazes a comet-trail across the sky. Meanwhile, on a clear night in our cities, sherbet-powder bombs explode through the sky above Regency beauties.

And we pass it by. We don’t stare slack-jawed at this nightly phenomenon nearly often enough. Not every night is spectacular, granted, but many are, yet we fail to notice unless we’re on holiday having a sundowner. Now I stop to luxuriate in this free painting being created in front of my eyes.

Home-grown minibreaks

I recently went to Kent for three nights and came home just as rested as I would have done had it been the South of France. Why? It cost 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 budget airline delays or get a wallopingly expensive taxi on the other side.

The joy of a minibreak is being released from the daily toil of the washing, the food buying, the 32 things in your vicinity that need doing at any given time. And we don’t need to fly anywhere to experience that release.

Cleaning my house

It’s not the act of cleaning itself, it’s the decompressing effect that the cleaning and decluttering has on your mental health, the natural high you get from having pride in and ordering your immediate environment. Recently, after an emotional shock, I spent most of the next day tidying and cleaning my flat. I didn’t plan it, it just happened. I couldn’t stop. Four hours later I had a sparkling home and a much happier mind.

Cleaning is an act of self-respect. I do it because I love living in a fragrant place that doesn’t have a bin which could double as a biological weapon or bits on the lino that stick to bare feet. I do it because I deserve to slip into freshly laundered sheets once a week and so do you. Your home is an extension of your brain. If your surroundings feel messy, your brain does, too.

Ticking off a to-do list

Did you know that only 59 per cent of to-do lists get ticked off each day? In my case it’s more like 40 per cent because my to-do eyes are far larger than my belly – but that’s still an achievement. I have three lists on the go at any one time – daily, weekly and ‘just do this one’, on which I write a single task at a time. Now I always try to remember what I have done that day rather than just what I haven’t and when I start flipping out, I repeat these mantras: I will never reach the end of my emails. The house will never be ‘done’. I will never get to the bottom of the laundry pile.

Walking everywhere

I have still not passed my driving test. I tried last year and failed. I have never driven a car other than in a driving lesson. But when you’re driving you can’t read, and it’s frowned on to people-watch or just stare out of the windscreen – all things that are immensely enjoyable about being a passenger on public transport. I walk for at least an hour a day. There’s no stress or expense of parking: when I show up somewhere, I just walk in.

Being thrifty

I used to live on a shoestring budget in my early 20s and frequently ate 69p things from Greggs. And yet I also recall occasionally flopping into a taxi to take me home from the station after a day in London rather than walking for 20 minutes.

Now I am appalled by my frivolity and never take that taxi. There’s a smug, ordinary joy in doing things such as snipping out money-off coupons, in buying cheap vintage picture frames and then having to spend only a little on having a print mounted. Or taking your own flask of tea rather than paying a morally reprehensible mark-up for a takeaway. And loading up on three-for-the-price-of-two offers at the supermarket.

Embracing an empty diary

Bleating on about being busy is endemic: extraordinarily busy = good; ordinary busy = you’re idling at life. I used to think you needed to be legitimately busy doing one thing in order to be permitted to say no to something else – which is nuts. Allowing the busy whirl around us to subside is important. To keep my busy levels healthy I always ask myself: ‘Do I really need to do this?’

This is an edited extract from The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary by Catherine Gray, published by Aster, price £14.99