To Space and Back: Love and Lunacy in Ibiza
Ibiza is not a place you’re meant to feel mental. It’s a place of magic and glitter and shimmering skin. Deep house. Melodic techno. Hot sun. It’s July 2016 and I’m going with my girlfriends to celebrate our thirtieths. Years ago, we’d bonded over clubbing, doing most of our talking and laughing and crying on the dance floor. This holiday is the last hurrah before the real business of being an adult sets in. The finale will be Horse Meat Disco and David Morales at Space – one of Ibiza’s most iconic clubs, which is closing this year. A fitting place to toast the sunset of our twenties.
By day three, I am locked in my room, sobbing and shaking.
Over the years I’ve had various shades of mental illness: general anxiety, depression, OCD, Tourette’s and more. But this week, in the shifting clouds of symptoms, there’s a distinctive showrunner: premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD. I feel its first stirrings as I stuff a box of tampons into my hand luggage in the departure lounge.
A severe form of PMS, PMDD causes women to experience disabling anxiety and depression in the days preceding or during their periods. Symptoms usually subside when the period starts, or, in my case, when it ends. I was diagnosed with PMDD by my GP a couple of years ago, after my partner noticed an unmistakable pattern in my moods. One day I’d be fine, the next I’d be at the local Sainsbury’s, throwing malt loaf down the aisles.
I am, in the purest sense, a lunatic. The word comes from the Latin ‘luna’ meaning moon, and dates back to Aristotelian times when madness was thought to be caused by the lunar cycle. A delve into Old English reveals the synonyms ‘moonstruck’ and ‘moonsick’. Given the ancient mythological connection between the menstrual cycle and the moon, I can think of no better word to describe the lurching fear in my stomach as I lie by the pool on the first day of my holiday. I hope I don’t bleed through my bathers.
My hormones are rising, and the week’s upcoming events – dinner here, dancing there – loom like galaxies, moving slowly closer, set to collide. Usually at this time of the month, I’m at home and doing nothing. With my diary cleared in preparation, I am free to break down. Sometimes, when I feel safe, the sadness is almost exquisite – a deeply feminine, primordial darkness that waxes right down to my bones and to the tips of my fingers. Like the best drug you’ve ever been on. But here and now in Ibiza, this unfamiliar place is a centrifuge. I am not in control.
On day two, I hide in my room, under my covers, while the others chatter and sing in the kitchen. I haven’t told them that I feel like this. I haven’t been able to.
My holiday books are lined up on the window sill, catching the low afternoon sun. But I can’t read them. Among them is my friend Eleanor Morgan’s brilliant Anxiety For Beginners. I’m interviewed in it. The person described is open, frank, even jocular, talking breezily about her mental health history. Where is that person today? Why can’t I talk? I’ve spoken publicly and without shame about deeply taboo cognitive experiences. I’ve looked journalists in the eye while describing my darkest moments. So why can’t I say, not even to the people outside who love me: “I am unwell”? Why can’t I reach over and pick up that book, where I will surely find comfort? Why don’t my arms work?
When we talk about mental health stigma we tend to look outwards, to our peers, to the media, to our leaders. Less attention gets paid to the irony that not being able to talk is itself a symptom of mental illness. That sometimes the worst stigma comes from within.
It’s the evening of day three and we’re supposed to be going out for paella. Anxiety can make you climb the walls. But today it’s not me doing the climbing, it’s my organs – my spleen, my lungs, my heart – all trying to climb out of me, like prawns from a boiling pot.
The girls are doing their hair and make-up. They expect me to be ready in ten minutes. Telling no-one, I leave the house and walk down to the sea. I curl up in a ball on the beach. I watch the sunset, the push and pull of the tide. I feel the weight of gravity on my body and in each of my cells. Magnets suck my knees to my chest.
When my friends find me, they circle me with hugs. I tell them I feel the illness in my whole body and that I’m not myself. I say “I can’t help it” and “I’m sorry” a thousand times. They tell me I don’t need to apologise and that they love me and that I will be okay.
For the next two days, I am paralysed on my bed in the 30-degree heat. I lie on my side with one leg bent and the other straight, like the BT man with the trumpet, who, having proudly lead British Telecom through the ’90s, can now only be spotted peeling from the scratched glass of suburban telephone boxes. I emerge periodically for meals, because saving face still feels important. We’re going to Space tomorrow and I’m scared. What if I run away? What if I have a panic attack? What if I die?
My period is winding down and it’s the first day of my new pill pack. The doctor told me that as an oestrogen-dominant contraceptive, Yasmin is the best choice for reducing PMDD symptoms (though I’ve since heard different). I gobble a pill, go back to bed, and hope that things will change in time.
I still can’t reach over to the books and read. Instead, my Americophilia takes on a strange and unwholesome intensity. As the sun blazes on the palms outside, I lie in the dark watching all the speeches from the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Hours and hours of Melania. Tiffany. Ted. The Donald. Michelle. Bill. Bernie. Sarah. Lena. Barack. Hillary. When Clinton says she “believes in science”, I do the smallest fist pump in the world, and think the pill might be working.
As we crawl to Space in a taxi, music from the neighbouring clubs rumbles with the nerves in my chest. In the queue I am skittish – the urge to run hasn’t quite left me. We breach the bouncers and step inside, where, through the doors to the terrace, we can just glimpse the light show and the go-go dancers. We buy vodka-soda-fresh-limes and make our way to the dancefloor. I’m still fragile, cautious and not quite there.
Prince’s Controversy drops, calling to the other woman in me who loves to dance, and who now can’t help but tentatively move her feet. Maybe I can do this, I think, still doubtful. Maybe I’ll be okay. Then, when a stocky, bearded man takes to the podium in seven-inch heels and a leather pinafore and starts to twirl and wink and pout, and Horse Meat Disco drop Dan Hartman’s Relight My Fire, the planets align. “I’ve got to be strong enough to walk on through the night.” As I shout the lyrics I feel seven years old again, alone in the living room, singing along with Lulu and Gary, as Mark Owen belly dances nearby in a tiny pink crop top. In this moment the depression is gone, the anxiety is gone. I feel a dazzling brightness that I’m sure wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t so recently seen the dark side of the moon.
Now there’s a rush of sparkling ticker tape as Morales mounts the decks to kill us with four hours of house and disco floorfillers: Alison Limerick, Armand Van Helden, Frankie Knuckles. Coloured lasers cast a million rays on the giant disco ball as a seven-foot Grace Jones lookalike starts dancing on the stage. He vogues his perfect ass off, until the sun starts to rise over the Balearic Sea.
I pull my suitcase along the familiar pavement of my London street. Last night’s euphoria has washed away, leaving in its stead a few last squibs of anxiety. I’m comforted by my certainty that they too will soon wash away.
In my thirties and beyond, there will be more times when the people who love me will have to remind me about the things I’ve forgotten: tides change; hormones ebb and flow; I will be okay. That one day you can be frozen still in an airless room, the next you can be soaring through space.
Photograph by Anonymous