You do not beat your own heart
For years, even as her dazzling talent brought her fame and adoration, Florence Welch was beset by self-loathing. Here she relates how she finally called a truce in her internal war.
Sometimes I’ll recall something stupid I did as a teenager – like trying to get a face tattoo at 14 – and I’ll have to sit down and catch my breath. Because I can’t believe I got away with it, that I survived those years. Or maybe I didn’t? But at least I’m still alive.
It takes a while to understand your worth, I got sober when I was 27, a few months after my birthday party, where my mother made a speech – a plea, really – to my friends to try to keep me alive and out of the notorious “27 club”. After she’d finished, I put my face in my cake and got into the shower fully clothed. That day, I would never have believed my 30th birthday would be a sober, calm affair with nice friends and nice food that I actually ate; that I would have already waved the white flag at the party, one arm fluttering from the floor, I surrender, I’m done. After all, I’d been planning the alternative, week-long bacchanal to mark the end of my third decade, since my teens.
I tend to look back on that time with a mix of nostalgia and terror. There’s a part of me that is in awe of that girl, her total disregard for self-preservation, how she could run at the world headfirst, eyes closed, with no care for the consequences. But I also want to hold her in my arms, say “It’s OK, you’re OK, you can come down now. You’ve been screaming at the top of that tree for a bit too long.”
Although I admire it in a seasick way, a lot of my bravery in my teens and early twenties came from a place of self-loathing. I was able to push boundaries and take chances because I wasn’t very fussed about whether I came back alive. Oblivion was usually the goal. I don’t know if it was owing to societal pressure or a genetic predisposition to perfectionism and anxiety (eating disorders and addiction are rife in my family) but somewhere along the line I had learned that I was wrong, that I was not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough. I was so angry with myself all the time. How that happened, I don’t know – I am still trying to understand what makes young women go to war with themselves. But the judgement choir never stopped singing. It still sings now, though not as loudly or as often, and when it does, I try not to self-medicate with straight vodka or starvation.
Sometimes I miss the wildness of my teenage years – breaking into abandoned buildings, climbing trees in Soho Square, staying out for days, picking up outfit and bruises on the way. I was pretty feral for someone who still lived at home, albeit in a house of loving but absent academics and six teenagers, where it was easy to slip under the radar. Everything was terrible and wonderful and everyone was always madly in love or completely heartbroken, often in the space of half an hour. I had some deeply questionable sartorial phases, from “drunk librarian” to “drunk bat witch” and I now know for certain that a centre parting does not work with a large Edwardian forehead. But most of it I wouldn’t take back.
It was strange to let go all of that and I grieved it for a while. Being a musician and a blackout drinker can lead you to have a rather coddled existence, and make it hard to grow up. Partying was, I felt, a defining feature of my personality – good at singing, good at drinking and good at taking drugs. (Note: if you thing you are good at taking lots of drugs, it usually means you are not good at it and will have to stop eventually, or worse.)
But the new-found thrill of leaving somewhere with all my belongings, having not been felt up by someone inappropriate in a car park, has still not left me. It feels miraculous to spend my Mondays working or reading rather that binge-watching Bake Off, unable to move, intermittently weeping into a pillow, hoping the bunting will block out the regret. There are other everyday miracles, too. I haven’t weighed myself in four years – I have no idea how much I weigh right now. Five years ago, I could have told you how much in the morning, at night, clothes on, clothes off. With and without jewellery. To let go of that sometimes feels a bigger achievement than headlining Glastonbury. It may sound as if I’m being dramatic (who, me?) but anyone who has lived under the tyranny of the scales will understand how much it takes to trust your body. I thought my relationship with food could never be normal; I believed it was damaged beyond repair. But I can honestly say I don’t really think about it now. I don’t diet. I don’t fucking “cleanse”. I try not to think of any food as bad or good. It took me a long time but the obsession has lifted. And I had to do the worst thing I could think of – start talking about it. An eating disorder wants you silent, ashamed, isolated. It will tell you anything to keep you all to itself. It’s probably telling you right now that you shouldn’t say its name, that it’s your friend. But your body is more that a thing to be looked at, it works with you, not against you. You do not beat your own heart.
This is not to say that I have all figured out – I am not a beacon of sanity. If you have denied yourself nourishment, you can often deny yourself emotional nourishment, too. I find it hard to accept love, hard to accept stability. A large capacity for joy means an even larger capacity for gloom. I can still come off stage with a crowd applauding and go back to sit alone in my room, scrolling through my phone until I’ve found enough things to make me really unhappy. Unflattering paparazzi pictures are good for that, or outfit mistakes that won’t die. Although I love social media as a way of connecting, it’s also a handy tool for digging your own personalised shame hole.
Self-harm is a shape shifter, but I’m working on it. And the more honest I am, the happier I become. I don’t believe in self-destruction as a means to creativity any more. And the less preoccupied I am with what I look like or what I did last night, the more energy I have to give to my work. I managed to be successful despite my demons, not because of them.
I wonder if my young self would be horrified at my Friday nights now: eating pasta and watching TV with someone who is nice to me. Would she think me mundane? I have certainly had journalists bemoan to me “the lack of rock stars behaving like rock stars” but hedonism never gave me the freedom I desired. And I’m no longer sure about the rock’n’roll behaviour often expected of artists. Too many talented people have died and the world feels too fragile to be swigging champagne and flicking the finger at it.
Most of my friends that I drank with have had to stop. They wash up one by one like driftwood, and we stand together on the shore in shocked relief. We cook, we talk, we work. People have started having children and going to bed early. And all the boring “grown-upness” that we rejected then now seems somehow rebellious. It is an act of rebellion to remain present, to go against society’s desire for you to numb yourself, to look away. But we must not look away. To self-crucify in the name of art always means that the art stops and another voice is lost. At this time in our history, it has never been more pressing to have as many voices singing as we can.