Content warning: Mentions of assault
Nothing makes me reach for the ‘next’ button on my Spotify faster than a song that reminds me of an ex. Years have passed, there is nothing but indifference left in the him-shaped hole, but regardless, that song jolts the bottom of my stomach.
We’ve all been there when that song comes on. A familiar pang that hits you straight in the heart. Bullseye. Cold and sharp, it strikes you in peaceful moments when you least expect it; while you’re pottering about the house with the radio on, ruining a perfectly good Sunday with a couple of introductory notes.
Worse, it could find you when you’re out, dancing joyously with friends then, next thing you know, your eyes have glazed, filled and spilt tears, seemingly out of nowhere. You excuse yourself. You don’t know what’s come over you. It’s just that, you weren’t expecting to hear it. You weren’t expecting to have your life interrupted by them ever again.
I know that feeling. Intimately. Nothing makes me reach for the next button on my Spotify faster than a song that reminds me of an ex. Years have passed, there is nothing but indifference left in the him-shaped hole, but regardless, that song jolts the bottom of my stomach, twisting my face into a wrinkle-nosed sour puss. Now, a song I loved is a song I hate. And I feel like it hates me back.
“How can a song that once filled us with love, anticipation, sexually charged energy or jubilance, now sting until we wince?”
When the first few bars of Alt-J’s Every Other Freckle threatens to burst into full indie glory, I’m transported back to the family wagon, (fam-wag for short), the affectionately named car of my ex-boyfriend. It’s not a bad memory. Actually, it’s one of the earlier ones. Those ones were good, or at least better. Maybe that’s why it hurts the most. Because, even though it ended terribly, perhaps it wasn’t all bad.
That in and of itself is a wrench. Because the crescendo of our relationship involved abuse, losing my flat, a job, some pretty intense surgery and ultimately, moving home to a fraught living situation with my mother at the opposite end of the country.
When I’m transported back to that happy moment in the fam-wag, chomping on custard creams and singing this song through crumbs and laughter, I think back to who I was then. Younger and more vulnerable. I can’t help but scream at myself, good God girl, RUN. You can’t begin to understand what’s about to come your way.
And, just like that, the sweetness turns venomously sour.
How can something that once filled us with love, anticipation, sexually charged energy or jubilance, now sting until we wince? Why do breakups, of any kind, make us hate the music we once loved?
It’s simple(-ish). It’s grief.
The music we share in relationships, romantic and platonic, makes a bed in our pith. Cementing core memory to the brain like hot sugar on skin. Sweet, yet unforgivably painful. Musical memory is incredibly strong, it can even withstand neurological damage. With that strength comes an almost superhuman ability to recall autobiographical events, in movie-like sequence.
“It feels unfair that it should become the soundtrack to something so unforgivable, punctuating the end of an on-again-off-again relationship with a ferocious stabbing.”
Combining grief with music’s capability to bring forth volatile emotions, from the depths of our pasts, means we have unavoidable tear-jerkers in our midst. The important thing to remember is that these responses, though they might feel wildly unfair, cruel even, are in fact completely human.
In science, this is known as Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories (MEAMs). They have the power to elicit specific emotional responses faster than sitting in silence ever could. And, research has shown that this happens spontaneously, in day to day life – and more importantly, that our emotional reactions tend to be vivid and involuntary.
So, it comes as no surprise to you that one evening, when I turned to YouTube and my favourite lo-fi channel and an advert for a nearby Alt-J concert made a brazened appearance, it tore a hole through my chest. Again.
Immediately, I find myself swirling in a whirlwind of arguments I’d thought I’d locked away in small boxes. I can hear him shouting. Worse, I can hear me shouting too. Then, those hands that came onto me, uninvited in the depths of a catatonic episode. Prodding and touching. I can smell the familiar smell of old tobacco on hair and skin, Lynx Black mixed with his scent. All the while the chorus chimes, “…every other freckle, I want every other freckle…” as I stand above myself, helpless.
Even now I whisper, “Stop, please.”
It feels unfair, that a song about desireful, mucky love should end in a Grecian crescendo like this. With me whimpering and him looking upon himself with disgust. That it should become the soundtrack to something so unforgivable, punctuating the end of an on-again-off-again relationship with a ferocious stabbing.
I close my laptop. The song stops. I breathe. Then the wave of grief washes over me, leaving me in a cold sweat. I open my eyes and see that it’s now dark outside.
“Unlike other forms of grief, ambiguous loss is not bookended by rituals. There are no funerals, no death certificates.”
There are many kinds of grief and expressions of loss. In this instance, it’s the experience of something known as ambiguous loss. Unlike other forms of grief, ambiguous loss is not bookended by rituals. There are no funerals, no death certificates. In fact, the person may be very much alive, thriving even, which makes the process unfathomable and nuanced. And, in my case, almost vengeful.
Intangible and unwavering What’s Your Grief explains that, “ambiguous loss happens when something or someone profoundly changes or disappears. A person feels torn between hope things will return to normal and the looming sense that life as they knew it is fading away, like a Polaroid developing in reverse.”
Aside from the flashback inducing whiplash that sits alongside this grief, I’m left wondering how things might have been, had I not worked hard to maintain a relationship with a man who, when it came down to it, was repulsed by me.
For me, it’s like watching who I could have been slip through the veil. Half gone and always haunting. The wraithlike apparition of me held to the earth by my simmering rage alone.
And God, I hope she haunts him too.
Katie is a freelance writer and journalist covering sex, health and culture. @iambaskerville