Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Mindful life: The coffee shop that saved my life

Two years ago a severe bout of OCD left me at rock bottom. But the kindness of the people just around the corner put me back on my feet
December 8, 2022

When my thoughts become unbearable, my feet carry me to a café on the corner of a south London street next to the one that I used to live on. It is not a particularly charming café; in another life it would be depressing, a branch of a multinational chain that likely displaced an independent shop. But it is my haven.

I suspect that I am not the only patron with an official diagnosis from the seminal DSM-5 manual of “mental disorders”. There is a man who hands out remarkable poems and religious texts he has composed. There is a woman who sits all day on the bench outside, getting up only to collect little pieces of rubbish from the pavement. There is a man who is rough sleeping, who pops in every now and then for some water in a paper cup. And there are various other characters who behave in ways that don’t fit into the rigid confines of “normal”. None of this seems to faze the staff. They subtly create an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance: something mental health professionals often fail to maintain, despite it being fundamental to their training.

Just over two years ago, when my obsessive-compulsive disorder was at its most severe, I became consumed with the idea that I was inherently a malevolent presence on earth. It felt wrong to feed this presence, so I stopped eating. It felt logical, at that time, to spend hours each day pondering the most effective ways to rid the Earth of this presence. I was referred to a “crisis café” run by the NHS, where I could go should it all get too much. 

I could sit in that café, sip hot chocolate and listen to the reassuring whirr of the machine steaming milk or the hum of people chatting

NHS crisis cafés are a wonderful idea, but I realised that I didn’t need one. I already had a crisis café just down the road. When my thoughts were at their loudest, I could sit in that café, sip hot chocolate and listen to the reassuring whirr of the machine steaming milk or the hum of people chatting. “Hell is other people” could not be more wrong. When you are trapped inside a critical mind, other people are heaven. 

As our public services buckle under the strain of austerity and Big Tech platforms trade on our most intimate thoughts and feelings, it can feel as though the bonds that tie us together have been fatally severed. But there are pockets of community everywhere: in the cafés, pubs and libraries that serve a purpose far greater than selling pints or lending books. 

During a recent relapse, I found myself walking towards the café on instinct, like a homing pigeon, even though I don’t live a street away anymore. Many of the faces serving drinks had changed, but I was still greeted with warm smiles.

My old friend, the poet, approached me. He asked me if I had finished my journalism training (I had). I asked him if he was still writing (he was). He handed me an A4 sheet with some prose that opened: “This is my message to you, young person, so precious and valuable an individual.” It was refreshing to read that I was valuable, when my brain had been stuck on “you’re pathetic” for days.

When the news cycle is a dystopian parade of murderous autocrats and climate villains, it’s easy to forget that there are kind people on every street corner. They probably never know the magnitude of the good that they do. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Costa Coffee saved my life.