It’s a Friday evening. I look bedraggled and bizarre—I’m wearing a floaty black top, gym leggings and bright red trainers. I have no make-up on. I have spent so much of the day fretting that I haven’t had a single thought to spare on my appearance. I go to meet my friend Andy for a drink, but I’m running terribly late and, when I arrive, I feel chaotic.
We sit down, and I’m telling Andy how excited I am to go to the infamous Taylor Swift-themed club night Swiftogeddon later that evening, when a friend messages to say that she can no longer make it and is offering up her ticket. Andy, a long-time Swiftie, is tempted.
Neither Andy nor I should be going to Swiftogeddon. I shouldn’t be going because I am in the midst of a mental health relapse, struggling to sleep for more than a few hours a night, sucked into spirals of rumination, carrying a vague dread on my shoulders. Andy shouldn’t go because he has to pack his flat up to move its contents to Cambridge the following day. The removal van is arriving at noon.
We decide to go, of course. It’s the only fitting way to honour our last night in London together. Except I don’t have time to go back to my flat and change, so our only option is to go to Andy’s flat, pull together dinner from what’s in his fridge and go straight to pre-drinks. We fall into hysterics when we realise that this means me rolling up to the event in my current deranged all-black attire. Swiftogeddon is the kind of night where people serve their boldest looks: glitter, sparkles, pink! “Do I look cool in a Berlin sort of way?” I ask Andy pleadingly. He looks sceptical. “Kind of, from your knees upwards.”
I try to do something with my hair, but I don’t have any products and it ends up looking worse than when I started. We wolf down some pasta and pick up a bottle of Sainsbury’s basic gin on the way to the Tube—it feels like we’re at university again. I catch sight of my reflection in a shop window: “I feel so ratty,” I tell Andy. “We’re going on a rat night out,” he agrees.
I don’t think many mental health professionals would prescribe a rat night out as a treatment option for an OCD relapse. Staying out until 2am isn’t generally advised. And on social media, where less bonafide sources of advice abound, achieving mental wellbeing is increasingly presented as a puritanical endeavour, with therapist influencers and lifestyle gurus advocating for strict regimes of journaling, yoga, meditation and exercise. For them, my rat night out plan would be sacrilege.
Not so for Camilla Nord, head of mental health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. In her new book, The Balanced Brain, which I reviewed for the last issue of Prospect, she examines the role of pleasure in mental health and finds that the picture is far more complicated than the wellness influencers would have us believe. “Things you might consider bad for your health—eating sugar, drinking beer, having a late night out—could have short, or even long-term positive effects on mental health,” she writes. “Each of these ‘bad for you’ things represents one of the myriad ways of tapping into your brain’s various systems for supporting mental health.”
It was with this wisdom in mind that I headed, guilt-free, to Swiftogeddon, which describes itself as “a night run by fans, for fans to come together and worship at the altar of Taylor Swift.” Thankfully, at pre-drinks, our host Tegan had given me pink glitter for my face and a floral maxiskirt, so I blended in with the crowd, dancing, laughing and screaming lyrics in an outpouring of collective joy.
The next day I had a mild hangover. But I also had the memory of this joy, which gave me the jolt of motivation that I needed to begin the programme of mindfulness exercises that I call my “OCD bootcamp”. And sure, that programme involves meditating, eating healthily and getting plenty of sleep. But sometimes a rat night out is just the boost you need for your mental health. Just ask the neuroscientists.