Inside The Heartbreak Hotel

Does it ever just get too much? Well now you can get away and recuperate with a healthy dose of heartache, at Norfolk's new Heartbreak Hotel. We speak to those involved. 

Heartbreak Hotel

Does it ever just get too much? Well now you can get away and recuperate with a healthy dose of heartache, at Norfolk’s new Heartbreak Hotel.

We speak to those involved. 

Few phrases could conjure up a scene quite as desperately sad as, ‘Heartbreak Hotel opened in Norfolk’. Bringing up images of girls crying into ice cream in American movies, or Elvis crooning that famous tune, it’s one of fictionalised sadness, hooked into all the rom-com tropes we’ve grown up with. But for founder Alice Haddon, that’s exactly what she’s up against.

“From a psychological point of view, heartbreak is very much under-researched and under-prioritised”, Alice told me. I can’t argue with her, immediately thinking about all the times I’ve cried in offices after being dumped felt off the cards. Armed only with the classic ‘put on a brave face and power through’ advice, a 3-day stay in a luxury hotel felt counter-intuitive to the stay-busy approach the majority of us have to default to. But when asked, Alice simply counters my query with: “did that work for you?” 

“Our phrase is ‘get back together with yourself,’” Alice says. “Women are born into a world where men have the power, the patriarchy. Women are often in service to others, and whether it’s their partner, children, their parents, their work, or their friends; they can easily forget to be in service to themselves. So the bigger aim of the weekend is to rescript the narrative of who the women are, or broaden the narrative of who they are … it’s nothing to do with the heartbreaker.” 

Slowly shifting my preconceptions from depressing to deeply powerful, Alice paints a picture of a kind of haven. Inspired by a Radio 4 piece about victims of financial betrayal and her own experience of grief after losing her mother, the therapist rediscovered what it is to be truly heartbroken and the kind of all-consuming care we crave at our most vulnerable. But unlike our own experiences that have to happen in private spaces, The Heartbreak Hotel gives that pain space to be present. “If you’re really in pain, traditional therapy doesn’t feel enough. You have to leave that safe place after 50 minutes and go back into your life, put yourself back together and put the smile back on your face until the next week,” she explains. “But if you give people women the chance to sit with their feelings long enough to understand them, talk about them, feel them – it’s a quick way of helping them to move forward.” 

Costing £2500, the fast-track ticket to healing comes with a hefty price tag. Packing six months’ worth of therapy into 3 phone-less days, guests can expect eight hours of therapy daily, EMDR sessions, yoga classes, compulsory beach trips and chef-made meals targeted toward heart healing. Making heartbreak seem upmarket, our scepticism about the fancy healing is mirrored by guests in their anonymous letters, writing, “It was hard to trust and divulge at first, but that became so much easier and we got used to the process.” All the letters spiralling around the same words of warmth, hope, community, and safe spaces; the initial preconception of pathetic women are nowhere to be found.

Heartbreak Hotel

“What happened at the first retreat took us all a bit by surprise”, Alice said, “as they start to let go of stuff and shift some of their old patterns, this kind of lightness emerges.” Explaining the atmosphere of the retreat, Alice laughs as she recounts stories of totally sober dinner times with women falling about giggling, it seems like the healthiest kind of trauma bonding. And that appears as the major benefit, building a community among the guests so the women aren’t allowed to mope solo. “They never feel like they’ll get bored of hearing each other,” Alice remarks about the group set-up, explaining that a WhatsApp group of the heartbroken is the number one form of after-care once the retreat is over and her work is done. Relying on the therapizing women naturally do for one another, The Heartbreak Hotel finds its foundation in essentially forming huddles, letting the women escape friends that are sick of hearing their sob stories and find echo chambers where ranting space and support are never exhausted. Echoed by Ruth Field; the hotel’s ‘author and advocate’, she says “I find it so extraordinary when they’re in a group it’s far from meaning that they’re having to share the therapist with six of them, it’s more they get like six times the value.”

“I think we think that the way to feel better is to meet up with a group of friends and drink wine and just, you know, basically slag off the person to your heart’s content,” Ruth laughs, “but what I’ve learned from the Heartbreak Hotel, is that actually, those sorts of conversations can keep us trapped in the same loop.” Talking about the physical sessions and beach runs, Ruth’s definition of the hotel’s power seems rooted in being active, something quite the opposite of the idea of swanning around a luxury hotel. With so many of the visitors’ letters discussing that initial drive from their homes to Norfolk hoping the retreat would be cancelled on the way, a theme emerges of bravery and big leaps, treating the hotel as a kind of rehab where the first step is admitting there’s an issue, dropping the brave face and packing a bag. Healing at the hotel is something you work at and suddenly making my ‘stay busy and get on with it’ route feels cowardly in comparison. 

Going into the conversation, I was expecting to feel bitter. £2,500 and 3 days away to honour your pain isn’t something many people can do, and I expected the experience to feel as throw away and insignificant as a juice cleanse or a fad diet that only the few can afford to test out. I thought women have been getting through this pain forever, but in speaking to Alice and Ruth, ‘getting through it’ seems oppressive and the main takeaway is that The Heartbreak Hotel give women space to do more than that.

Laughing, crying, and taking trips to the beach like sickly Victorians, the space is entirely built on the pillars of women’s feelings and experiences. Shutting the door to the patriarchy and creating a healing cocoon of community, by the end of the call I wished I could be dumped to go take a trip.


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