AFTER being diagnosed with the chronic illness achalasia, a rare disorder of the gullet which has no known cause or treatment, Femi Martin spoke about her experience with illness on Radio 4.

The programme was entitled The Achalasia Diaries and acted as something of a springboard for Martin’s new one-woman show, How To Die of A Broken Heart. As the name suggests, the performance explores heartbreak as well as Martin’s disorder – and how the two are linked. Martin, who made her name as a spoken word artist and was the Dickens Young Writer in Residence in 2012, told EDWIN GILSON about the show and making peace with her illness.

What was your intention behind producing this show? Cliches aside, did you feel it would be therapeutic?

A few years ago I was playing around with a show called All The Men I Thought I Loved. The intention of that show was just to tell funny stories about men I’d been in relationships with. When I told my friends about them they would just cry with laughter. I thought maybe I could do something with that.

That was only about laughing at them, though – “look at these strange men I’ve been with” – but then the idea developed and I realised I had to be more honest. Then I realised I couldn’t laugh at them without leaving people space to laugh at me too. I didn’t expect it to be cathartic, although it was ultimately.

Is the heartbreak you describe still vivid in your mind or does it feel like it belongs to a different person, looking back?

When I first started looking at heartbreak, and even though these relationships had been a few years before, it was still very fresh in my mind. I think by looking at it in a more honest way, it began to fade. I do have a habit of saying, “That was me then, that was 25 year-old Femi”, but it’s all me in reality.

The blurb for the show references the “beauties and dangers of loving someone. Were there times in your life where you were put off seeking love completely?

I was definitely put off for a while. It’s tiring to enter a new relationship. You have to learn a lot about the other person and open yourself up to that. All those questions like, “What were you doing five years ago?” and “Where did you go to school?” and “What’s your favourite colour?” Well not the last one – who says that? But it’s all about learning and there is that time when you have to let people see the places that you are vulnerable because you have to know you can trust them. You invest all of this emotionally, and then you start again when you’ve had your heartbroken.

It just became tiring for me, and at the same time I became very ill. That was the moment I shut myself off and decided I was not going to have a relationship ever again, or get married or have children. I felt I was either with people who didn’t understand my illness and weren’t kind and compassionate enough or people who seemed to understand but felt guilty about it all. I just decided to swear off relationships for a while. Ultimately relationships are supposed to lift you up – you might as well be on your own if they don’t.

How did you get out of that phase?

I had to get healthy physically and emotionally. It was good in a way, because on some level I was looking for something in a relationship that I first had to give to myself, and I know how cliched that sounds.

You said the “heartbreak affected your life and body”. Do you believe your illness was almost psychosomatic?

I developed this condition after my first major break-up. In the research phase of the show I asked other people whether they had experienced any physical symptoms after a breakup and lots of people said they had. There are the normal physical things like crying all the time, but also more severe things like losing your hair. I did some research into neuroscience and found out there is a big link between the brain and the body. Emotional trauma is a serious issue. It’s OK to feel distress.

Sometimes there is this pressure that we should get over things quickly, especially if the other person wasn’t up to much. There’s that attitude of: “Girl, you’ve broken up with him, move on, you can do better.” True, maybe, but you need time to grieve and mourn. Break-ups are a death – the end of something.

Did you have any reservations about speaking about your illness on Radio 4? Did you not want to retain a bit of privacy?

Radio was a bit easier, because I’m not in the room when people are listening to me. Being on stage is different, because I’m telling my story to people I can see. I don’t do that in my personal life – if you look at my social media I’m not one to tell people what I’m doing day to day. I’m very private. For the integrity of the art, though, you have to show up properly for the work to be worth it.

I had to commit to that and my director helped me to. The first time I sat with her she said I was very honest on radio and skirting over things in the live performance. I knew I needed to be pushed in that sense, and she helped me to be brave about it. Once I made the commitment I just went for it.

To what extent is the achalasia a severe obstacle to your creative and professional life?

It’s a chronic condition and it never goes away. I’m one of the lucky ones – there are lots of people who have it who don’t have the quality of life that I have. I don’t have any complaints – I’m managing it. I don’t eat certain things because it can cause me incredible amounts of pain. It’s manageable but it is chronic. I try not to think about it, especially as it’s progressive – I want to enjoy the good years while I still have them.

What do you want audiences to take away from your show? Do you want to raise awareness about both illness and emotional trauma?

I think that’s some of it. Sometimes you need to realise that these things you are feeling in your body are real and shouldn’t be ignored. I made peace with myself while making the show, and I want other people to do that too. Look at my pain and feel better about your own.

Femi Martin: How to Die of a Broken Heart, Brighton Dome Founders Room, February 25, 3pm and 6pm, £10, call 01273 709709 or visit