Q. My sister is going through her First Major Break-Up. My offers to beat the guy up/egg his car have not been met with the kind of enthusiasm I expected, which leaves me sort of a loss in the helpful department. So I ask: What advice do you wish you had been given during the First Big Break-Up?
A. Heartbreak sucks.
Once upon a time, I had my heart broken by my own hand, or something like it. I was not the dumpee, but the dumper, though if we are to be perfectly honest, the dumpee had left the relationship a very long time ago. It was not a case of who was a bad person and how horrible they were. Most heartbreak, unfortunately, comes down to more mundane circumstances, rather than large implosions and cataclysmic disasters. In our case, we were so, so young. If we had been pioneers in the 1800s, I’m sure we would have had three kids and a cow by the time we separated, but thanks to timing and lucky circumstance, neither of us was born to till fields and bear children at twenty. If we hadn’t had the luck of our era on our side, I’m sure we would have worked from sun up to sun down, no energy left to ponder why it was we were brought together, why we stayed with one another, and why we were both so unhappy. I suppose that was one of the few benefits of being a pioneer.
At the time of our breakup, we both knew that we were not meant for one another. I don’t mean in the way of soul mates or foreverness, only that we were so different on a molecular level, that we could not recognize one another, and only seemed familiar with the presence of the other from living together day after day. Each of us had committed those sins against one another, the type that if you are still in a relationship, seem to be back notes and minor keys to the larger story of “we.” If things have fallen apart, then they are defining moments, acts of cruelty and bookmarks of how that person has failed you, how they have carried so much of the fault. Sometimes you do end up with sociopaths, people who don’t have hearts of their own, so they eat everyone else’s, including yours. These people are to be avoided like the plague, but it’s important to take the experience of having your heart almost eaten in front of you to realize what these people look like. Heart eaters aside, most of the saddest types of heartbreak don’t come from the blind cruelty of purposeful actions, they comes from much more benign sins. Carelessness. Thoughtlessness. One would argue that these are all normal. I tend to argue that these are the worst.
When I broke it off with him, I held a firm, calm face. I had practiced this over and over, recycling the same scenarios and emotions in my head. I had cried on floors, stayed out late, and drank myself into stupors of teetering on the line of embarrassing chaos and slurry attempts to hold it together. I had cut off parts of myself, trained my body and heart not to seek out comfort in him, and done all the emotional homework I thought I could to prepare me for the moment when I would be able to walk away with minimum impact. At first, it was great. The first month, after we had split, I moved into an apartment where I slept on a futon mattress on the floor, with just barely one bag of possessions. I was more confident than ever that splitting was exactly the right thing to do. I partook in all the things I felt had been deprived from me during said relationship. I felt that I had climbed to the very tip top of a peak and was now able to look out at what my life was, surveying it and its successes through liquor soaked lenses and the excitement of being what they call “free at last.”
Then it stopped.
Maybe it was this one thing or another, the circumstances are really of no importance. But one morning, heartbreak hit me in a way that was decidedly painful. All my instincts screamed, “What have you done?” What had I done? I had broken off a relationship where I loved the person – I loved them! How stupid had I been? What good was all this now? How had I ended up in a closet-sized room in dingy New Jersey, laying on a futon mattress on the floor, a bag of dirty clothes by my side? Wasn’t I supposed to be the mature one? The one who had it all together? Sure, I had been unhappy, but maybe I just was like those Joni Mitchell lyrics, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I ran back to our once shared apartment, where all my reminders of “home” lay in the same places. My furniture sat in the apartment untouched by me, my stuff had been quickly put into boxes, and my once-partner kept saying “no.” It was all too much to bear. My heart was now breaking in front of someone and they had already moved on. “This can work,” I remember saying to him and to myself, as he skeptically stared at me, all while weeping. Bargaining is considered the third step in the Kubler-Ross grief process, a textbook piece of information I would consider trite, until I was actually living and experiencing it full on. There I stood, in front of a partner who wasn’t good for me, and I knew it, bargaining myself away for whatever scraps remained.
In hindsight, I’m confident in saying that I was indeed, a crazy person. I had lost touch with the world and turned into a shattered heart, desperate to pick up the pieces, while only knowing the formula it had before. I was ridiculous in my attempts to restructure, but how could I know that the pieces wouldn’t fit? When your heart gets broken, you don’t realize that the structure is now different. So I flailed and protested and wept and made promises I knew I couldn’t keep. I was pathetic and sincere and honest and a liar. I cried publicly on subways, where people ignored me, so that neither of us would feel uncomfortable. I cried in front of him, hoping my breakdowns of our busted, old relationship and whatever crisis that happened that week would garner me sympathy and maybe, just maybe, he would let me back in. I cried because he would just stand there looking at me while I wept so hard my body would shake, because how could he just keep it together and be so cool, while I melted down into hysterics like a little child. I cried because I had done this myself. I cried because I knew I didn’t want it but didn’t know what else to do. I cried and cried and cried until I could not cry anymore.
No was always his answer.
I could not understand no. But I did understand fleeing. I took all my savings and traveled an ocean away to a place that looks like the moon and felt as barren as my insides did. Even a thousand miles away in a place where I could not understand a single word and slept in a tent on frozen tundra, I still could not escape my own pain and heartbreak. I stopped eating and went down to 100 lbs. My hair fell out. My depression took hold and I looked for comfort and approval wherever I could find it (a trait that I unfortunately still carry around to this day). My anxiety raged and every decision was plagued with a Greek chorus behind it shouting, ” Are you sure you want to do that? You might fuck it up like that relationship!” I cried. I screamed. I dramatically played out every absurd and honest stereotype that comes with the experience of what happens to people every day.
I was heartbroken. Very, very, heartbroken.
Years later, after all this, all these emotions that held me hostage at the inconsistency of my own hysteria, do I regret ending this relationship and self-imposing heartbreak on myself?
Absolutely not. I would never go back.
As the old saying goes, this pain will be useful to you one day. Hindsight is a wonderful, wonderful tool, the only downfall being that it often comes too late, after we really need it. I am thankful that no was the answer and thankful that perhaps he saw something I could not. I am thankful that I had my heart split into pieces, shattered, and traumatized. I am thankful for all I had to go through during those months of relearning and piecing everything back together. No one tells you that when you are in the thick of it, you will be okay on the other side. Well, that’s a lie. Everyone tells you that, but you are not interested in listening to anything other than your own suffering. Your trauma becomes the thread that moves you through the world and colors all your experiences. You become the center of a pained universe that cannot escape from its own grief and coping, swallowing everything around you madly, defiantly, and selfishly. In The NeverEnding Story, the main character, a boy named Atreyu, is attempting to cross a place called the Swamps of Sadness. Promised protection by a token called the AURYN, Atreyu and his one companion, Artax, attempt to cross the Swamp of Sadness. Each step is a fight, a struggle that requires all of their energy and concentration to do what we simply do most days and so sadly take for granted: put one foot in front of the other and move forward. Atreyu’s beloved Artax cannot bear the sadness, and lets it eat him. Atreyu begs for Artax to just move forward, just take one step. But Artax has given up – he has let sadness into his heart and let it eat him alive. Artax is lost, not only to himself, but to the one person who loved him more than anybody else. Atreyu.
This is what sadness does if we let it eat us alive.
So, what of your sister’s heartbreak? What comfort can be given that often only time and moving forward can give? I say this: if your heart is beating this morning, then you are capable of love again. If your heart is still thumping, then you can put one foot in front of the other, and move through your Swamp of Sadness. Feel the sadness. Do not let it eat you alive. Feel it through the disappointment and heartbreak, until day by day, it becomes less at the forefront of your mind, and slowly, becomes a memory, a lesson, an experience. You do this through working on yourself and working for others. You give yourself what it is you need and allow yourself to grieve. Have a funeral, because there is always food and comfort at a funeral. Wake up each day and realize that this day may be wonderful, and also that this day might be one of the worst days of your life – your only responsibility is to be thankful for both, because they provide you the perspective on being a better person. You work hard, you keep your head up, and you take pride in who you are. You make mistakes. You do good. You are loyal to yourself. You do this each and every day, even if you don’t succeed and you fail by falling face down on the ground, because so fucking what? You fail until you get up the next day and do it again and maybe you don’t fail that day and know you might not the next either. You do this so you will grow and change – you create enough distance from what once was the source of all the pain in your heart and you look at what was once everything and now see it as something that once was, not what is. You do all this, so you can be the type of person you would want to love and to love you. You do this to heal yourself, you do this to to heal everyone else you will come to meet in the future, because the world desperately needs kinder, loving people.
You do this over and over, and over. Then you try again. Because that is all you can do.
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