I learned something about myself recently: I’m not good at breakups. I know that no one is particularly skilled at them, and though I know I have far less practice than others and I should be bad at them, I’m really, really, really awful. In an attempt to add some levity to a conversation I was having with a dear friend on the subject, I compared my post-relationship impulses to that of an unhinged woman in a Country Western song. I received no disagreeing statement. It was settled: I’m equally or more “crazy” than Miranda Lambert in Mama’s Broken Heart. (Down to the home-cut bangs and everything.)
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. I just feel so strongly. Like many breakups, I imagine, I felt blindsided at first. Then I realized that the signs had been there all along. Hell, there were times when I contemplated or even threatened doing it myself. I’m certainly prone to a certain level of insanity. (A problematic term that I’m reclaiming for the sake of this essay.) It’s sort of a given, having a diagnosed mental illness. However, when he said those words, a switch flipped in me. It was like all of my repressed anger, my hurt, my fears, and my worthlessness fell in a powerful torrent that I was absolutely useless against. Every suicidal thought, every impulse of self-harm, every single whisper of inadequacy and the feeling that I’m certainly bound to die young, childless, and alone came to me. Every irrational notion that I’d spent so much of my adult life fighting against suddenly won. And I just took it. I cried. I didn’t eat. It’s still fresh, I could barely get out of bed this morning. I ordered my favorite Chinese delivery last night and I could barely bring myself to eat any of it. (If you know me, you know that’s rare.) A force-fed forkful of noodles to the face and I was back to bed. And anyone who’s been depressed for any reason knows all about the bedtime paradox: you spend the entire day longing for bed, for sleep, for some relief from the pain and once you get there, it seems impossible.
How did I ever get to sleep without his arms wrapped around me? I wondered it the first time he slept by my side, and I’ve been wondering it every night now that he’s gone. It’s like that for most things. The way he’d pronounce words in a silly way—or, just differently from me. I was so amused by it, it’d always brought me delight, and I now find myself mouthing words to myself in an attempt to find a familiar place. “TOO-er (tour), cor-DI-al (cordial), glay-cee-uhr (glacier).” I never thought that common words would bring me to tears. Perhaps it’s because I was building a relationship that was destined to burn from the beginning. He taught me the things I needed to succeed in love, but it came at a cost. As I laid in bed last night mouthing words and resisting the urge to scroll through photos of the two of us during happier times, I wondered how I could be better.
I felt like I’d never not had a partner. I was the friend in the group with a significant other: always. I was married young. It was a foregone conclusion. I was raised in an environment that enabled the mentality that a woman—nay, a life—is worth so much more with a partner. I was never taught to be alone and to be okay with it. I praised voluntary solitude but only for short periods of time: and only on my terms. I was alright on my own, independent to an extent, but wanted someone to make life seem “worth it.” It’s a spell I’ve had on me, I blame my evangelical upbringing and the mandatory “True Love Waits” classes we took in youth group—that’s a different can of worms that I am entirely unwilling to open on this blog at the moment though. All of this is to say that when this relationship came falling apart, I realized just how inept I am on my own and how bad I am at being alone.
So there you have it: bad at love, bad at breakups, bad at being alone. I wondered if there was a way that I could fix all three at once. (Well, over time, but as one joint effort.) I did a sad Charlie Brown walk to Shakespeare & Co. and perused the “self help” section. Must have been quite the spectacle, especially because I didn’t discover my mascara-stained cheeks until I got home.
One book simply titled “Relationships” caught my eye. It offered this:
Few things promise us greater happiness than our relationships - yet few things more reliably deliver misery and frustration. Our error is to suppose that we are born knowing how to love and that managing a relationship might therefore be intuitive and easy.
This book starts from a different premise: that love is a skill to be learnt, rather than just an emotion to be felt. It calmly and charmingly takes us around the key issues of relationships, from arguments to sex, forgiveness to communication, making sure that success in love need never again be just a matter of luck.
I knew that if I didn’t strike while the iron was hot, this book would just sit on my shelf and collect dust. I tore the plastic packaging off and began reading as I waited for the train. I felt like I was being personally called out in the first chapter. Was it just that? Was I being too much of a naive romantic? I don’t think my problem has ever been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” but rather, “treating my love as an instinct, a feeling, and something that I’ll just happen to get better at as time goes by” when I should have been treating it like a skill to be learned the whole time. I’m bad at love. But we all are. We’ve been duped into buying this ideal formed by years of conditioning by late romanticism. Love seems so abstract but much like the very real illness I spend my life coping with, it really comes down to chemicals reacting with other chemicals in our brains. It’s still special though. I do believe that it’s to be cherished. I just don’t know how yet, which is why I’m treating this blog a little less like something other people are likely to read and more like a personal journal entry. Perhaps I’ll look back on it someday and think, “you brilliant brunette, THANK YOU for realizing this,” or, “yeah you dumb bitch, only took you 27 years or so.” At this point, I’m content with either of those outcomes, so long as I’m alright in the end.
We have so many “first days of our lives.” I still hold that the day I met him for the first time was one of mine. However, my most recent rebirth was when I came to terms with the fact that love isn’t something we’re born knowing how to navigate. That there is hope yet. But it’s scary. It’s treacherous. There’s a long road ahead of me, and all of those who choose this revelation. But what I’m hoping is that I’ll come out stronger on the other side. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. For once though, the goal here is not to find someone with which to live out the remainder of cuffing season. The goal isn’t to get “him” back. The goal is to be okay with being alone. To learn about love. To love myself. I don’t want to do it. I just want to go back to being happy in a relationship, because falling in love feels amazing. Finding the person who you think may be your person is an incredible, humbling experience. Goodnight calls and good morning texts are tight. As hard as it is for me to admit though, all of those wonderful things can’t be the ultimate goal.
I’m not okay. I’m far from it. Writing this has helped me gain some of the clarity I needed but things like this don’t just “get better.” I know that in an hour or two, I’ll see frost on a windshield that slightly resembles a mountain, I’ll feel a chill in the air reminiscent of our first night together, I’ll stumble upon an old letter of his, precious gifts that I’ve left scattered around my home and don’t think I’ll have the strength to pack away any time soon. I’ll avoid so many songs that I loved before and change my walk home as to not walk through certain paths on Rittenhouse Square, or by the table we shared at Parc on one of my favorite evenings. I’ll stare at the ground when I work through the glass coverings at Dilworth Park, hiding under trees decorated with thousands of lights, as happy couples skate and share kisses over hot cocoa or mulled wine nearby. I won’t even visit the Creche in Old City, and I’ll avoid the Ben Franklin Bridge at all costs.
Maybe someday though, I can reclaim my walk home. I can listen to the song and think of him fondly and not absolutely lose myself. For now though, I’ll stick to safe playlists. I’ll take a different walk to the train. I’ll invest in some waterproof mascara, or I’ll go makeup-free. I’ll invest in myself in general: therapy, meds, books, solo travel, things I’ve always looked up to other women for.
If you’re going through a similar season, know this: you’re not alone.