There’s one picture of me from the day after my boyfriend and I broke up. My mom had dropped everything and drove five hours to be with me in my post-apocalyptic state. She insisted on going out for comfort food and snapping a quick selfie to send to my dad. I could hardly look at myself in the screen. She poured more wine in my glass, which I had hardly touched to begin with.
Looking at this picture now, I don’t recognize myself. Later that night, I cried myself to sleep on the couch next to my already-snoring mom, watching 13 Going On 30. There was a pit forming in my stomach — I could already tell this would be a months-long journey to heal the loss of the most important relationship in my life.
There are many phases of a breakup you may be in right now. If you’re anything like me, you scour the Internet for ANY guidance on how to get through this world of yours ending. Family and friends can give advice, but when you can’t sleep for the hundredth time, Buzzfeed articles and terrible podcasts on heartbreak might be the only fix accessible to you.
I’m still embarrassed by how quickly I’d eat up this cliché, unfounded advice, but I couldn’t help it. I was so desperate for any piece of writing that told me it would be ok. In the end what resonated though, was honesty. And so, I may not be able to share a magic cure, but I can recall how I fumbled through the hardest months of my life. I can share all of the things I would have wanted to find in my feverish Google searches.
Similar to grief, healing occurred in phases. There’s no time stamp on them. I don’t think the amount of time you spend with someone dictates how long you’re allowed to grieve the loss of that relationship. It’s all fluid. There are hundreds of cheesy movies about breakups, but no rule book.
The first phase of a breakup is undoubtedly the hardest, and feels most permanent when you’re stuck in it. My mom called me every day, begging me to get out of bed. Just to do something. I lost ten pounds in two weeks. I got two hours of sleep on a good night. I had a menacing, constant headache from dehydration — that’s how much I was crying.
I forgot every morning when I woke up. Those few blissful minutes were so bittersweet, and usually their crash was what secured me in bed for the rest of the day.
I read something around this time that said how in a breakup, you must do things that feel like fire on your skin. It’s achingly true. Seeing a couple holding hands on the street burned me alive. Getting dressed and leaving my apartment singed my heart. Sharing the news with even the smallest acquaintance burned tears in my eyes.
My car on the way home from work was such a sad sanctuary — sobs broke me open in ways I didn’t think possible. I couldn’t listen to music for the first few weeks. I’d just drive home in silence on summer nights that felt so perfect that they were just trying to rub it in. Over a year away from this phase, that version of myself is still hard to think about.
I needed to hear most in those moments: “It won’t last forever. You will be happy again.”
The second phase is when you feel like there’s a lot of things you should be doing. There’s some unspoken amount of time that’s passed and now suddenly people think you’re okay. They make comments + judgements about the relationship you’re supposedly ready to hear. This phase held unexpected anger for me. It showed me the beautiful and disappointing corners to other relationships in my life. When the knives fell, it was the most lovely and unexpected crew that stopped everything to be with me.
During this time, you’re wobbling through life without training wheels. You are well enough to leave bed, but still feel like you’re missing your left arm. I was needy in such a childlike way, and unsure of things I never used to think twice about.
I needed to hear in this phase: “Lean in to every feeling. You are doing your best, and your best is wonderful.”
As I slowly began seeing clearer, I reconciled with some of the deeper reasons why the relationship ended. The stuff you felt deep down, but talked yourself out of in the moment. I always thought I’d be someone who wouldn’t get delusional in a relationship — trying to make something work that was clearly not going to last. I felt disappointed in myself by how much, cliché as it sounds, my love for a person had blinded me.
Self-forgiveness arrives here. Therapy comes in here. Giving yourself a break swoops in and forces you to exhale right here.
What evolves as another facet to this phase is deciding to “get back out there.”
It’s a time when you feel like you should be dating. Maybe you should go one just one date to get over them. Maybe a quick hookup to get them out of your system. Maybe entertaining the idea of that guy friend who’s always flirted you. The thought of putting together a dating profile, though, made me sick.
And then one day, it didn’t. One night in November, I went on a date with a sweet man who bought me an old fashioned at a bar my ex would have rolled his eyes at. We had a great time. He told me I was beautiful. And that was enough for me.
What I needed to hear: “Do things at your own pace. Make peace with the past without being too hard on yourself.”
Then comes the phase where time passes. You’ll look back on your state only a few months ago, and feel like an entirely different person. You’re not renewed and fully healed — but now feeling lighter. In this time, I got caught in how much of my life had passed by without my ex. I’d see a photo where his hair looked different, or he’d gotten new glasses. At holidays I’d habitually turn to look for him across the room, remembering that he wasn’t my +1 anymore. It would hit me hard — and made me ashamed to still be shaken by something so small.
What I needed to hear during this time was, “You built a life with this person. You are allowed to miss them however you’d like.”
I haven’t been in another relationship since this one ending, and I’ve been surprised to find that I actually prefer it this way. I’ve learned more about myself in this process than anything I’ve experienced before. I love being alone. I love not needing to rely on anyone else, and making decisions with only myself in mind. I know what I want in my next partner, and what won’t work for me.
More than anything, I feel triumphant. Proud of myself for being able to get through something that felt permanent. Humbled by what I’ve learned about how I deal with adversity. And, grateful for the incredible people who surrounded and shared in my struggle along the way.
And so, dear reader, you aren’t alone. You may be scrolling through this piece on your phone at 3 AM revisiting the highlight tape of your shared past. You might feel like you messed everything up. Or that you’ll be single forever. But you’re in the middle of a beautiful and heart-wrenching process. And you’ll be better for it as you come out the other side.