I’m a therapist now, and often help people heal from the pain of a breakup or divorce. But I wasn’t always. I think one of the reasons I have so much genuine compassion for people going through heartbreak is because I’ve been there too.
One of the most harrowing, soul crushing life experiences I’ve ever had was during a break up. I was very young, barely in high school. I was too young, looking back now, to handle the emotional intensity of that relationship — but it was what it was. My parent’s unhappy marriage had become a pressure cooker of resentments that was finally cracking and pulling apart at the seams. While my mom and dad were preoccupied with their own problems I developed a deep connection with… let’s call him James. He was my age, but seemed older: Passionate, intense, demanding. Neither of us had much else to attach to, so we clung to each other. We spent every every day together, every night on the phone. He drove me to school, and carried my books. He loved me intensely and my fragile self felt strengthened by that love. If James thought I was so special, then maybe I was. For the first time in my life I felt important, and irreplaceable. His love made me worth something.
We were together for two years. (The equivalent of two decades, in high school years). We were the ever-stable unit within in a group of friends that was my world. I’m not exactly sure when the attraction began between he and my best friend, Laura. But during the summer when I was sixteen I felt things changing. The love I’d come to depend on from him faded. He seemed remote, and irritable with me. The mirror he held up that had once shown me that I was cherished now showed me that I was annoying. But our love was something that I’d come to depend on, and it seemed as certain as gravity. I wanted him to be happy with me again, but when I asked about the emotional detachment I was feeling from him, he agreed… and said he wanted to break up. I was shocked. But it was done.
I felt like I’d been kicked out of Eden, and into a nightmarish dream-world of pain and betrayal. Laura lived across the street from me. Late at night, I sat in darkness, fanning cigarette smoke out the window and listening to music that was even darker, and watched James’s nocturnal visits to Laura’s house. Watched him slipping into Laura’s bedroom, conveniently located just behind the sliding glass door on the ground level (her parents sleeping in ignorance, three stories above). Other nights I watched her silently run to the waiting car packed with friends — my friends — that was idling, headlights off, at the bottom of the hill. I watched them all drive away to the subversive, smokey midnight gatherings that had been the glue of my teenage social life, while I sat alone in the darkness, envisioning the two most important people in my world with their arms wrapped around each other in the dark backseat of the car.
I felt like my guts had been scooped out and replaced with broken glass. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t speak without my voice cracking into tears. I felt like I walked the halls of my high school covered in blood, enveloped in a repellant fog of aching vulnerability. I had lost. A career politician is less sensitive to falling political power than a sixteen year old, and my former friends set their gaze firmly on distant objects over my shoulder as we passed in the hall. James had moved on, taking my value with him. They confirmed his judgment. I was worthless.
I felt trapped, and entirely powerless. I had to go to school. I had to see them every day, and watch them every night. I couldn’t get away. I had to sit in classes, watching notes being passed, plans being made, eyes being rolled in my direction. Every day brought a new trauma to endure.
It was around this time that my parents brought me to see a shrink. This was my first experience, and I was hopeful. She was youthful, with curly hair in a banana clip, and the stiff nebula of fluffy bangs arranged into a cupcake on her forehead that was so prized by my peers. I told her what was happening to me; as best I could. I told her that my boyfriend and best friend across the street were together now, and that I had been abandoned by all my friends. What I really meant to say was, “I am dying. Help me.” She apparently heard me say, “It’s just Puppy Love, I’m fine,” so she smiled kindly, gave me a relationship book, and told me that I should get more exercise. I drove to the trail-head and sat in my car, and looked at it for awhile, chain smoking cigarettes with tears rolling down my face. I knew that there was no help for me.
No one in my life had tolerance for my being a seething mess of pain. My parents were anxious about me, but had no idea what to do. Once when I was crying hysterically, my mother offered me a whiskey sour. I’d been trivialized by my therapist. I felt entirely alone. I was flailing. I started asking teachers that I felt close to for advice: My science teacher said that it would just take time to get over. My piano teacher listened with great compassion, and told me that it was James’s fault. But my psychology teacher, Mrs. Gibbs, really saw me. She got it. And I will never forget what she said:
“My high school break up was worse than my divorce. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through.”
And in that moment, I felt the first peace and healing that I’d felt in months. To have another human being validate the fact that what was happening was horribly traumatizing to me, was an incredibly meaningful and important piece on my journey of healing. I felt like I was drowning, and Mrs. Gibbs threw me a life ring. Her words didn’t pull me out, but they did keep me afloat. I wasn’t crazy. There wasn’t something wrong with me because I was so devastated. It was real.
And that is what I’d like to offer you today: Simple acknowledgment of the fact that what you are going through is agonizing, traumatizing, and very difficult to heal from. You might think you should just be able to “get over it.” That is simply not true. (Here’s lots more information on that subject if you’re curious about why I can say that with such certainty). You have every right in the world to be sad, grieving, and even afraid. The life that you had just got exploded into little bits and thrown in the air, and the pieces are going to be swirling and reassembling themselves for a long time. And some of those pieces may have names like “Rage,” “Fear,” “Guilt,” “Rejection,” and “Pain,” not to mention the experience so profane that there is not a word for it in our language: The experience of being victimized by someone you thought loved you. Perhaps there is some nifty 19 syllable German word that combines “the pain of betrayal” with “shame of rejection.” If not, let’s put it in the suggestion box.
If you take anything from my story, let it be this: As much as the people in your life might want you to — as much as YOU probably want to — you cannot “just get over it.” There is nothing wrong with you because you feel this way. Other people — every one, in fact — goes through this too, sooner or later. And as horrible as this experience is, you can heal. I know this, because my sixteen year old self grew up to be a shrink. What I do for a living now is walk into the darkness to find people, and help them back out. I’ve walked this journey many times now, and I know how to help people heal. I’ve shared a lot about what I’ve learned, in other articles, in my podcast, and I’ve even written a book on the subject of breakup recovery.
Step one in healing: Know that your pain is valid, legitimate, and understandable. It is okay to not be okay for awhile. And you are not alone. There is support for you. Send me a private message on Facebook if you’d like me to add you to our secret online breakup recovery support of people in the same situation. And I’d also like you to know what I know now (that I did NOT know as a kid, but would have shortened my suffering by years if I had) is that there is also a path to healing. If you’d ever like my help with that, I’m here.
With all the best to you on your journey of recovery…