It’s Not Just You
When you finally decide to take time off is when it seems to happen. Life has thrown some uncomfortable experiences your way, and so you consciously back away from dating. You swear off the people you find attractive, and decide to focus on other things for your own sanity.
And then they walk in.
You think to yourself “No way. This can’t be happening. It’s not real.” But it is. It’s as real as oxygen, and the tiny flame inside of you explodes into a raging fire. It’s DEFCON 1. It’s a 10.0 earthquake. Despite what you’d told yourself that morning, you fall for them fully and completely. You’re in love, and all of those silly moments in movies where someone is walking down the street singing to birds make complete sense. You know the feeling.
Somewhere along the way you stop imagining what life could be like without them. Eventually they become your world and you’re happy with that change.
You plan your future. You talk houses, jobs, retirement. What city do you want to live in? Do you want kids? Would we be able to save enough to do what we want?
Your life together grows, and it looks good on you. Think about where you were a year ago, three years ago, five years ago. What if you’d stuck to that “no more dating” thing you foolishly decreed the day you met them? You’d have missed out on the best thing in your life. Your foundation. Your rock.
You can’t remember a time before them, and daydreaming about the memories you’ve made together is fun. The two of you are smiling, often there are silly faces involved. You travel together, you stay home together. You talk to them about you, what it’s like to be you and what makes you tick. They know you better than you know you, and in your darkest moments they guide you.
Something happens. Something bad. And it shakes you, but it’s alright. Your rock is there for you. You start to do things that you would never do without them to support you. That unconditional love is empowering, and lifts you, it pushes you. You swim across those rivers you’d never dare on your own because you are stronger; you are not alone in this fight, and your rock is there to hold on to.
And then without warning, that rock turns to sand while you’re holding on. You’re being swept down a river unable to see what’s coming, and that rock you were holding on to, the one that made this whole thing safe, is gone. All that’s left is this sand, and even that is being scattered by the water rushing about you. Objects are flying past, and you have to open your hand, let go of what remains of that rock and fight for your life to survive.
They are gone, and they’re never coming back. That’s the moment this story begins.
Chapter 1: Know Your Devils
If you’re not already familiar with the stages of grief, you’re about to be. Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance and you’ll grow to become very, very familiar with them. You’ll also realize quickly that they are not all created equal, they are non-linear and they are cyclical. So we’re all on the same page here, let’s briefly describe them.
- Denial: “No way this is happening. Nope.”
- Anger: “Fuck them. How could they do this?”
- Bargaining: “What if I made this concession, would they still love me?”
- Depression: “I want to die. I cannot go on.”
- Acceptance: “Ok. This is ok. It’s happening, I have no choice, so how do I get through it?”
You might read those and think “wait but what about this other feeling I’m feeling?”, and you’d be right to ask that. There are others, certainly. Fear is a powerful one for me. And the more distance I get, the more I realize fear was driving most everything, especially in the early stages. It drove my denial, my anger, my bargaining and my depression.
At the beginning, I passed through those stages in the blink of an eye. Jumping between them mid-sentence, mid-thought. You’ll feel these pass you by, maybe not even realizing you’re in the stage until you’ve left it. They go quickly, then more slowly, then even more slowly. Eventually you’ll see them coming. But not yet. For now, you’re not in control and that’s ok.
The nights were the hardest, when you’re left to think in silence and an empty bed. So I listened to audiobooks to put myself to sleep. They didn’t work well at first, but having someone talking in the background quickly caught on. Just enough to focus on, not enough to keep me awake.
What I *didn’t* do was drink. I have a problem with consumption, and I needed to be in that moment, to process, to think and to not be dumb. The kind of dumb that a 3am text is a perfect example of. I needed to be far away from that headspace, and so I gave up booze for many weeks. I think it helped.
It sucked at first because all I wanted to do was deny. Drink, turn off my brain, focus on nothing. But by making myself swim in it, I moved through the hardest parts quickly. When your mind is forced to live in a state of unhappiness, it comes to terms with reality more rapidly.
Chapter 2: Identify Your Cures
Find a support system that gets you. For me, it was family. I visited them, surrounded myself with 24/7 watchfulness and conversation, and I asked them to let me guide it. When I was ready to talk, I would, but if I changed the subject they had to let that topic go.
Create. There are many reasons to do this, always, but in times of distress it becomes more important. Creating helps focus the brain on something other than your pain, and it helps disconnect your conscious thought from your subconscious. It allows your subconscious to process and gives your cortex a break. It de-stresses you. And then there’s the quality of creation, of course.
Things created in the midst of our worst storms, when the waves are at their highest, the winds at their fastest, are treasures. The rawness of intense emotion conveys itself through creation, and the gravity present in these creations is tangible. Find your creative outlet and exploit it. It will not judge you. Make yourself do it for 30 minutes every day. Every day. Maybe more.
Talk. Voice how you feel to people you trust. Talking about what I was facing, how I felt helped me make sense of the confusing emotions swimming in my head. It helped me to put sentences to my thoughts. And rationalize what I was feeling. It also gave me an opportunity to take what felt like pure insanity and make it real, validated and interactive.
I also got some space. It prevented me from being dumb in the presence of that person. Saying things I would regret, or picking fights that would not be productive. If you have this option, I could not recommend it more. If you do not, perhaps try creating some space artificially. Agree to different schedules, sleep in a different room. I am the type that feels angst and anger in the air and so I had to get out and stay out to make sense of it.
Most importantly, laugh. Find something to laugh at. It can be stupid. Find a Youtube video. Watch a mindless tv show. Watch a stupid movie from your childhood. Whatever. Chuckle about something for just a second. Maybe not on Day 1, but by Day 3. Find something to laugh about, however sardonic or dark. Laughter heals, and you’re gonna want that in the coming weeks.
Chapter 3: Don’t Borrow Trouble
I am the type that looks to possibilities. What ifs. They complicate things, and ultimately you cannot control the reactions of someone else, or their feelings or wants or needs. Relatively simple problems can become astronomically complex if you let them take over or if you try to include things outside of your control in your decision making.
Don’t borrow trouble.
What I mean by this is: you have enough trouble just handling your own thoughts and emotions right now. Don’t borrow trouble from the trouble bank that you don’t already own. Deal with your own shit, how you are reacting to the things at hand. Don’t worry about the what-ifs, the possibilities, the potential outcomes of future decisions twelve decisions down the road. You can think about those later. Stop and look at the problem directly in front of you. This relationship is coming to a close.
For a moment push aside your denial and pretend this is a fact of your life. What then? If your relationship is over, what does it actually mean? What problems does that create for you? Those are real problems. When that line of thinking causes you issues, you can step back and return to the world of denial where it is safe. But when you’re stable again, go back down that path. Process what’s happening. And don’t borrow trouble.
Why do this? Easy…
Chapter 4: Understanding Your Fear
Fear here was the underlying motivator for just about everything. I had made a life with this person. I didn’t want to date at my age. I didn’t want to meet new people. How could I find an apartment? What if I never get to be a parent? What if I am unable to financially recover? What if nobody loves me the way they did, or the way they used to? This was all my fear of the unknown. I was afraid of everything, because everything was unknown.
I was afraid to admit to myself that this relationship had died (and in truth had been dead without me knowing it for some time) because I was afraid of what its death meant to my life, my lifestyle, my emotional state and my future.
In truth, I was afraid of spending that much time alone, in silence, with myself. Reinventing the single me.
Occasionally going down the path of “So if we are over, where does that leave me?” and then returning to denial helped me wrap my head around those fears. It helped me make those problems tangible, and to see solutions to those problems. Concrete solutions to concrete problems, because I was not borrowing trouble that I did not own.
Quickly that fear began to subside, and with it the turmoil that fear was causing. I spent less time in the first few stages of grief and was beginning to spend more in the last few.
Chapter 5: Reality Check
How long has this taken you to read? Doesn’t really matter. It’s fast.
This process is not fast, though. I understand myself deeply, have spent a good deal of time thinking about things and believe it or not I have a degree in this stuff. And it still took me weeks. For what felt like a lifetime I was drowning in sorrow and despair. Guilt, anger, fear.
It will feel that way to you too, and that’s ok. It’s good, in fact. You have a chance to learn more about yourself in a short period of time than you have in the preceding years if you pay attention. Here is this opportunity to examine yourself in the rawest, purest state. Take it. Make it worth something, all this pain. And every time you cry, remember that you’re one good cry closer to the last one. Because while it does take for god damned ever, it does eventually get better.
Chapter 6: Artificial Recovery
So you’re separated, at least temporarily. If you’re like me, their stuff (and your joint stuff) is still everywhere. Even if you’re not like me, this is still gonna hit home, so keep on reading.
You woke up this morning and the hellstorm that is your life was not the first thing you thought about. Holy shit, you’re better. You fuckin’ got this. Everybody move, you’re in charge. Life ahead of you is incredible, it’s glowing, it’s — ah fuck there’s your Save the Date, sitting there on the fridge.
Here comes the train. Without warning, all that confidence is stripped away. You’re raw again and it hurts just as badly as it ever did. But you know what? You climb out faster this time. It hurts, but that pain goes away just a touch more quickly, and then you’re more ok. Closer to normal.
I started calling these wonderful surprises “land mines”. Unexpected explosions of emotion. Sometimes its songs, sometimes its food, maybe its pictures.
To help, I took all the stuff that was deeply sentimental and I put it in a box, and I put that box in the attic. If you don’t have an attic, I suggest putting it in the bottom of a closet or in a room that you don’t have to enter. Or under a table underneath a blanket. If you don’t have a box, get one.
I don’t recommend destroying this stuff. You’re emotional right now, and irrevocable decisions just plain shouldn’t be made when you’re like this. Instead, set it all aside. Then you can choose to deal with it when it is convenient for you. You’ll still be surprised by land mines. Add them to the box (if you can) when you find them so you aren’t repeating the experience needlessly.
Chapter 7: Emptiness
Well, you just removed all the shit that means something and put it in a box. Of course it feels empty.
That’s ok. Better no emotions than bad ones right now. Frankly, I wanted the emptiness for a bit. Eventually I didn’t like it and I started to put things up on empty shelves or empty nails. It was about this time that I started to feel like I was coming through most of the rough patches, too. I suspect those things are related. A physical act of moving on. You’ll start by missing the things that aren’t there. That’s gonna suck. Then you start to be glad you don’t have to see them. Less awful. Then you’ll want to put new things in their place. And that’s where you want to be.
Don’t force it, but it’ll happen.
Chapter 8: Your First True Retrospective
Those stages of grief we talked about? They’re still there, haunting you. You haven’t shaken them, even though you have your stuff up on walls, and for the first time in ages you thought about sex with someone else.
But what’s different about them is that they are more like echoes, no longer the boom of thunder directly overhead. And better than that, you can see them coming (sometimes). You can start down a conversation path with someone, see a land mine and actively choose to step elsewhere.
Sometimes they still get you, but more often then not now you’re fine. Uninjured. You spend more time thinking about the future and less time being scared.
Now is when you get to examine yourself and your actions.
You get to look at yourself ages ago, the you that was you before you met them. You get to compare yourself then to yourself in the relationship and see what changed, what good came of it and what bad. You get to compare those two people to you today, and see how you can come out of this not just alive but actually improved. What changes can you make?
During this whole thing, you have been presented with two options at every turn whether you were aware of them or not. There’s Option A and Option B for everything. You can either do whatever it is that’s in front of you with class and respect, or you can do it without class and respect.
You cannot choose what events unfold, but you can damned sure choose how you play your side. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
And when it’s all said and done, how someone acts during the lowest parts of their lives says a lot about them. This is why I stopped drinking. If I’d grabbed a bottle, every opportunity I had to take the high road would have been missed. I would be in the same place as I am now, (maybe worse, because the low road ends in fights, and fights mean no concessions on either side,) but instead of being able to look back and be proud of myself and my actions in one of the hardest times of my life, I would look back with shame. Forever.
When I meet someone new and my marriage comes up, they will ask. And when they do, I will be able to look them square in the eye and say I was the best person I could be, and that they should hold themselves to that standard as well. Because you both deserve that respect.
Chapter 9: Recovery and the Path Forward
Time has passed. The dust has settled, the random crying has pretty much stopped. Your lives are separated, either completely or almost completely. They are being their own person and you are being your own person.
This is the point at which you get to take what you learned about yourself during this whole process and apply it. You get to take who you were, scrub away all of the tarnish that built up over the years and during this breakup, and shine again. But you get to shine better than before.
How could I possibly say that?
Because during this really frankly shitty and often-times unbearable period in your life, you’ve learned a lot about yourself. You’ve learned what’s important to you. You’ve gotten to see how a relationship can turn, what you can do to save it and what you cannot do to save it. You’ve rediscovered a creative outlet for yourself.
This knowledge will improve your future relationships, but also your relationship with yourself.
During this period, I created some good habits for myself. I joined a gym. For the first time in ages, and I actually went. Who cares if it made me look better or live longer or whatever. I got to hit a punching bag, which felt awesome. I also got to sweat like crazy and feel like I actually achieved something, even if it was only finishing a set of ten. All of that doesn’t even begin to touch on the well known (and proven) effects of exercise such as improved sleep, increased sex drive, self-confidence, the list goes on.
Turns out, I actually do look better now than I did 6 months ago, thanks Gym. I have a window of time set aside every day to play music. I’m still garbage at it, but it’s fun. I have some confidence back, and I smile more often. My dog and I are best friends, and we go places together. Hiking, camping, running. She’s hairy as hell and isn’t a wonderful conversationalist, but she also does not judge me for anything. That counts for a lot.
Most importantly, though, I’m there for my friends. I’m back. I listen when they need me to listen, I offer advice when they need it. A few friends of mine are on the verge of this process themselves, and because I focused on taking what I could from my own experience and learning, I’m in a better position to help them through it when it happens. I can be the friend to them that I did not have myself.
So if you’re reading this, and you’re in the throes of emotional hell right now, know a few things.
- It gets better. First it will get worse, but then it will get better.
- Recognize your risk ares (like alcohol) and actively avoid them.
- Identify your outlets. Creativity, good friends. Use them.
- Try to find a way to laugh, even just a tiny chuckle. It helps.
- Each emotion you feel is valid. Let them surface and learn from them.
- Back away if conversation turns to argument, always.
- And, of course, don’t borrow trouble.
It’s not just you.