In Exchange for My Broken Heart

Ella Marcantonio
Feb 6, 2020 · 9 min read
All parts belong. Image by Pok Rie via Pexels

Heartbreak is a trustworthy companion, an honest guide. If I let it, my broken heart carries me home. It leads me back to my real belonging, to my true place in the shape of things.

For me, a broken heart is deeply physical. The initial shock like a punch to the gut. The air leaves my body. I feel my belly drop the way it does in a speedy elevator descent. Instead of breath, I find a deep ache just below my solar plexus, the pressure of emptiness squeezing from within. The sensations of loss inside my body unfold so naturally, like a carpet of yellow leaves collects at the base of a bare tree.

A few moments later, I’m overcome by the gnawing sensations of panic and anxiety, the most intense in years. Something heavy and nebulous pressing down on my ribs. I’m shaky with a dread I can’t even name.

He’s been gone for weeks but I still hear him. The beep of his truck, the heavy footsteps on the stairs at dusk. I get lost in the remembering with all my senses. I feel myself sliding into his big, white truck and scooting across the camo-print seat covers. He’s on his phone and doesn’t look up. I don’t know where to look, so I look at the ground, then out the window. For so many months now, I haven’t known what to say.

My brain can’t stop trying to find a way around the pain, to solve and figure out, to defy or manipulate reality into something more tolerable than this moment. Yes, this one. This very moment, when I’m not in his white truck but standing by myself in our dark living room in my pajamas, head bowed.

Reality is not the self-protective prophecies or the lives that might’ve been. It’s this soft animal body, tensing against the hurt, begging for my full attention and deep care. I’m sitting on the floor as my shoulders slump in. How long have I been this tired without ever really acknowledging it?

Yes, I appreciate the heartbreak, its aliveness and intensity that can’t help but drag me back to the present moment. But it’s the numbness I don’t know what to do with. The numbness is subtle, untouchable. There is nothing solid and whole to sink my teeth into, to find and feel that tethers me to my lived experience. I don’t know where to locate the nexus of its presence inside my body. Nowhere and everywhere at once, this feeling eludes me.

The weary shoulders, those I can feel. The fatigue like pressure, submission to the sudden force of gravity. My eyes want to close, aching from the uneasy night, the heaving sobs that woke me at 2 am and the brightness of the new morning. But inside my heart and belly, there is nothing immense to feel.

The numbness feels like a mistake, a betrayal of my deep love and anguish and brokenheartedness. I don’t know how to feel the numbness and let it move through me. It gets stuck.

I need to cry but the tears have receded to some inaccessible place. My chest heaves and my face winces from the sudden wave of grief, but no tears come. The sharpness of the feeling passes within a few breaths and I am again left with my stale sorrow.

Somehow I am functioning. I have conversations, do my work. I smile and laugh. I lose myself momentarily in a task. And for a few seconds, I connect with the impossible pain in my belly and heart. Just for a moment, I stand at the edge of the known world, dangling perilously over the yawning chasm beneath. I offer my whole self to annihilation.

I give myself to the grief that winds its way around my internal organs like a constricting snake, squeezing and crushing from inside. But in the next moment, the grief is gone and the numbness returns. I feel sick.

I ask my Zen teacher what to do with the numbness. I can’t help but ask. I know she won’t have a quick fix or a shortcut. I know there’s no such thing. But the not-knowing asks too much of me. It threatens to split my solid self into a million dancing particles, the way a spent firework surrenders its burning fragments to the night sky. The not-knowing asks my entire self, asks everything. I can’t help but want an answer, a formula, a plan.

I want something besides the quivering vulnerability of a life that isn’t mine to begin or end, something besides the needy burden of this human form.

So I leave my body, but not in surrender, not as an offering to the night sky. I leave in the ways that are familiar, habitual. I pick at my scalp compulsively and look for vintage sheepskin jackets on eBay. The tv plays some detective show I can’t follow because I’m not really here. I’m drowning in dissociation.

I come back to my body just long enough to judge myself before I’m again lost to the deadening numbness. I don’t know what to do with this.

“The numbness requires a more subtle physical attention,” my Zen teacher tells me. “Not knowing is most intimate.” When I ask, she tells me that she can find the numbness gathering around her bones, especially the small bones of her fingers. I close my eyes and search the length of my finger bones for some kind of subtle matter but find only fingers.

My numbness and I cook dinner together with slow, deliberate movements. I feel far away. I think about starving but feed myself anyway. I eat oatmeal hastily in front of my computer and it strikes me that self-care has never felt as unglamorous as it does tonight. Somehow, I’ve almost made it through another day.

I finish my oatmeal and sit staring into my laptop screen at too many open tabs. And without the dignity of a polite warning, the grief swallows me whole. The heaving sobs, the wrenching pain just under my breast bone, the churning belly full of lead. This time the tears come, too.

Hand on heart, I drift from room to room without purpose, searching for something to do, for something meaningful. I wander into the bathroom and look at my tired face in the mirror. A moment’s unsatisfying distraction spent judging my appearance. Eventually, there’s nowhere left to go but bed.

It’s another day but it could be the same one. Some woman I don’t know is trying to comfort me with words, but using too many of them. My gut twists with impatience when I realize she’s having this conversation with herself. It’s never been for my benefit. Perhaps it’s easiest to just look at the ground.

She’s trying to remind me that the flow of life never gives me more than I can handle. I want to tell her it’s bullshit but instead, I stand by, mute. I stare down at the pavement, uncomforted by her wisdom.

My unfocused eyes become occupied by the steady movements of my chest. I’m wearing a red shirt, the same one I’ve worn for the past five days. I watch as my breast rises and falls with the rhythm of my breath.

Breathing is the only thing I’m not too tired to do. My body feels limp, unreal. Am I really here? I guess so because now she’s hugging me, too tight, too insistent. I nod, thank her weakly and walk away.

I stay numb all afternoon. But as the sun sets, the hungry yearning starts to pull at me. The loss is unbearable. I’m in the kitchen, struggling to feed myself dinner. I curl up on the cold kitchen floor, overwhelmed by the emptiness boring through my core. Underneath the stove, I notice the knife I couldn't find earlier. Both knife and floor could use a good cleaning.

I lay still for a calm moment before my body is flooded with fresh feeling. I marvel at the resilience of this grief, born whole and solid, alive and real with a mass and power and life all its own. I draw close to the sensations. I lean into the dissolution, offering myself to its consuming and savage force. And then, just as suddenly, it’s gone.

I leave the house and walk without destination. I end up on the walk he always wanted to take, though it’s too much for my aching joints. I don’t care. I walk past the fancy Victorian houses, past the stagnant lagoons, down the darkened street by the middle school, Will C. Wood, whose name amused him so much.

I feel the moisture heavy in the air before I reach the ocean. Across the channel, I see the bright lights of the city. I’m no longer privy to his schedule but I imagine him there in some anonymous hotel room after a long day’s work. I cry.

I stand for a few moments and look across the black inlet. The water is illuminated by the reflections of city lights. The modern-day moon in a dewdrop. The waves are choppy and the wind blows wild around me.

From this vantage, the pulse of this living world feels like ultimate chaos, invisible but full of fury like the grief making its way through my body. The same forces that have been making and unmaking me dance wildly on this windy night. I let them permeate me.

As I offer myself to the chaos, I touch into my own inclusion in reality’s savage performance. I belong to this. And an instant later, I find myself in the unexpected presence of divinity.

My sporty orange headphones feel immediately inappropriate for such a sacred encounter. I start to explain that I wasn’t looking for holiness tonight, that I was just out walking, but it doesn’t matter. Even if I had known where I was headed, nothing could have prepared me for this kind of belonging, for my unquestioned inclusion in the great whole.

And now it’s my forgetfulness that feels especially crude in the presence of the divine. I’m an American tourist in a foreign land who has wandered into the inner sanctum of some holy site, still holding her greasy street food.

But ignorance does nothing to interrupt grace like this because I’ve done nothing to deserve it. It’s the last real gift.

I close my eyes as the salty ocean air whips at my course edges. Unprotected exposure to the elements is changing me. In my mind, I see ancient limestone cliffs always destined to be sand. Cosmic disintegration.

I lose and then find myself inside the dissolution. I am the limestone cliff, violently reduced to sand. I am the same sand that becomes the still ocean floor. I am the raging wind that has unmade the craggy cliffs. Somehow, my body already contains this living universe. Somehow, all parts belong.

I’ll need to be reminded again in a few minutes, but just now I remember that I can trust this belonging, this grace. I trust that my imperfect attempts at being can transform catastrophic loss or confusing numbness or pendulous depression into something rich and meaningful. When I stand still and bear witness to my direct experience, I find evidence of my belonging everywhere.

I am learning how to let myself belong to all of life. I belong to the initial, lacerating pain of heartbreak. And to the sinking pit of dread that sets in soon after. I belong to the fluttery anxiety of overwhelm as I imagine the agonizing logistics required to separate my life from his. I can even let myself belong to the numbness.

The grief comes and I trust it to eat me alive. And the numbness, protecting my body from the full weight of this heavy loss. Then the anger, defending my unmet needs like a mother wolf guards her defenseless pups. I give my whole self to this broken heart: the annihilating grief, the dull ache of the every day, the urgent need for dissociation. I pay in full upfront.

And what I get in exchange is my place in this universe. I disappear inside the whole like a parting companion is absorbed into a crowd. Reality has never just been something out there, but something in here. I belong fully to its changing landscape and there’s nothing I can do to forfeit this privilege. In exchange for my broken heart, I am reminded of my forever belonging to this one wild and sacred life.

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Ella Marcantonio

Written by

I like words and stories. I like how art helps us reflect on and process the messiness of being alive. And there’s nothing I love more than a floofy pup.

The Ascent

The Ascent is a community of storytellers documenting the journey to a happier and healthier way of living. Join thousands of others making the climb on one of the top publications on Medium.

Ella Marcantonio

Written by

I like words and stories. I like how art helps us reflect on and process the messiness of being alive. And there’s nothing I love more than a floofy pup.

The Ascent

The Ascent is a community of storytellers documenting the journey to a happier and healthier way of living. Join thousands of others making the climb on one of the top publications on Medium.

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