I was 18 the first time I got my heart broken. I remember finally understanding what that English teacher (who I reference all the time) meant when he said that the meaning behind “broken heart” is often lost in modern society. I’d been hurt before, but I had never experienced the complete implosion I did my freshman year of college. I remember the overwhelming physicality of the experience, and how much I wanted to rip myself out of my body to escape the completeness of the pain. Think of the pain scale at the doctor, then rip it up.
Sometimes I think I never totally healed from it. How does a person recover from having the most vulnerable piece of herself cut apart and thrown back in her face? Honestly, the answer is that you don’t. You can never go back to the person you were or thought you would be after something that traumatic. A piece of you breaks and, no matter how good the glue is that you use, at the very least there will always be a crack.
I gave my heart over and over again to someone who never really wanted me, but kept me close enough to pretend that someday he might. When I was finally brave enough to ask him to, he told me what I always knew but didn’t want to believe: “There were times when I thought I wanted you, but then whenever I had you I realized I didn’t.”
I’m not hyperbolizing. This was the end of five years of “maybe,” two years after he broke my heart and I was naïve enough to think he might not do it again. In an unceremonious text conversation when I was 20 years old, the break in my heart was reopened as if I had never stuck the pieces back together in the first place.
Most of us use shitty glue when we collage ourselves back together. I used a combination of emotional unavailability and convoluted “maybe somedays,” hanging onto this idea that he might come back and bring the industrial strength stuff. I wanted so much to be fixed by the person who broke me that I delayed my own rebuilding by pushing away anyone who got close enough to see my fractures (including myself). I pretended that it was because I was strong, not because I was scared. Because being broken is scary, and asking people (especially yourself) to accept your brokenness is scarier.
My heart broke for the second time about a month ago. Where the first break was a sudden, tectonic shift, the second was a subduction zone of continual destruction until the shift finally upended everything. This break appeared less debilitating and tricked me with an illusion promising “it’s all fine, really, you’ve been slipping in magma for months and now you’ve finally snapped into place.” Plot twist: even if it’s a break that resets a precarious situation, it’s still a fucking break. And generally, a new break puts stress on the ghosts of breaks already past.
I’m tempted to create a bubble of false imperviousness again because I’m feeling scars I thought had disappeared under fresh skin years ago. There’s something so seductive in the idea of keeping my feelings at arm’s length; after all, it’s feeling that makes the breaks hurt so damn much. Why wouldn’t I want to control away the potential for that pain?
This is a question I didn’t answer right when I was 18. Or 19. Or 20. (You get the idea). I said, “Hell yeah! Let’s control that shit!” Instead of feeling the hurt I needed to feel and accepting (even embracing) its impact, I squished everything back together and pretended it was all fine. I pretended hearing someone I chose to love tell me he never wanted me (but wouldn’t let me go) wasn’t a devastating, transformative blow. Even now, I pretend that seeing the life I thought I had chosen for myself reveal itself as an illusion isn’t equally devastating and transformative (even if I was the one who chose to walk away). I pretend healing is as simple as avoiding situations that put me at risk for breaking again.
After my heart was broken the first time, I internalized the idea that I was not worthy of love and connection without realizing it. It manifested in choosing men who reinforced that message, sometimes unintentionally but often not. In seeking to be saved instead of learning how to save myself. In putting myself down before anyone else has the chance to, because if you know the blow is coming and where it’s coming from, you can pretend it hurts less. In saying I would never let myself be vulnerable again because it was safer to be alone than trust someone else. In hiding behind the lies of inadequacy and scars of heartbreak I construct around myself because it’s easier to show that illusion than ask to be seen for what I am, because who I am is broken and imperfect.
I have the chance to do things differently this time, and it starts by picking out my own industrial strength glue instead of using the false shields of self-deprecation and isolation or expecting someone to buy the glue for me. I’m also finally ready to let go of the idea that I can somehow reset to who I was before the pain I’ve experienced. I’m relinquishing the desire to be saved, but I’m also throwing away the idea that I need to be alone to be safe. At first, I didn’t understand how those two things could exist within the same mind: how can someone simultaneously believe they need to be saved and believe they should be alone?
The first mistake I made was believing I needed to be saved because I didn’t think I was worthy of healing unless someone else told me I was first. Being told I wasn’t wanted by the only person I wanted to want me was (needless to say, but I will anyway) a huge blow to my sense of self-worth. I didn’t address it when it happened because owning how you’ve depended on someone else to affirm your worthiness (especially someone who does the exact opposite) is humiliating and painful. So I just told myself that if I was “worthy enough” to heal, someone would come along and tell me so.
The second mistake was telling myself that the only safe way to exist was to exist alone. As much as I wanted validation of my worthiness to be saved, I also never wanted to feel the mind/heart/body separation of heartbreak ever again. Keeping everyone at arm’s length seemed like the best way to protect myself, and I recognize now that it was just as much about protecting everyone else. Because so much of what I’m reckoning with comes back to my lack of internal self-worth, I have always told myself that I deserve the pain I experience and it’s better to turn it inward than risk letting it out. This strategy keeps me on the hook for all the pain of my past and perpetuates the fallacy that I can control pain out of my life. Even when I’ve been in relationships, that barrier has stayed firmly in place and prevented most true connection. The concept is the same as putting myself down: if I set it up to fail, it will hurt less, right?
I can’t expect someone else to affirm my self-worth or save me. I can’t expect safety from isolation. I can’t control the pain out of my life. I can’t keep internalizing the hurt and abusing myself while telling myself I somehow deserve it. I can’t keep running away from the fact that I have cracks and scars and imperfections and fears that will always be a part of me. I can’t keep running from being seen as I am because I’m afraid of hearing “there were times when I thought I wanted you, but then whenever I had you I realized I didn’t” again. I can’t pretend breaking isn’t devastating and transformative, and I can’t pretend I’ll somehow go back to “normal” instead of accepting the “new normal” that comes after.
What I can do is embrace these experiences as opportunities to grow and do better in the future. What I can control is how I respond to the hurt I’m feeling with strength, resilience, and an open heart and mind. I can choose to be open to growth and connection even if my heart tells me to be scared.
If I’m honest, right now I want to run away and hide and never come out. I am feeling over six years of hurt and trauma and failures and rejection. I am feeling years of imagining my life one way and realizing that’s not the plan the universe has for me (if the universe, indeed, has such a plan). It’s terrifying and I want to push away everyone and everything, including myself. I want to draw everything I’m feeling inward and use it to reinforce the walls I have around myself because I don’t ever want to feel my brokenness and hurt again.
But I also want fulfillment, joy, love, fun, growth. I want to experience the richness of life and I want to be uncomfortable so I can grow and learn and become an even better version of the person I know I am meant to be. Most of all, I want to relinquish the fear of sharing myself and my life. I have been so afraid of showing the vulnerability and scars of my brokenness with the people around me that I have failed to remember that we are all vulnerable and scarred and broken. We’re all scared of being hurt and being seen. But without the courage to be open to being seen (and maybe being hurt), we don’t have a chance at any of the other good stuff. And we certainly don’t have a chance at sharing that good stuff with the people we care about (because as much as we try to be alone, we unfortunately will probably end up caring about some other people).
I will probably be hurt again, but that’s life. Life hurts us and challenges us and breaks us and smacks us around… but it also heals us and builds us back up and inspires us and comforts us. If opening myself to the chance for fulfillment and joy means also opening myself up to the chance for another break or disappointment, you know what? I’ll take those odds. I’d rather gain another scar but say I gave it a shot, than pretend being alone with my hurt is enough for me. Even if I never reach the fabled “forever” we’re conditioned to believe is the ultimate goal, I’ll take six months, two years, twenty years of joy and growth. I’ll take saying “at least I tried” to saying “at least I was safe.” Fuck safe. Life happens in shades of gray, and you can’t have the vibrancy of the light unless you open yourself up to the reality of the dark.
I have a friend who’s really into Star Wars (well, I have a lot of friends who are really into Star Wars). Right after my second break, I was having a hard time resolving the intense pain I was feeling with the peace and excitement I also felt. How can we feel the good when the bad is so, so bad? And would I ever really feel good again when I was feeling so bad right now? Sometimes, the Jedi say it best:
“First comes the day
Then comes the night.
After the darkness
Shines through the light.
The difference, they say,
Is only made right
By the resolving of gray
Through refined Jedi sight.”
I’ve added another break to my heart, and I doubt it will be the last. But you know what? I also added a hell of a lot of joy to my life in between those breaks. It’s time to start breaking down the walls around me so I can see what’s there to be let in. So bring it on. Bring it all on. Here I am.