Heartbreak is a perpetual feeling that something bad is about to happen. It is grief, fur-lined with fear that joy has forever escaped you, that there will be no happily ever after for you. It is dread, sitting heavy in your lower body, like that time you were nine and broke the vase that great-grandma bequeathed, and you are waiting for your mother to get home. You know that you are in trouble, but you can’t fix it. The vase is too broken.
Heartbreak is a tightness in your chest; it makes air feel like razor blades moving through you. It is thinking you have it together, and crying while waiting for the toast to pop, sobbing inexplicably in the aisles of the supermarket. It is waking up and having 3 seconds where you don’t remember and those 3 seconds will be the only part of the day where the dread doesn’t sit like bad Chinese take-out in the lower part of your gut.
Heartbreak is losing your appetite. You eat anyway, because it is what other people are doing around you. You are an automaton, imitating other humans because you have forgotten how to live. It is a non-consensual relationship with food, based on obligation rather than desire, so you want it fast and easy. Wine and popcorn and pizza require almost no commitment from you.
You feel like garbage afterwards but you can’t bring yourself to put something good inside you. All of your energy is taken up fighting the urge to wind yourself in a ball and letting the pain unfurl around you. You are trying to keep the grief from leaking out of you like thick tar; it will drown you if you let it escape. You keep reminding yourself to breathe and so there is nothing left for any other activity except breathing and keeping the grief contained. Inevitably, heartbreak is putting on weight.
You are trying to keep the grief from leaking out of you like thick tar; it will drown you if you let it escape.
Heartbreak is cutting off your hair, a dramatic transformation to shed the woman you once were. She was not loved. She belonged to him. Cutting off your hair has been a sign of a broken relationship since Delilah wielded her scissors at Samson.
It is watching him run, to the other side of the world, to the arms of another woman and wanting to say, so much, “My darling, stay. I can be the answers you want.” But he has re-written your relationship. The one he described in his parting shot, the one in which he was unhappy for months and you failed him, this was not the relationship that you were in. It is not the memories you have. And you wonder which one of you was deluded.
Heartbreak becomes her name, over and over again, at the top of your Google search, trying to find clues about her, to figure out what she has, that you don’t. It is lying awake at 2am, playing out your lives together, the past you shared, but in this late night version, you are the villain, casting yourself as you imagine he saw you. Every time you raised your voice, each time you were unkind, or thoughtless or in some way flawed, terrible and human — you remember them all and you think, you believe, that perhaps you are truly unlovable. Perhaps he is right, and you were the swordsman of his unhappiness.
And then, because it is dark and you still cannot sleep, you wonder if he slides into her the way he slid into you, if he loves her as much as you loved him. You imagine his mouth against her ear, him whispering “Tell me to stop” and her rising to meet him and you pray for a lobotomy so you can end this cinemascope of pain. Except it will not erase the memory of him from your bones, from your body that has had him a thousand times and aches for a thousand and one-th time.
It will not erase the memory of him from your bones.
Heartbreak is reminding yourself to have grace and dignity. It is muttering, “Grace and dignity, grace and dignity” to yourself like a mantra when all you want to do is use your words like fists and punch holes in his heart that will make him weep through the night instead.
All you want to do is use your words like fists and punch holes in his heart.
It is a hangover, when you promise yourself you will never drink again. Nothing seems worth the risk of feeling like this and you vow that you will never let yourself be so vulnerable again.
It is being grateful for your Tiger Parents, the ones who taught you that there are no excuses for failure, the first generation migrants who instilled in you an ethic that got you through final exams when you had pneumonia (your mother asked if you wanted a cold to stop your graduation and you decided you didn’t), the one that saw you win a swim meet with a broken wrist. You thank them because it is only this steel spine of determination that gets you out of bed each morning. You remember when you had dengue fever. Some call it break-bone disease, because every time you move, walk, breathe, it feels like your bones are breaking. Even then, your mother made you climb out of bed every morning. You realize heartbreak feels a lot like dengue fever, and so, every morning, you rise.
You have heard that it gets easier with time. You know, logically, that no-one ever died from a broken heart. You remind yourself that there are people who have a greater right to grief, people who have lost far more to atrocities and war and disease. That while you mourn a future lost, they mourn the loss of a child or a husband. It should put your grief to shame. And still you grieve.
But here is the thing. There will come a day when you don’t have to remind yourself to breathe, when you are not saying “Breathe, breathe, breathe” as you shower and feed the cat and walk to the bus. When you crave a really great taco and you know your appetite is back. It is like that summer exchange in Paris, where you struggled with the language until one day, you are in a cafe with a visiting friend and you order coffee and direct a tourist and negotiate the purchase of a new skirt and she looks at you and says, “Wow, you are so French!” and you think, My God, I speak French!
So heartbreak is like that. It is dread and fear and weight gain. It’s sleeplessness, better hair and crying in the supermarket aisles because you can’t decide between the hothouse tomatoes or the regular ones. It’s grace and dignity and determination even when you are crying in the shower as you get dressed for work. It’s self-flagellation, it’s an exotic swamp disease, it’s like speaking French.
But here’s the secret. When you work out, and it hurts the next day, it’s because you’ve ripped your muscles apart and they are growing back together. They do so bigger and stronger. Your heart is the body’s biggest muscle, and this pain is your heart growing back bigger and stronger. And ultimately that is real definition of heartbreak. It is an exercise in endurance and strength.