How Oliver Sacks' Book 'Gratitude' Helped Me through My Breakup


Alexander Cheves

I want to be sad. I want to lumber through my house, brush my teeth, and forget about parking tickets and people. I want to focus on my body and protect my heart — with muscle.

Since the breakup, I have been going to the gym almost every day. I added an extra gym day to the week and added another set to every workout. I am lifting more on every machine. I refuse to say “heartbroken” because the word sounds mawkish. I am pierced up — septum and nostril piercings adorn my nose — and I have been fake-tanning a bit more than usual.

As I write this, I am on vacation in Florida with my family. I keep wandering away from them to walk on the beach alone. Spring Break tweenagers and straight couples pass by. I do not say “morose” or “shattered,” but here on the edge of the Atlantic, these words seem closer to real life. I feel it in my body, a lead weight I’m carrying around, and it’s him.

I miss having a second set of eyes on the world and a different set of thoughts to compare mine to. My ex was always more perceptive than me, more street smart. Where I see cynicism and dark portents, he would see kids in matching bathing suits playing in the surf and hot daddies walking down the beach. He allowed the world to be what it was without any absurd and heavy projection. I’m a writer, so everything becomes a reflection of myself. It’s a form of self-aggrandizement that makes me the main character in my inner narrative — and makes dating a storyteller a terrible idea.

My ex-boyfriend wasn’t like me. He commented on hot guys and loved video games and got excited about people he thought were interesting and genuine. He probably would not admit this to anyone, least of all himself, but he fostered a kind of joy for the world that I admired, and am now trying to learn for myself. It was one quality about him that I loved — one of many.

There are dozens of articles on the Internet that tell you how to handle a breakup. Many list “what to do” or “what not to do” with cute illustrations and infographics. These always seem reductive to me because I do not believe such a personal thing can be reduced to a set of rules that inevitably reflect someone else’s bias, some other writer’s experience. No two breakups happen the same way, and mistakes you make in one might not be mistakes in another.

Therefore, I think the only way to write about breakups and to offer advice is to tell one’s own story, completely personal and applicable only to oneself, and see if anyone else gets something out of it. And that’s what I’ll attempt to do.

My breakup is a story riddled with mistakes, most of them I made while I was still a boyfriend. In fact, the worst mistakes I’ve ever made with men occurred while I was still with them — acts of selfishness and cruelty, a cutting remark at the edge of the bed, a blatant lie. I don’t know if it’s possible to make mistakes in the course of a breakup — or, if I’m being honest, in life in general.

When you’re newly single, people expect you to stumble home drunk. We pardon you if you start crying at the prologue of a book. You are given a few bad nights, a few sad fucks. If you turn to hard drugs, there are ways out of that, but regardless if you’re having Netflix binges or meth binges, you will still have to learn to help yourself.

No one else will get you out of a pit — no one else can. On a lifelong scale, the concept of “mistakes” becomes useless. People inevitably fuck up, and our fuck-ups sometimes change our lives, but if you live to be eighty then you survived them, and if you don’t, you didn’t. There’s little point in regretting errors. My breakup has been a process of letting go of regrets — regret for moving to L.A. and leaving him behind, regret for fights we had and things I said, regret for various mistakes I have made — and moving forward.

This post was originally titled “How To Heal From A Gay Breakup,” but I don’t know how to heal from a gay breakup. I do not have any sure methods for finding peace with the man you used to love, or still do. If it ended badly, with emotional or physical violence, I cannot begin to encapsulate that pain into words, and it would be a disservice to guys experiencing it for me to try to do so. Mine didn’t end violently, and neither of us have the luxury of hating each other, so I can’t speak to that. I encourage you to find a support group and to talk about it to somebody, because the only thing worse than suffering is suffering alone.

Here’s what has helped me. I recently read a book called Gratitude by the author and clinician Oliver Sacks, published posthumously. Gratitude is four essays that Sacks wrote during the final few years of his life. The fourth and last one, “Sabbath,” was written two weeks before his death of terminal cancer.

It was a death he saw coming and, as a medical writer, one he faced with the only tools he knew to fight with — pen and paper. At the age of 81 and facing a painful final few months, Sacks writes, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”

That is an intercourse I want to have in life. To a grander extent, that is the purpose of this blog and of everything I do.

His essay “My Own Life” closes with this sentiment: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

I read it on the beach. When I put it down, I was crying. As I write this, I am still crying, thumbing through this little book filled with black and white photographs of the author that his partner Billy took. I want that kind of love, a furious and defiant gay love that publishes books posthumously and holds on till the end. I didn’t want that kind of love when I started dating my ex, and wouldn’t have admitted that I wanted it during most of our relationship.

But now, three months after its close, I will concede on something that I never told him. I want a partner. This rabble-rousing, piggy homo with penchants for political discussion and dirty darkrooms wants, to his surprise, someone to share these things with. Who knew?

I have been trying to get him back. I even drove back across the country, from California to Georgia, to try and fix it, and was prepared to do everything I could to do so, even if that meant doing the M-Word — monogamy — and putting my crazy fantasies to rest. In a city like Los Angeles, where I could indulge every perversion imaginable, I was ready to trade every one for one night with him in the bed we used to share, and to some degree I still am. But he has moved on, and hardly seems to notice I’m back. My efforts to fix things have been met with something worse than hard refusal — apathy.

I was going to propose. I had a ring, which I sent back. I was going to take him on a walk down one of the wooded trails on my parents’ farm last Thanksgiving, which he was planning to spend with me and my family. I was going to casually reach over and put something in his hand and drop on one knee in the dirt. Two weeks before I was to fly back home, he called me in the early afternoon. The first thing he said was, “Alex, I’ve made a decision. I want us to break up.”

In the rough three (almost four) months that followed, which have seen me fall into a bad depression, I have come to understand more fully his reasons for ending things and have even admitted that he made the right decision. I have also made a too-late effort to fight for us. I have not once thought about gratitude.

Maybe gratitude comes at the tail end of the healing process, once you’ve put aside anger and resentment. I cannot say that I am fully there yet — seeing him downtown still ruins my night — but I am grateful for the time I spent with him and for the ways he changed me.

And while we’re on the subject, I am grateful for all my exes and past relationships, even the ones that ended badly, with shouting matches and shoving. It is common for us to talk about “lessons” when discussing painful experiences, and I suppose deriving lessons from life is a good way to live. But even without “lessons” or a way to quantify experience into something useful, I am thankful simply for having nights that were not spent alone, for feeling my heart flutter a few times, and for having the opportunity to check myself in the mirror and check my breath before meeting guys I liked.

I could not imagine being in Oliver Sacks’ shoes and letting go of these things, which are surely life’s greatest treasures. If I was going to die soon, the only lasting sentiment I could conjure from my time on earth, the only advice I could give those I would leave behind, is to enjoy those moments of intimacy and excitement that others give you. Be thankful for them, and try to remember them — forget the rest. And love yourself more than anyone else.

That last sentiment is one I have been struggling to follow lately, but I’m getting there. If you are dealing with a breakup, go read Oliver Sacks’ last book, Gratitude. Find a routine, whether it’s a job, gym regimen, or the practice of making bonbons every Wednesday. My routine has been heavily reliant on the gym and tanning salon, and my shoulders feel it. My skin feels it. I’m planning a Prince Albert piercing soon.

A shallow fixation on my body may not be the healthiest way to recover, but it keeps away the drugs and the loneliness and gives me a chance to see my gym buddy and best friend every night, who ask me how I am doing. The regulars of my gym have become side characters in my story of getting back to a better place: the Russian tank who can lift max weight on every machine with one arm, the bearded and tatted stud who disappeared for a few months (we fantasize it was jail time), the friendly manager with breast implants, and even the obnoxious, incessant whistler who pretends that the whole gym is captivated at the spectacle of his workout. I’m their friend with the septum piercing, a pup without an owner, the sad homo who wanders through the weights, head down.

I’m looking up a little more these days. I’ll be okay.

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