There's a Half-Life to the Pain of Heartbreak


Katherine Cox

I am the kind of girl who likes to be in control. I like to be the person who’s driving so I know exactly how I’m getting home, or, better yet, I’ll just meet everyone there on my bike so I can leave whenever I want to without worrying that I need to give someone else a ride. I like to know all the details about an event so I can be prepared. I’m particularly keen on having control over my emotions. I avoid conflict so that I don’t have to deal with anger. I take a very rational approach to most things.

I’ve been trying to learn to relinquish some control over the past few years. I recognize that, in reality, no one really has very much control over what is going on in their lives. You control some things, like how you react to situations, but there will always be outside forces you can’t do anything about.

The best way I’ve learned to relinquish control in the past few years is heartbreak.

My heart has been broken several times for various reasons — when my best friend killed himself; when my college boyfriend died; when I gave up my whole life for a job that didn’t work out; and most recently, breaking up with the man I thought I would marry, because I knew it wasn’t right, even though I loved him.

It’s funny to me how physically I react to heartbreak. I lose the ability to sleep or eat. I lose 15 lbs (I don’t know why it’s 15, but that appears to be the magic number — no more, no less). I have dry heaves every morning without fail. I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and stare at the ceiling. And I have absolutely no control over it. I can take sleeping pills; I can cut out caffeine; I can cut out alcohol; I can exercise and drink water; nothing puts a dent in the physical affects. At night when I try to sleep, my brain wanders to the hurt and rests there. I can meditate on something else, but when I drift off, it returns.

The worst physical reaction I get is a throbbing sensation in my head, feet, and hands. It was particularly bad after my college boyfriend died. I tried nasal steroids, anti depressants, anti histamines, NSAIDs…the throbbing continued. I just had to live with it.

When my best friend killed himself, I took a barrage of medications — Effexor, Lamictal, Trazadone. I slept all the time. I would call in sick to work just to sleep. It didn’t mitigate the pain. It was still there when I woke up.

Nowadays, I know from experience that there’s a half-life to the pain of heartbreak: after about two weeks I’ll typically feel at least noticeably better. And after that, even though the pain may never subside 100%, it at least decreases somewhat.

I’m learning to be grateful for this forced perspective on lack of control. I think of it as if I’m an oyster making a pearl; there’s a grain of sand in my head that I just have to put small layers of love onto until it doesn’t hurt me anymore. Eventually I will have something precious to show for it.

And I also realize that there is some control given back to me in this situation. I can push against the heartbreak and try to get rid of it with pills or alcohol or distraction, or I can sit with it and let it pass. My reaction is what I can control.

There is also something sweet in knowing that I can have a broken heart. I’m a sensitive, loving person, even if I don’t want to be sometimes. I am vulnerable to the effects of heartbreak, and my body will force me to recognize that if I refuse to do so in my head.

So I will revel in being heartbroken for a bit, and look forward to the precious pearl that will come out of it. I’ll learn something. I just have to give myself time and sympathy, and try to take good care of my body with what I have. I may not have control over the situation that has led me to the heartbreak, but I can be grateful for what I’ll learn.

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