Each new heartbreak makes the first one hurt less

Image by the fabulous Stuart F Taylor

The first time my heart was broken – and I say this with a fairly solid definition of what heartbreak feels like for me, and how it’s different to a simple, everyday hurt – it felt like the world was going to end. There was too much emotion to hold inside my fragile body, and it stayed for so long that I couldn’t conceive of the possibility that one day it wouldn’t be there any more. This heartbreak – puny and pathetic now I come to think about it – was caused by the wandering, horny eye of an eighteen-year-old boy.

The next time my heart broke was one year later, and the boy who broke it meant so much more to me than I’d ever given him credit for. It was only when the hot waves of sadness started pouring down my body from the centre of my chest that I realised, to my horror, that I’d fucked up something significant.

The next time was Easter, 2003 – the first year of University. When I fell for a dude with astonishingly beautiful eyes, and a pasty, skinny, tempting body. He slouched his shoulders and had big teeth and oozed snark and people I knew would ask me “Him? Really?!” Yeah, really. So so really. I’d do anything he wanted, including hurl myself onto the rollercoaster of his emotions, taking repeated wild rides through enthusiasm and indifference.

Each time my heart broke (and I should stress, here, that ‘my heart broke’ does not always denote someone else’s fault – usually heartbreak is a heady mix of emotions, with self-pity and guilt both competing to come out strongest) I realised that what I’d felt before was nothing in comparison. The heartbreak that hit me so hard with the first guy was eclipsed, each time, by the one that came after. By the time the third guy came along, I was ready to laugh at my younger self for being naïve enough to care about the others.

This story gets less boy-focused, I promise. <- Might be the tagline for my life, to be honest. 

New heartbreaks, different sensations

It would be remiss of me not to mention recent heartbreaks. Still boy-focused, but more complex, because there is no obvious ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’. As an adult heartbreak has been less about break-up and more about problems which seem utterly insurmountable – yanking resolutions out of mountains of tangled emotions and bitter words to try and sort out piles of stuff that might just be worth keeping.

These heartbreaks hurt more than the first ones, of course. The pain drags on longer, because the task is far bigger. It’s not enough to text ‘you’re dumped’ like a teenager after an awkward disco, you have to pick over every hurt until you understand what sits beneath it, learning where you’ve gone wrong and admitting fault, and then forgiving other people’s faults as well – like a grown-up. Eugh.

The greatest heartbreaks in my adult relationships have not been endings, but new starts. The act of swallowing past hurts, and saying ‘It’s OK, let’s start again.’ The pain burns as it slides down my throat, and I have to work quite hard to keep from puking it. The heartbreak isn’t about getting dumped or left alone, but about having to stay when staying means more pain. It’s harsher, and richer, than the quick-and-dirty stab that came with the first ever boy who broke me.

A long, lingering crush instead of a knife to the chest. It hurts more, and deeper, and with this new heartbreak it’s tempting – again – to wonder if this might be the worst it can get.

Until one day.

One day.

One. Fucking. Day.

I experienced a different sort of heartbreak. It had nothing whatsoever to do with a boy.

The heartbreak that eclipsed the others

I won’t tell you what it was, because it’s not my story to tell, but briefly I saw a glimpse into the darkest possible timeline for someone I love with all my heart. I waited to hear news that couldn’t possibly be true, and I – the angry atheist – prayed hard.

For a split second my heart broke for what might have been, and the pain of it came bursting in to eclipse all the rest, like a genuine serial killer sneaking up to choke you during a horror movie. If the sharp, cold intensity of it hadn’t knocked the wind from my lungs I’d have laughed at the very notion that I could ever have felt this utterly fucked-up over a boy.

This gets less sad, I promise.

Each time those waves come – gushing from the place where my head tells me my heart is, down through my body and into the pit of my stomach, chasing one after the other through my veins until my hands and arms tingle with the shock of it – it’s a reminder of that very first time, when I realised ‘heartbreak’ wasn’t actually metaphorical. The physicality of heartbreak is a weird and complex thing: different people experience it differently, and some don’t get those physical sensations at all – just an emptiness inside where emotions used to be. So each time has echoes of the time before, and the immediacy of the latest seems to cancel out the last – eclipsing it and mocking it, as if it wasn’t real.

But it was. They all were.

It’s just that time took those physical pains away, so all that’s left is to remember the practicalities of how I got over heartbreak: the crying over wine and the sad texts to friends when I was trying to get over a broken heart in the summer of 2003. Or the sound of my Mum yelling “Bastard!” through the bathroom door as she scrambled out of the bath to dry my tears in the year 2000. All those times, with all those boys, they pale into nothingness when compared to the heartbreak I glimpsed in the summer of 2020.

And life goes on

It didn’t happen. The thing I was fearing. For a while that dark timeline was open wide, but each day since then the gateway to it has been closing inch by inch. If I weren’t an angry atheist I’d tell you my prayers had worked. Instead I’ll just tell you I’m a very lucky person. That thing I feared and prayed against has been continuing to not-happen for the last few months and every single day I experience several moments of vein-flooding relief and delight as I realise another day has passed in this possible world where that thing has not happened. As the days turn into weeks and months, those feelings will drift away slowly, until one day I’ll take it for granted. The lack of this heartbreak will become a normal part of my life.

But not just yet. Not right now. Right now the absence of that cold, serial-killer, entirely-un-boy-related horror lights up my every day. And in that light there are no shadows, no sadnesses, no horrors that can’t be faced. In that light, no mere boy could ever truly crush me. I almost laugh to remember that some of them once did.

The older I get the more I wonder if the scale of emotional endurance is infinitely flexible. Every deep pain announces ‘that’s it – I’m the worst! You will never feel more ruined than you’re feeling here and now’ yet still each one gets eclipsed by others later. Extra notches get added to the scale of intensity as life throws more horrors in our paths. It’s not all bad – life throws happiness too. Power and support and love and compassion, and many of these eclipse past happinesses too. Life may be hard and haunted, but in the dark places there are people who shine astonishingly bright – mending hurts and supporting through trauma and filling your tank when you almost gave up running on purely fumes and hope. The good stuff can be better, and the hard stuff can get harder. And each new heartbreak hurts more than the last. But it might make that first one hurt less.



  • Oxyfromsg says:

    Written beautifully.
    I don’t know what that heartbreak was but mine was the death of a boy that meant the world to me. It’s a heartbreak that still now occasionally stabs pins of ice into my heart.
    But I take consolation that it hasn’t stopped me. Just as he wouldn’t want me to stop.
    Heartbreak hurts when your in it but it reminds you in good times to feel them as much.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Wow. Hard to comment on this, but best wishes to the person you’re talking about I guess…

    I can sympathise only to a limited extent. Not long ago, one of my work colleagues (not a loved one, but someone I know well) was rushed to hospital having gone into *very* premature labour. For the next few days, nobody at work wanted to refer to it, but there was a general atmosphere of dread and expecting the worst. When, about a week later, the news eventually came that the baby had been delivered and was expected to survive, the sense of relief was palpable. I hope you get that relief too.

    But I know other people to whom, in one way or another, the worst has happened. Sometimes, from a distance, you wonder how such a person can even handle it – how they don’t just spend all day wallowing in despair. But as you say here, human endurance is remarkable. I guess you never really know what kind of pain you can endure until you find out. Most of us can only hope we never have to.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Oh wow that sounds awful, and so stressful for all involved. I am so so glad that things worked out, and you got that sense of relief. And yes, you’re right – the hope is only that we can cross our fingers those we love are spared the worst of it, and hold them up to help them endure if the bad things do happen <3

  • K says:

    I wish your person well, and hope that their darkest timeline remains closed.

    Humans are just fascinating, aren’t we? I’m not sure how much of our ‘worst ever’ things we can bear over, and over again, are the result of growing older and therefore more resilient and emotionally mature; and how much of it is the blessed sieve-like nature of our lovely, flawed, self-preserving brains.

    If we really, truly remembered the feel and nuance of every heartbreak, I’m not sure if we could ever risk ourselves again after that first one (aged 14, when I found out that the boy I loved with all my teenage passion was only pretending to like me for a dare). But the heartbreaks do heal, or maybe we grow around the break, until the next ‘worst ever’ thing shatters those old fractures again.

    I’ve lived through 5 ‘worst ever’ days, where I was convinced that this was It. This was officially top-spot Worst Day and nothing would ever be so utterly heartbreaking again. I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover the most recent, which was the death of my mum 2 months ago, but I hope that by the time the next one comes along those fractures will be strong enough to bear it.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss, K, that must be truly awful. Sending love and sympathy. I completely agree too that if we truly remembered every heartbreak as it was, many of us wouldn’t risk it again. I went through a long period after my previous big break-up saying I would never let myself fall for another guy, and right now I am in the process of telling myself the same thing. I won’t ever love someone the way I loved my ex, because it hurts too much to have to rip that out of me and put myself back together. But I suspect there’s a GOTN of the future who’ll laugh at me for thinking that, and she’ll leap on the same rollercoaster for someone who makes himself indispensable. Right now I really hope that doesn’t happen though. And thanks for the best wishes – this timeline may be tricky but it’s far from the darkest, and I am grateful for that every single day <3

  • Zebra Rose says:

    You write so wonderfully, you turn even heartbreak into a thing of beauty.

    No-one can quantify pain, because it’s such an intensely individual experience. We can study blood chemistry and neural activity, measure heart rate or whatever, but those are all just crude proxies that can’t say anything about how a person feels. No-one can measure psychic injury, but it’s still a thing.

    Wishing you healing and serenity xxx

  • Lisa Stone says:

    Every event in life, and every grief leaves its mark and its wound on our soul. Making it stronger on the one hand, and more rigid on the other. This is how we move through life from trouble to trouble.

  • Moondog says:

    Life may be hard and haunted, but in the dark places there are people who shine astonishingly bright – mending hurts and supporting through trauma and filling your tank when you almost gave up running on purely fumes and hope.

    That was beautifully written ❤️

    I have not been reading much during these weird times and just caught up on about 20 of your posts. I’m so pleased to hear that you are doing ok given all that has been happening.

    I very much related to what you said about the heartbreak around swallowing past hurts. I so deeply love my boy, but it is also the most complex relationship I’ve been in. I still believe that it’s worth it, but there have been some incredibly difficult times.

    Take care xx

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hey Moondog, thank you so much <3 I really appreciate your kind words. I am sorry that things are tough with your boy. I hope that he can love and treasure you throughout the complexity and that you can both be happy. Much love xxx

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