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. 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.