The lesson that replaced the phantom limb

We broke up on a Thursday in a foreign country where I only spoke a disjointed version of the language. In a charming little restaurant, he sat across the table from me, reached for my hand, told me he loved me, but…I guess the rest doesn’t really matter. He was back on the dating apps two days later. It’s such a disorienting thing to feel your entire world implode, to watch dreams of a life together disappear into thin air. I questioned if they had ever been within reach at all. They weren’t, but I didn’t know that yet. 

I remember sitting on the flight back to the states, trying to muster all the strength I had to not be the weird lady crying in her seat. I wasn’t successful. I turned the map on the seat-back screen off, refusing to accept that I was physically on a plane barreling through the sky at 500 miles per hour away from him. When I landed, I learned my first lesson: friends don’t let friends cry in airports alone. As I walked out of immigration and towards my connecting flight, I found my friend, a flight attendant like me, waiting with arms wide open. He hugged me and said he would sit with me while I waited to board my next flight. 

Arriving home alone, I got to work clearing out my things from his apartment, or at least I tried to. He wouldn’t be coming back for another three weeks. I could’ve sat there for days and no one would know or care. I looked at the empty drawer in the night stand that used to be overflowing with my clothes and wondered if he would be sad when he came home and opened it. Maybe its emptiness would be symbolic to him in some way. Or maybe he’d just be grateful to have his drawer back. I sat on the couch, paralyzed. My next lesson presented itself: friends don’t let friends sit in their ex-boyfriend’s apartments crying alone when they are supposed to be packing up their stuff. 30 minutes after a tearful phone call to my roommate, she appeared at the door ready to pack. She loaded my things into the car while I mulled over whether I should water his plants. 

I did. 

In telling another friend about this, she validated my conundrum saying, “It’s hard, right? Trying to decide if you want to break the pots or water the plants.” I thought of all the times I folded his laundry or did his dishes because, who would want to do chores after 17 hours of saving lives at the hospital? Turns out that being considerate of someone else does not guarantee that they will appreciate you, cherish you, or love you. It definitely doesn’t keep them from texting their ex-girlfriend while you’re at the dinner table together. 

I didn’t cut my hair, despite what Maggie Rogers sang about being able to “rock back and forth without thinking of you.” Instead, I grabbed a friend and flew to South America to be sad in Spanish. I thought I needed the freedom of being in a place where no one knew me or expected anything from me. I still don’t know if this was the right thing. 

It was February in Santiago, the height of summer in the southern hemisphere, and 100 degree days led me to languish in our air-conditioned rental. Some days I showered in the morning with high hopes for a day full of fun and forgetting. Those same days, I ended up right back in bed, sobbing and unable to move, telling my friend to go explore without me. My friend would return a few hours later proclaiming, “I have a surprise for you!”, the surprise a smoothie he used as a bargaining chip to encourage me to eat. On a tour through the Andes, we met retired couples who shared their thoughts on life and partnership and the concept of what these things “should” look like. Their advice: don’t let “shoulds” rule your life.

I wasn’t ready to take my head out of the sand, so I booked a flight to Buenos Aires by myself. Panicked, I called him. I’m not really sure what I was hoping for, but it left me feeling even emptier. It was like leaning on a phantom limb; I hadn’t yet figured out how to stand on my own. After 2 days of ugly crying, I put on the cutest dress I packed, now hanging on me, a consequence of being too depressed to eat anything for weeks. I took myself to a fancy lunch, asked for a table for one, and ordered my meal entirely in Spanish. I went on a bike tour during a heat wave, trying to sweat out my sadness like a toxin. I booked a spot at a rooftop parrilla, became friends with strangers and ate the most delicious food, feeling light for just a moment. 

Back in my real life, I did my best to adjust to my new normal. I cried a lot in therapy. I spent Valentine’s day with friends and almost felt fine, until he texted me “Happy Valentine’s day, I’m sorry it’s a hard one.” I threw my phone across the room and poured myself another glass of wine. I listened to every break up podcast I could find. I bought every cheesy post-break up self-help book I could get my hands on. I called my best friend four times a day. Another friend spent the night in my apartment with me, scared to leave me alone after scooping me up from the floor like a pancake; moments before, I had opened Instagram and saw that he had posted photos of himself partying with friends as if I never existed. I slept very little and had recurring dreams about not being enough, waking up drenched in sweat and tears. Being miserable became my round the clock occupation. I called my doctor in desperation and sobbed immediately when she asked me, “What brings you in today?” I got on an antidepressant. 

Refusing to spend too much time alone, I said yes to every invitation that came my way. I drank. A lot. After the umpteenth morning waking up not remembering what happened the night before, I seriously questioned if I had a drinking problem. It’s always fun in the moment, but the retroactive anxiety, I learned, is never worth any amount of fun you may have had. I met a guy at a bar and brought him home with me, only to chuckle to myself at the lengths people will go through to not seem like a bad person. We all know how this goes: someone asks for your number out of a sense of politeness rather than any actual desire to see you again. I wondered, detached, why this is a thing people do. I put my number in his phone, purposely neglecting to text myself. I didn’t care if I had his number. I didn’t care if I never heard from him again. I silently wished him a nice life as I closed the door behind him. 

I thought I might’ve been ready to go out on dates. 

I wasn’t, but I didn’t know that yet. 

I briefly dated a friend of friends I had met twice before, back when all we could do was inwardly acknowledge the tinge of curiosity and be outwardly polite. We had the same taste in music and the same neuroses. I liked looking at him just as much as I liked hearing him laugh. I liked his apartment, the way he dressed, and how he told me my hair smelled good. He had a sciency job I didn’t really understand, but made pop culture references that I did. He had also just gone through a complicated break up. We shared sad stories over dinner, glasses of wine, and morning coffee. I thought, wow here is someone who really understands me. He didn’t, but I didn’t know that yet. Here, I learned that two hurts don’t make a healed. 

I quickly course-corrected and threw myself into books. So. Many. Books. I drove out to the Berkshires, deserted in the winter, and rented a room at an inn that was either the set of a Hallmark Christmas movie or absolutely haunted. I read in cozy spaces by myself. I ate dinner alone and became far too comfortable telling the hostesses, “It’s just me.” I took myself to museums and stayed for as long as I wanted. I said no to a pub crawl in favor of going to see an eight hour Wes Anderson movie marathon by myself. I sat in crowded places alone, observing how people interacted with each other, almost as if I was trying to re-learn how to be human. I found solace in trying new workout classes, thinking I could trampoline-barre the pain away. I checked in with friends. I started to mend my relationship with my parents. I sat on the dock of the Charles River soaking up warmth like a little sunflower. 

I look back on who I was before the cute little table at the cute little restaurant, and I feel sad for her and all of the ways she sold herself short, how she accepted so little in exchange for so much. It’s strange how you can give up pieces of yourself bit by bit until you are merely an outline of yourself before you even notice anything is amiss. I learned that sometimes we can love people with more fervency than they have earned. Instead, we must pour love into the people who have shown us time and time again that they will carry us when we cannot carry ourselves. There is no point in seeking the approval of people who were never going to give a shit about you anyway. Go where you are welcomed with open arms, not just tolerated. People can and will treat you well without you having to beg for it; you’ll be sad when you realize all that you’ve been missing out on while you were waiting. The wisdom you can learn from others if you are only willing to be vulnerable is immeasurable. The most content you’ll ever feel might be when you are third wheeling your friends, drinking wine on their couch and watching Jeopardy!. Ice cream is an excellent comfort food. The act of decorating a three layer cake you made from scratch for your friend’s birthday is calming. In the absence of pets, plants are a good place to put love that needs somewhere to go. “Yourself” is also a perfectly good place, too.