Over the summer, a friend was going through a lot of “stuff.” The life she knew fell apart overnight and she was left to pick up the pieces. Her plans, hopes, dreams… They were all dead and she was faced with the task of figuring out what came next. She was paralyzed with fear, didn’t know what to do, where to turn.
In a vulnerable moment, I found myself sharing my story with her over $5 glasses of wine during a local happy hour. Weeks later, when the shock had worn off and she was starting to emerge from the darkness, she let me know how much my sharing what I had been through helped her hold onto hope in what sometimes felt like a hopeless time.
Sharing had helped me too.
I like to leave the past there. Learn from it and move on. More and more though, I’m learning the power of being vulnerable, of sharing parts of my story I tuck away and ignore, even though they’ve had a profound impact on who I am today and could potentially help someone else.
I’ve alluded to “the breakup” before, as well as the aftermath. But now, I think it’s time to share the full story, minus names to protect his privacy.
Here’s the story of “the breakup” that changed the direction of my life.
I don’t think we should see each other anymore.
It ended pretty much the same way it started – by email.
I was twenty and fresh off my first real breakup. Even now, it surprises me how quickly I got over boyfriend number one. Number one and I dated for nearly two years, were silly teenagers talking about marriage and what life would look like for us. Within a couple of months of us going our separate ways, I was dating again. I had a few duds before I found him, a guy that fit the bill of what I was looking for in a new boyfriend at the time. For lack of a better description, a country boy.
I’ve always believed in love at first sight, and this relationship proved to me there is such a thing. My mom sent me to the grocery store where he happened to work at the time. Our eyes met and that was that. Cheesy as it sounds, that’s exactly how it happened.
For nearly a year, we were inseparable. I wore his class ring, he kept my photo on the dashboard of his truck. He had a little lock box in his bedroom that held a stash of cash he was saving. He had looked at rings at Walmart, he told me, and knew how much he needed to save to buy one. When the sixth Harry Potter book came out, he bought it to read himself because even though he “hated books,” he knew I loved them. I swooned. He didn’t make it past the first chapter.
I was a nursing student at the local community college then. I didn’t much like nursing, but from all sides I heard how high paying the job would be, how I would have it made once I finished school, so I kept going to class, kept suffering through the clinicals I hated more each day. He kept working at the grocery store, disappearing into the woods during hunting season, and talking about how someday, he might get a better job.
We were blissfully happy.
I had my wisdom teeth taken out just after New Year’s. It was an emergency removal, thanks to an infection, and I had a rough go of recovery. He sent a single text to ask if I was okay, but never called, never came over to check on me. I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time – I was too out of it to answer the phone anyway. I should have listened to my mom who was unimpressed by his lack of interest in my recovery
He broke up with me a week later.
It came out of the blue. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I do remember Keith Urban’s “You’ll Think of Me” was playing on the radio when I got in the car to leave his house that night. How apropos.
I was fine, driving home. I really was. I felt – relief – even though I didn’t know why.
But then he called, apologized, and asked to “start over.” I foolishly agreed and we went to see the Dukes of Hazzard movie (the one with Jessica Simpson as Daisy) a few days later. I don’t recall why we were in Walmart afterward, but I do recall reaching for his hand only to have mine batted away with a “that’s not what starting over looks like” said in my direction.
The “I need space to think” came soon after.
And so, we stopped speaking. He would communicate just enough to keep me hanging on. Meanwhile, all I could do was put one foot in front of the other and go to work and school each day. Until, several weeks later, he sent that final email.
I don’t think we should see each other anymore.
A downward spiral followed.
I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t do my job, couldn’t study, couldn’t pay attention in class. I stopped eating, swung between sleeping too much and not sleeping at all and back again. I found myself in the ER twice after panic attacks. My mom and I fought constantly – I know now she was trying to help me, but her methods weren’t what I needed right then. I couldn’t keep my head above water and finally gave up trying.
I worked full-time for the UVA Medical Center at that point, going to school full-time at night. UVA had an employee health program that included mental health services. As low as I was, I was still strong enough to recognize I needed help. And so I swallowed my pride and asked for it.
I took Family Medical Leave from work. I withdrew from my classes citing medical reasons so it wouldn’t affect my transcript. I spent the next month at home, pulling myself together.
The first week or so, I did nothing. It was a good day if I put on clean pajamas. But even then, I wasn’t someone to sit and be idle. I was home alone for hours each day, my mom and stepdad at work, the twins at school, and so I started going for walks. I pounded the same half mile distance of my little country backroad, back and forth, over and over again, day after day, listening to songs on my iPod. I began to write again, slowly re-discovering a passion I let fall dormant while in high school and after graduation. Little by little, the ground returned under my feet.
As my foundation became more solid, I started to ponder my current circumstances. I had never considered that there might be other options. It hadn’t occurred to me that I didn’t have to stay put, that I could be something other than what I thought I was supposed to be. With everything I thought I wanted now in ruins and inspired by lyrics from songs by Reba McIntire and Sugarland, I became unsettled in an entirely different way. I had always known I lived in a small town, was even proud of it. But somewhere along the way, that small mountaintop town became suffocating. It wasn’t big enough. I clung to Reba’s “Is There Life Out There?” lyrics. That was my life and I was ready to find out.
When I went back to work, I was back to a healthy place, but I had a certain quiet determination to do – something. For the first time, I let myself daydream about what I wanted. I knew I had to go back to school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. But I didn’t have to know. I enrolled in an online psychology class to get my wheels under me again, remembered how much I love school and smart enough to know general education classes would transfer to a four year university.
A co-worker’s passing “you should write about music” set me on a path to Tennessee, to leaving everything I’ve ever known in pursuit of something more. For nine months, I worked tirelessly, back to a demanding schedule of full-time hours at the office during the day and at school at night, babysitting on weekends to earn a little extra money for the life changes ahead. To date, moving to Knoxville, Tennessee is the scariest and best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
I would have never packed my bags if I hadn’t gone through that soul wrecking break up.
The six or so months of being in relationship limbo and then wading through the ruins isn’t a time I like to re-visit. For a while, I was almost ashamed of it. I felt so weak, so vulnerable. The opposite of who I am, or at least like to think I am.
But when I shared those low days with my friend, I saw for myself how that stretch of time deserved to be honored. It changed me, challenged me. When I wasn’t stepping out of my comfort zone on my own, the universe – God – conspired to give me no choice in the matter. We’re all pretty good at going along with the plan as long as the plan goes according to our plan. But when things go off the rails, we find ourselves down on all fours, scrambling to put the pieces back together again, even if the pieces simply don’t fit together anymore.
Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and I can look back on that relationship and see all the signs that told me both the end was near and that he wasn’t for me. I do believe he was a soulmate of sorts, sent to teach a lesson, to serve as the wrecking ball that demolished what I thought life was supposed to be in order to see that life could be whatever I wanted it to be.
I also think we all like to hide our past scars. They damage us, sometimes leave us with open, gaping wounds. But those scars are all earned – and they all led us where we are today in some way shape or fashion.
Don’t let your past define you. But don’t keep it tucked away either. Honor it. It made you who are.