Lessons in love. My mother taught me an excellent one the morning after I broke up with my first boyfriend.
“What have I done, Mom?” I asked her over the phone. “I’ll never find anyone else. No one will ever love me like that again?”
“You’re right,” Mom replied. “No one will ever love you like that again. But you’ll love again, and someone will love you again. It will just be in a different way. That won’t make it any less meaningful.”
Anyone who has ever loved and lost and loved again understands where she was coming from. Unfortunately, the dream of a bright future doesn’t diminish the harsh reality of the present: breaking up is hard to do. In fact, it hurts like hell. Yes, love will find its way back to you, but what do you do in the meantime, when you can’t think of anything else but the one who just got away?
In the years since my first split, I’ve turned to seven simple remedies to help ease, if not avoid altogether, break-up pain and soothe the soul during those sleepless nights that inevitably follow any breakup.
1) Delete his number from my phone. This is how I ensure that I won’t text or phone exes in moments of weakness, and more importantly, it stops me from doing so after I’ve had a few too many tequila shots in a vain attempt to delete him from my memory, too. (I haven’t had to worry about de-friending and/or blocking my last couple of exes on Facebook because they saved me the trouble by doing it to me first.)
2) Delete all of his emails. Nothing rubs salt in the fresh wound of a breakup more than crying over spilled milk while rereading old conversations, looking for clues or, if your final argument was over email, reliving that awful final chapter. The harshness of words spoken subside in our memory over time, while the brutal written word becomes more sinister every time we read it, as we pile on subtext and hidden meaning. While I’m pressing delete, by the way, I lose the email address, too, just to curb the temptation to write. (I do, however, insist on keeping all photos and keeping them intact, for the point of deleting exes’ emails is not to completely erase them from your past.)
3) Go for a run. I have some of my best imaginary conversations while engaging in aerobic road work. It not only clears my head, but the rush from those endorphins must boost my self-esteem: his loss, not mine!
4) Write him an email. But I now know better than to ever send it! (Which isn’t a problem after I’ve done No. 2.) As a writer, I find it much easier to express myself in writing than orally, especially when standing face-to-face with someone, tongue-tied, or when he’s constantly interrupting my train of thought. For me, organizing the jumbled words that are making my head spin and putting them in writing is excellent therapy, but when the intention is to press send at the end, it’s hard not to edit the expression of my raw emotions. Perfect grammar and painstaking punctuation might translate to insincere, like a rehearsed or teleprompted speech. Better to keep it messy, real, and too myself.
5) Listen to the music. No phony I’ve-got-my-shit-together anthems like “Believe” and “I Will Survive.” That’s denial with a beat. Go ahead and cry along to a tearjerker because sad songs say so much. And it’s always good to know that someone else knows the pain you’re struggling through, even if it means wallowing deeper in it.
6) Go on holiday. Yes, it’s running away from your problem, but sometimes a change of scenery also offers a new, healthy perspective. Living at the scene of heartbreak can be like staying behind in a burning building. As Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn sang on their great 1971 country hit, “There’s nothing cold as ashes after the fire is gone.” Get out while you still can — at least for a long weekend.
Over the years, these approaches have worked with varying degrees of success, for they’re mostly one-time treatments that offer temporary solace, not keys to systematic behavior that’s more likely to lead to long-term healing. It’s the difference between popping a pill to offer relief from symptoms and sticking to a preventative and proactive treatment plan. How many letters that you’ll never send are you going to write? How many trips will you take? Once you delete his number and all of his emails, it’s not like you can continue to repeat those actions indefinitely.
Ultimately, time is probably the best medicine. It heals all wounds. But what to do while waiting for the healing properties of time to kick in? How to deal with the obsessive thoughts, the uncertainty about the future, the nagging certainty that your best love is behind you?
I think I finally found the answer in the middle of one sleepless night while watching something called 3 Talk with Noeleen on Cape Town TV’s channel SAB3. I’d never seen or heard of the show in my life, but I was immediately drawn to the host Noeleen Maholwana Sangqu and her mellifluous South African accent. I’d listen to anything she had to say.
The format of the episode I saw was like a talk-show version of “Dear Abby,” with an emphasis on love. Viewers wrote in their romantic woes, and Noeleen and a panel of four, not three, experts offered sage advice. All of them had interesting things to say to the viewer who was struggling to get over a bad breakup, but it was the words of motivational speaker and author Justin Cohen that showed me the light in the middle of the night.
7) “Focus deliberately on the negative about that person.” It’s such simple advice, and it seems almost too obvious. But how many of us actually do that? We’re often too busy idealizing our exes, reliving in our head the perfect relationship that never was, while focusing on the negative in ourselves. That’s certainly what I was doing that morning in bed while I was crying over breaking up with my first boyfriend. That’s pretty much what I’ve done at the end of nearly every relationship I’ve had since then.
I’ve always known when to leave — when Justin said, “Just because we like someone doesn’t mean they’re right for us,” he was preaching to the choir — but when I leave with lingering feelings, saying goodbye is the easy part. Saying “good riddance,” despite what I know in my heart, is tougher. Memories are tricky things. When they arrive in the form of nostalgia, we instinctively accentuate the positive, remembering the good times when perhaps we should be making a point of recalling the bad.
Think of it not as dwelling on the negative but rather, constantly reminding yourself of all the good reasons why you broke up in the first place. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even get yourself some brand-new deal breakers, for nothing reverses recovery like dating the same mistake again.
Jeremy Helligar is a Cape Town-based journalist and the author of Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World(November 4, Amazon.com), a travelogue memoir about his life and loves abroad.