September 18, 2013

KUSSMAN: Legitimizing Heartbreak

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My sophomore year of college, one of my best girlfriends Samantha was going through a rough breakup and was acting crazy. She would go out every Friday night and come back either with some random guy, or hysterically crying, or both.  My other friends found her difficult to live with and got very nervous when it came time to sign the lease for the next year.  One of them, Katie, was so happy-go-lucky that Samantha’s behavior made her especially uncomfortable.

When I visited Katie two years later, she confided in me that she had recently gone through a bad breakup and it had reduced her to a state that she never imagined she would be in.  “I finally understand,” she said.  “Samantha wasn’t crazy; she was heartbroken.”

Heartbreak is an express ticket to the dark side of the human condition: You will be shocked by the degree of apathy you can achieve, by how many showers you can skip and by just how unkempt you will let yourself be in public.  You won’t understand it until it happens to you, and when it does you will feel like it has never happened to anybody else.

I’ve been there, and it was the rock bottom I never thought I could hit. I stopped singing in the shower, stopped looking forward to my favorite things and snapped at the people who I love the most.  And throughout it all, I refused to accept that I wasn’t okay —  I felt obligated to put on a happy face.

I know I am not the only one who’s suffered in silence. When I spoke with Katie right after her breakup, she assured me, all smiles, that she was doing well.  She went through the motions of being happy and going out with friends. It was not until a few months later that she was able to be honest with me — and with herself — about the state she was in.

It seems strange that an experience as universal as heartbreak can make us feel so crazy and isolated.  We all go through it, but no one wants to acknowledge when it’s happening.  Our reluctance to admit when we are suffering has forced me to realize that while heartbreak is universal, tolerance for it is not.  And as college kids in America, the odds are particularly stacked against us.

Let me explain.

We are raised in a country that holds self-reliance as an ideal, and we are taught from an early age that no one should ever make us doubt ourselves; that we shouldn’t care what other people think.  As a result, the idea that you give another person the power to send your life spiraling out of control feels inherently wrong — almost immoral to us.

Then we enter college, where hook-ups often result in an unspoken competition between two people, each trying to prove they are the least invested in the other.  If we are actually disappointed or hurt by someone, we refuse to pay heed to those feelings because we feel like we should have known better.

We then find ourselves at the culmination of these cultural ideals, none of which give any legitimacy to our feelings of heartbreak.

So when it happens (which it will), we feel unjustified in our sadness and try to rationalize our way out of feeling it: “I didn’t know him that well,” or for “that long,” and “I shouldn’t be so upset, really.” We pretend we’re okay because it feels foolish not to be okay. We give ourselves deadlines to get over it and grow impatient if we are not over it after that certain amount of time.

Even our closest friends – who have our best interest at heart – will feed into these arbitrary deadlines.  “We’re going out tonight and you’re going to forget all about it,” they’ll say, as if getting drunk and hooking up with some rando is the prescribed insta-cure (it isn’t).

The reality is far uglier than that.  There is no instant cure.  The road to feeling okay again is a slow, circuitous route full of those “Go back to start” traps that you find on a kid’s board game.  There are things that may help on some days, like meeting someone new or noticing that the object of your affection got a bad haircut.  But even then, all it takes is one flattering photo of them to surface on your newsfeed and you’re back to square one.

Throughout it all, no one tells you the one thing you need to hear: You’re not crazy.  It’s okay to not be doing well.  It’s normal to feel like your whole world is upside-down. It’s not crazy to be disappointed if you expected something from someone and nothing came of it.

If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is that —when it comes to love — we are all fragile. When we refuse to recognize this, we cheat ourselves out of the healing process altogether. I am not advocating that we become a culture of wallowing, self-pitying people, or that we make excuses for our actions.  What I’m suggesting is the opposite: That we recognize heartbreak as part of the human experience without being ashamed or embarrassed; without making excuses or apologizing for our feelings. Let yourself feel it.  Be proud that you opened yourself up enough to have your heart broken. Though one day it will be a faded memory, you will never be exactly the same as you were before. You will come out of it more jaded, more empathetic to the human condition and ultimately, stronger.

Liz Kussman is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. She may be reached at [email protected] Up to Date appears alternate Thursdays this semester.