Brazilian author Martha Medeiros, whom I greatly admire, has written a wonderful column called The Pain that Most Hurts. Here is an extract I have translated:
“Heartache is not knowing. Not knowing what to do with the days that now feel longer, not knowing what activities to take up to keep you from your thoughts, not knowing how to stop the tears that flow on hearing a song, not knowing how to overcome the pain of a silence that nothing can fill.”
“Heartache is not wanting to know. Not wanting to know if he has another, if she is happy, if he is now slimmer, or if she’s become even more beautiful. Heartache is never wanting to know a thing about the one we love, yet being unable to cease the pain.”
Heartache – the pain that results from ending a relationship, or when you’ve had a rift and stopped talking to each other. In a way the agony is worse when you lack the certainty it was the end, when it might be a temporary lull, or a lull leading to an unofficial ending. It is like having cancer and being told by a doctor of your “chances of survival”. You could have weeks, months or years up to a normal lifespan. Where do you place the hope?
What is “the end” anyway? Is it the last day you ever spoke to each other, or is it the day you no longer feel any love? And if you can’t stop loving them…is there an end then?
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross famously defined the five stages of grief experienced at the loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The word “stage” is misleading, as these emotions do not necessarily emerge in progression, nor does everyone go through all five of them, but it seems like a fairly accurate description of heartache as a form of grieving.
Heartache to me feels like someone has turned off all the lights and all the sounds in the room. Sometimes it feels like being injected with a hallucinogenic drug that makes me fantasise scenes of tearful reconciliation interspersed with those of uncontrolled anger and cold-blooded murder as punishment for the pain I’ve been put through. Then come the prayers in a desolate world where even God seems to have turned his back on me (bargaining)? Upon which thoughts of ‘if only I had not…’ (guilt) arise. Finally I plunge into a never-ending abyss, a fall that can’t be broken by anything or anyone until you reach the very end, until you ‘bottom out’ (depression). One has to break first before the healing begins.
I catch myself picking at my food, my appetite gone. I notice I’m not smiling, I don’t make small talk any more. I notice I pushed a woman on the commuter train as I walked past her to take a seat causing her to make a snide remark. I notice I’m not happy sitting squashed between two large men in the middle seat I got; I hate middle seats. When I disembark, I notice I’m walking fast down the street, not just fast but furiously, head down, noticing patterns on the pavement, noticing my shoes are hurting my feet, why the hell did I wear these stupid shoes today? I arrive at work, and I notice someone has cleared away the stash of clients’ business cards I had stacked on my desk. Why did they remove them, why would anyone even touch any of my belongings without my permission. The volcano is about to erupt. I cover my mouth with my hand to stop myself from saying something rude, as my conscience warns me it’s not a professional thing to do. I am hot, why are the windows not open, why is the fan not on? I feel the heat building up in the corner of my eye. Oh dear, am I about to dissolve in a soup of hot flushes, but it is not sweat, I notice, it is a tear…
Hospitals of the Soul
Marianne Williamson in her latest book, Tears to Triumph, says “relationships are the hospital of the soul”, an analogy I love. Two people meet, not as randomly as you’d have imagined, but because they were meant to help heal each other’s wounds. People get far more triggered by people they are emotionally invested in. We always show our loved ones the worst part of ourselves because relationships work like a detox diet: the toxin we carry within needs to come up so that it can be banished by the Light. In other words, we play therapists to each other: I cure your neurosis, you cure mine.
In assessing a relationship, we often take the stance “I am not getting what I need from it.” When we don’t get the behaviour or the words we were expecting from the other, we go crazy – we complain, we blame, we criticise. The very fact that we let our needs dictate a relationship means our love is conditional to what we want, never mind what the other person needs or wants. Even when the object of your love is a pussycat, you want it to come and sit on your lap and purr. You feel hurt and offended when it shuns your company.
When we get mad at a loved one, we’re masking a feeling of hurt. It may be pain that we’re not getting enough love, or evidence of love, pain that we’re not being heard or understood. It hurts because, deep inside, most of us are afraid of rejection and abandonment. We think if you really loved me you would only act the way I wanted you to, so maybe you don’t (love me).
The good news about heartache then is that it makes you aware of your own weaknesses. You realise you didn’t mean to say, “you’re an arsehole for not keeping your word about calling me”, but “I feel insecure about how much you love me and am scared you may leave me one day.” It brings you to these a-ha moments that shift your perspective of the situation. Maybe I projected my neediness onto them and called it their selfishness. Maybe I could have communicated my needs in a different way. Maybe I need to work on not being so dependent on someone else’s attention to feel whole.
We women love to seek another woman’s shoulder to cry on, but I often find girlfriends are the worst possible support network you can count on at times like this. They hear your side of the story, it reminds them of a similar situation they’ve been in, and they show support by making mincemeat of the offending partner for his errors, adding fuel to your anger, egging you on to end the relationship or somehow punish him. Your friends can inadvertently act as your Ego’s reps and reinforce your imagined reality. Your Ego is constantly looking for reasons to sustain your belief that all men/women are useless/egotistic/insensitive/controlling/[enter your own bias here]. It is like the evil stepmother in fairy tales: it’s only interested in making sure you fail…every time. Consider this: it is more comfortable for us to live with familiar failure patterns than to face the power and infinite possibilities of non-ego-led love.
This is why I’ve stopped sharing about my love life with even the closest of friends. They care about me, I know, but there are lessons I need to learn on my own, even if they hurt. When I cry these days, it is not so much because other people have hurt me but because I’m grieving my own realisation that I acted/reacted from a place of fear rather than love and acceptance.
Recognising I still carry wounds from the past makes me aware of limitations in my own ability to love the way one should: with acceptance, with compassion and gratitude for even apparent lack of love.
Just The Way You Are – really?
It is ironic that Billy Joel sings “I love you just the way you are” when in reality our ability to accept another is so restricted. This is not to say we shouldn’t have boundaries and say ‘no’ to abusive or disrespectful behaviour, and certainly ‘no and good-bye’ to violent behaviour. But anger only begets more anger in an endless loop: you have hurt me so I get angry; you get hurt by my anger (because you feel guilty) and get angry back at me, which in turn deepens my hurt, and now we’re both hurt and sad and angry and we’ll probably never talk again. The End.
When I accept people fully, I understand that sometimes they make mistakes too, say things they shouldn’t have, or in an unkind tone. But what we say or do in a moment of thoughtlessness does not define what we, or they, really are.
What we must remember is that we always have a choice in how we react to other people’s unloving behaviours. Mistakes call for understanding, not judgement. Consider this: as we are all human and we all have defects, by condemning someone you love, you are ultimately condemning you.
When my heart is aching, what helps me is taking myself out on a string of solo dates: theatre, concerts, these events I dreamed of going with someone else are all places I can perfectly go to on my own and still have a great time. A man or woman who can enjoy their own company will always be great company to others, as they don’t come loaded with expectations; they know how to have fun on their own.
There was a time when I thought finding a random date on a dating site would be a quick-fix for a broken heart, but dating because you find being single embarrassing is like stuffing your face with junk food not as a response to physical hunger but to fill an emotional void: it will only make you fat but not nourish you in any way.
A time for sadness, a time for acceptance
Time can be a great healer for heartache but, as with any loss, sadness can grip you unawares, casting a long shadow even when you stand in the light.
When I was a child, my mother used to hide away all sweets in the house in a large tin and place it in the tallest shelf in the kitchen cupboard so my brother and I couldn’t find it. We always did of course, although it took some acrobatics on the kitchen table.
Sometimes you need to put your sadness away inside a tin on a top shelf, moving it higher and higher everyday until you can’t reach it anymore. One day you’ll open the tin and discover it was empty from the start, for even sadness is an illusion, a belief we attach ourselves to that things should not be the way they are now.
I love whom I love regardless of there being a relationship or not. They were unique as an experience and not replaceable by anyone else. I may never know whether I contributed to the healing of their wounds, but the tears I shed today awaken me to which of my “attitudinal muscles” I need to strengthen to be a better lover in life, and of life.
When I find love everywhere, love will find me.