I woke up suddenly, feeling disoriented, knowing something was horribly, horribly wrong. I couldn't breathe. My chest was heavy, my head was fuzzy from the copious amounts of wine I had consumed, my eyes were red and gummy. Everything hurt. But the most concerning issue wasn't physical. I felt a weight of hurt so deep, so consuming, that I had trouble drawing breath.
As I came back to consciousness and the reality washed over me afresh, tears streamed down my face, and I was wracked with gut-wrenching sobs. It felt like the grief would tear me apart. I wrapped my arms around myself. I felt like I was shattered and had to hold my physical person together. I couldn't think of anything but the pain.
After that pain — the pain I suffered when I was finally forced to acknowledge that my husband's drinking problem was not going to change and that our marriage was over — I couldn't fathom the notion of getting my heart broken like that again. That fear controlled me for many years. I flitted from country to country, backpacking through Southeast Asia; sleeping with gorgeous, heavily accented men; feeling safe in the knowledge that one of us would be on a bus to another exotic city the next day.
When I finally felt ready to return to the U.S. full time, I slowly dipped my toes back into the dating pool. I met Michael, a sweet, fun-loving guy who had moved back in with his mother two years ago when his business went bankrupt. He was “between jobs.” My dad jokingly called him "Without a Paddle."
It was only years later that I could look back on this string of "great guys" I dated for a month or two (at the most), and recognize that I realized I’d intentionally, subconsciously chosen men I could never fall in love with or have a serious relationship with. They always treated me well. The sex was great. We had fun. I never had to worry that they would break my heart. I didn't have to allow for the possibility that I might experience the kind of soul-wrenching, incapacitating grief I had experienced when I finally faced the truth about my 10-year marriage.
But, in truth, I wanted a real relationship. I wanted to get married again. I wanted to have beautiful, fat babies and live a life free of fear. I did some intense soul-searching. I worked with life coaches. I read every self-help book I could get my hands on.
In January, almost five years after my divorce, I met Peter: a gorgeous, happy-go-lucky, bearded bartender. Stable job? Check! His own place? Check! Looking for a serious relationship? Check! Emotionally healthy? Check! Yes! I had broken the pattern!
A month-long, whirlwind courtship followed. I had never fallen so breathlessly, recklessly, head-over-heels in love before. Peter made me feel safe. I told him my fears of having my heart broken again. I bared every dirty detail from my marriage and he held me while I cried.
His voice broke when he told me he thought I was his soul mate. He was terrified he had scared me away when he told me only two weeks into our relationship that he loved me, but by then I was madly in love with him.
I had finally found my person. Life seemed to just make sense. I cherished every kiss. Every “you make me so happy” text. I remember him finding me at a party and leaning in to whisper "I love you" with a quick kiss. I cherished it all. He assured me that he would never break my heart. I believed him.
And then it all went to hell. Peter had spent his whole life in love with a girl he had grown up with. As soon as she decided she loved him, he left me for her. Just like that.
I was left shaking and sobbing on the bathroom floor. My deepest fear had become my cold, hard reality.
But this isn't a story about defeat. Because I survived. I embraced my grief. I let myself feel it in every part of my body. I journaled. I screamed. I cursed the universe. I discovered an amazing dance-meets-meditation practice called Qoya that I find incredibly cathartic.
I was controlled by fear for many years. Despite trying to protect myself from it, making "rules" I thought would keep me safe, my worst fear came to pass. But I picked myself up. I chose to learn the lessons I needed to learn and let them make me stronger, more self-confident, and more self-aware. I had faced my monster and I came away scarred but ultimately triumphant.
A good friend told me, "It hurts until it doesn’t hurt anymore." When we try to run away from the pain of a breakup or loss, or let our fears control us — that is the moment we fail ourselves. Not before. Life is meant to be lived to the fullest. That means letting yourself experience every iota of the joys and the heartbreaks.
It hurts, but it's worth it. I wouldn’t trade those six weeks with Peter for anything. I wouldn’t change my marriage, or even my divorce, because those events shaped me. Without them, I wouldn't be the person I am today.
Today, that person is heartbroken. I took a risk by loving someone I never expected to break my heart. But it was worth it. So, I will lie here for a few more minutes until I can breathe through the pain, and then I'll get up. I'll continue to be grateful for what he taught me, the time we had, and the pain he caused me, because I now know how strong I am. And I love myself more for having had the strength to take a risk.
I am not advocating making bad choices. I am asking you not to make choices based mostly on fear — to make the hard choice when you know it's the right one. Leave the bad marriage even if you’re scared to be on your own. Love hard even though it might break your heart. Start your own business even though it’s risky. You never know your own strength until it’s tested.
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