By Anne H. Putnam
TW: Suicidal ideation
In the seven years since my first great heartbreak, I’ve grazed closure with my fingertips countless times.
After the first time he visited me in San Francisco, where I’d fled from our London home when the engagement ended; after our wedding date passed, marked only by a tearful phone call and a savage hangover; after his second visit, when I lay curled on the bed in his AirBnB and contemplated ways to end my life; after I slept with someone else for the first time; after my first trip back to London, when I screamed at him in the street and, days later, met him again and behaved like a broken but dignified adult; after a year had passed and I was still alive; after I moved to Italy on my own to write a book about the breakup; after I left Italy three months later, newly shredded; after I surprised myself by falling in love with someone new; after I visited London with my new partner, and I sat and talked with my ex as if we were old friends, and magnanimously wished him a love like the one I’d found; and many more times besides.
Two years ago I got engaged to that second love, not so new anymore – I was living in a new city, had a new life with a much better man. I’d been back to London every year since the breakup, and each visit had felt like another brush with closure, but on this first visit alone I found myself clawing air. Worse, I spent my trip self-flagellating, convinced I was somehow betraying my fiancé by still allowing myself to be tormented by the one who’d come before.
“I don’t know why we don’t let people grieve,” my friend Magda said, as the upper deck of the 29 bus swayed through the darkened Camden streets like a lumbering beast. “If he had died, you might grieve him for the rest of your life and nobody would judge you for it.”
My eyes brimmed. It felt like a death – one that happened slowly, then all at once. A revelation leading to a terminal diagnosis, then a year of back and forth, hope and heartbreak over and over in smaller amounts until, finally, silence. It had been 16 months since we’d last communicated; the space was a relief, but it also felt wrong somehow.
We’d been together for seven years, engaged for nearly five months, when life as I’d known it ended. He was my first love, my only boyfriend. I’d moved to London twice, on four different visas, to be with him while he attended medical school. He was three years younger than I, but much more serious; while I spent the first half of our relationship anticipating an eventual breakup, he “nearly proposed” at least once a year. By the time he actually proposed, on a surprise trip to Paris, I could no longer even imagine breaking up. If all the distance and strife and almost-endings over all the years hadn’t torn us asunder, I didn’t know what could.
Cheating could, but that’s the short answer, and far too simple. The real answer involves lies and manipulations and mistreatment – a betrayal so deep as to be irreparable, not that I didn’t try for far too long.
That night on the bus with Magda, rumbling up the high street past the shop where he finally bought a toaster when I moved into his shabby student flat in 2009, the little ivy-covered side street where he stopped to kiss me and grin with glee that I was finally ‘home’ again – the life I’d lost felt all too recent.
“You know,” I told her, “when we lived together I used to worry about him dying all the time. If he was an hour late I would imagine him lying under a bus, bleeding out, the paramedics with no idea that his next of kin wasn’t kin at all, just a terrified American on a student visa, waiting alone in a freezing flat. I would get so worked up sometimes that when he finally did answer his phone or walk through the door I’d burst into tears.
“When we broke up I told him so many times that I wished he’d died instead – at least then I could still respect him as a human being.” I laughed, both at my desperate cruelty and at the idiotic notion that losing him in one way would have been easier than another. “Anyway, it would have been less complicated, and maybe given me closure.”
Magda nodded. “Exactly – you would have been allowed to grieve him for as long as you needed to, and nobody would judge you for still being sad. You’d just feel whatever you needed to feel, and that would be okay.”
She was wiser than she knew, always had been. It was my fourth day in London and everyone I’d told about my emotional relapse had focused on ‘what it meant.’ “Do you miss him or the relationship?” one friend asked, after I spent ten minutes explaining why I didn’t want to go back to him or the life we’d shared. “Are you worried about getting married?” asked another, after I’d gone through all the reasons my resurgence of pain felt unconnected to my current relationship.
So much of what I felt was characterized by the constant refrain of my life since the breakup: “I just don’t understand.” Even now, with a completed engagement behind me and a long happy marriage ahead – with the why and how of our extraordinary demise so clearly irrelevant – I’m sometimes plunged back into torment over the sheer impossibility of what happened. He’d been utterly devoted, doting on me and professing his love at every opportunity; friends and family had alternated between rolling their eyes and urging me not to screw it up because I’d ‘never find anyone as good as him again.’ I’d always thought I would be the problem: I had such strong doubts about the possibility of anyone marrying her first love and staying with him forever.
But I was proven wrong, in the most shocking, devastating way. It remains difficult to reconcile my perception of the relationship with the way it ended, with my life in piles and boxes around me as my erstwhile fiancé graduated from medical school without me there to witness it.
Being in London without the support and distraction of my partner brought all that contrast back to the surface. I tried to explain it to Magda, to ease my loneliness.
“It just still feels so wrong, you know? Like I moved between worlds, between parallel universes, but I did it wrong and my pre-breakup and post-breakup lives wound up spliced together into something that looks whole on the outside but inside is matched up all wrong. I go through most days happily living my new life, but then I see a reminder or hear a song or something and suddenly I get flashes of that other one. It’s so painful, like an intense physical shock of recognition and confusion and hurt all over again, as if I were really living through 2013 instead of 2017. Does that make sense?”
“I think so,” Magda said. She thought for a minute, then continued, “But, Anne, I think it might always be this way.”
“Don’t say that,” I groaned, and the back of my throat tightened again.
“No, really. I think we all have past lives that we carry around – you know, I still think about living with my ex sometimes, in Edinburgh, and I feel like I was just a different person then, like it was a completely different life. It feels so distant from who I am now, but still sometimes I get flashbacks like you describe, maybe not as intense, but…I don’t think it’s so crazy.”
The way she said it, it didn’t seem crazy – how was it that hearing my own experience from someone else’s mouth could make it seem suddenly normal?
“Maybe you’re right,” I sighed. “I just…I’ve never done this before. I’ve never broken up with anyone before, so I don’t know how it’s supposed to feel, or when it’s supposed to stop hurting.”
“Well, take it from me,” she smiled ruefully, “because you know I’ve broken up enough for both of us!”
I laughed, but I was grateful for her experience and honesty. So much of what I’d heard from people since the breakup had arrived in the form of clichéd platitude: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; time heals all wounds; everything happens for a reason – I hated that one most of all. What reason could there possibly be for going through years of unbearable pain and confusion?
These ostensibly comforting reassurances could never help me because I couldn’t believe them; I’d always envied those who could. But it had gotten better with time – the wound hadn’t healed completely, the scar tissue ugly and raw and like to split open periodically – but it was easier to breathe. I’d even found love again, a more honest and authentic version.
Magda, too, had found a better love. In fact, everyone I knew who had been through a devastating breakup had found love and, more importantly, come to better understand herself. If what Magda said was true, that we would carry these painful events with us forever, risking flashbacks and resurgence of trauma at any given time, then the only thing we could control was how we interpreted and reacted to those resurgences.
As I sat in Heathrow airport a week later, on my way home to my new fiancé, a song came on the PA system: ‘Finally Woken,’ by Jem. That whole album reminded me of my ex – he’d introduced me to it in the early months of our long-distance relationship, when each new email had a song as the subject line and opened with why the song reminded us of each other. I braced for tears, or at least a tightening of my chest, but none came. Instead, I smiled a little, sadly, and felt the loss without being angry with myself – that was new.
A few months later I married my partner in a small courthouse ceremony; the first of three small celebrations would come nine months after that. I didn’t think of my ex once during any of my ‘weddings,’ but I’ve thought of him far too often otherwise. I go weeks without a flashback, months without an emotional response to reminders of him, and then, when my defenses are down and the veil between my past and present thins, I’ll be hit with a week of dreams and reveries and heart-clenching reliving.
I went to London last fall, again on my own; for months leading up to the trip my anxiety hung around in my veins, sometimes bum-rushing my heart and causing panic and tears but always, always lurking. My husband, for whom my past relationship trauma has been a companion these many years, was loving and supportive as usual – his patience for my ex’s presence in my psyche has waned, but luckily so has the presence, mostly, and when the chips are down my husband is always on the side of emotional honestly and making space for difficult feelings.
The week I spent in London, staying with Magda and her partner and their one-year-old baby, was almost the opposite of that week in 2017. I did think of my ex a few times, and suffered some emotional malaise and flashbacks, but most of the time I just reveled in my own present life: my hilarious, thoughtful friends and their adorable, distracting children and my love/hate relationship with the filthy, stunning, overcrowded, beautiful city where I worked and loved for the first years of my adult life. I came home with a terrible cold and a mostly-intact heart; my husband picked me up at the airport and held me in a swaddling hug for five minutes, then drove us back to our home.
Life went on, as it has a habit of doing. My past and present still feel spliced, but the proportions shift every year: I live more here and less there. I’d say it’s around 75/25 now, and while I’ve never been a C student I’ll take the Pass.
Will I ever be able to read a headline about Rome without immediately remembering the tenderness with which my ex wrapped his arms around me when a cold wind blew off the Tiber? Or see a reference to House or Scrubs or pretty much anything medicine-related without hearing his affected doctor voice explaining some symptom or another? Or read about yet another royal wedding without remembering his fiercely anti-monarchy politics clashing with his love of all things traditionally English? Will I ever get my coveted A+, live 100% in this world and let go completely of the past?
I don’t know. Maybe I will always carry him around, like a latent disease from which I’ve recovered but for which there is no cure. Maybe I will always have relapses and flare-ups. But maybe that’s what closure is: not so much a forgetting as a recognition and acceptance of my own pain’s persistence. Perhaps the goal is to approach zero, get as close as I can, while acknowledging that it might not exist.
Maybe I will feel this way periodically for the rest of my life, but at least now I know from experience that I can keep living, and enjoying, that life – despite the risk.