Erika said that “we needed to talk.” Worse words I cannot imagine coming from a girlfriend. She was breaking up with me. She hewed close to the line of “it’s not you, it’s me.” We had been together four and a half years, starting in college and continuing through our first jobs in the real world. She said that she didn’t have the chance to find out who she was, to develop herself more fully, to try things she never had. Blah. Blah. Blah.
I thought that I would never find anyone as good, as cool, as beautiful as her. I would never do better, of that I was sure. So, feelings of anger and humiliation led me down a path which, perhaps, many of you are familiar with when getting dumped.
BLAMING MYSELF…I reviewed all the things Erika said over the years that she did not like about me, especially how I handled things in a crisis, taking “ethical shortcuts.” Wasn’t this something we could have worked on? This kept repaying in my mind over and over again.
FOLLOWED HER ON SOCIAL MEDIA…I saw what she was doing in her life, where she was going, pictures of her on Instagram. I wasn’t stalking her but it caused me pain to see her at parties, arms around other guys, appearing quite happy.
BELIEVED THERE WAS A CHANCE WE WOULD GET BACK TOGETHER… Since she was trying to find herself, it seemed logical to me that once she did she would realize how great we were as a couple and what a mistake she made. In our break-up conversation, I asked her if getting back together was possible and she did not say absolutely not. All I had to do was leave her alone and then, maybe, in three or six months she would realize how much she missed me. It never ceases to amaze me my capacity for self-delusion.
ACTED IMPULSIVELY WITH OTHER WOMEN…I felt deflated, “less than,“ so I put myself out there. I would show her that I didn’t need her. I signed up on OK Cupid, went on a lot of first dates, had sex with many women. At least, some women found me desirable. I had forgotten how delicious it felt when someone was into you. After a while, though, it just felt slimy, sleeping around, using others. And thinking I was being honest by telling women I was not interested in a relationship was seeming lamer and lamer.
USED SUBSTANCES TO NUMB MY PAIN…I went out with my friends more, friends that I had pulled away from during my relationship. They welcomed me back and I enjoyed the bro culture, especially drinking. I didn’t see anything wrong with that, until it affected how I felt the next day, especially at work. Smoking pot and lying on my couch in the dark listening to mixed tapes she made for me certainly didn’t help.
I wish I could say that I realized the error of my ways and stopped doing all the above; that I reached a deeper level of acceptance of my loss and proceeded to get back on track to a healthy emotional life. But none of that happened. I was so distraught, my sleep so disturbed, my thoughts so obsessive about being dumped that my work performance was affected. As a consultant at a “Big Four” accounting firm, I saw my facility for synthesizing complex issues and communicating them clearly markedly decline. Eventually, the partner to whom I report said my work lately sucked (more diplomatically expressed, of course) and that, as a “valued employee,” I would have to use the company’s employee assistance program and talk to a therapist. He said better shape up or else.
I figured that I could get my act together on my own if for no other reason than fear. It’s one thing losing a girlfriend but completely another losing a job. But, having no choice, I made an appointment with a therapist in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan. One day after work, I found myself on a couch across from a thin, older guy, receding hairline, owllike spectacles, sitting in an Eames lounge chair, his feet up on an ottoman.
I expected some of the usual therapy pap: showing empathy for my loss, asking me how it felt to be dumped, and some half-assed “cognitive re-structuring” on seeing the upside in being on my own. As I whined about never being able to find a girlfriend as good as Erika, he stopped taking notes and asked a question which I am sure I will never forget for the rest of my life.
Do you think you will never find someone better than a girlfriend who doesn’t want to be with you?
Right, of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that? I started to look at MYSELF, and not her. I saw how I had been defining myself based on my relationship, how I glommed on to her like a lifeline, how much of what I did or didn’t do was out of fear of losing her. I guess the modern term for that is codependency. But, even knowing this, it was hard to change what I was feeling. But, at least I had the power to change my behavior, not following her, not abusing substances, not sleeping around. Once I stopped doing these things, newer feelings emerged, ones of overwhelming grief, sadness, and despair. I tried not to judge myself as being unmanly for having these feelings.
While being dumped felt like the worst thing in the world, I began having the sneaking suspicion that, just maybe, it would make me a more complete human being. If Erika knew how much progress I was making, she would definitely want me back. Not a good way to think but I am trying. And there were some things that surely helped in my recovery.
Did Some Writing…Every other day, I sat down for 15 minutes and wrote about my feelings of sadness or whatever else I was feeling that day. I wrote in an unedited way, vomiting out whatever was going on in my demented mind. Not being critical of what I was writing certainly helped.
Concentrated on More Meaningful, Enjoyable Activities …Spent more time hanging with my buds (not drinking), going to the gym at least five times a week, volunteering to help immigrants learn English through the New York Cares network, and taking a stand-up comedy course.
Tolerated an Occasional Cry…Embarrassed to admit, but I would get tearful at various times, sometimes seeing a couple walking with arms around each other or watching a soppy rom-com. But, what can you do? I made sure to carry a pack of pocket tissues in my bag and utilized the bathroom stalls at work or, if out in public, at the nearest McDonald’s.
Meditated…I did this about 15 minutes every day, just concentrating on my breathing. Somehow, it helped me be less reactive to painful emotions, being able to sit with them rather than reacting. In some strange way that I cannot explain, it helped me feel grateful for what I had in life, work that I enjoyed, and a family that was supportive (although I am sure they were sick of hearing about how much I missed Erika). And, miracle of miracles, I started appreciating all the wonderful aspects of my relationship with her. Maybe, just maybe, I could have another such relationship in the future.
If all this sounds a bit Pollyanna-ish, please accept my apologies. All in all, I can say I am a bit wiser, a bit humbler, and a bit more understanding of how to handle the ups and downs of life that are all but inevitable.
But, I still wanted Erika back!