Every moment of that dance I vied for her attention, told jokes, laughed at hers, danced near her. Then finally, with the start of some Ed Sheeran song, the slow dance came. My hands on her, her arms around me—sophomore me would have scoured a dictionary for hours searching for the right words to describe how it felt before finally landing on bliss. I’d never seen such kind eyes before. I leaned in. She did too.
Our first kiss, one of the few we ever had in public during our three years together (our mutual disdain for PDA allowing our impassioned teenage love to be differentiated from that which drives some couples to deem the school’s hallways equal to a bedroom), was short and done with the grace only incredibly nervous fifteen-year-olds have. But we weren’t always fifteen, and we weren’t always nervous. We grew alongside each other during sophomore, junior, and senior year, supporting and understanding the other. We listened with compassion to the other’s fringe interests and celebrated each other’s victories with as much vigor as we would our own accomplishments. It was a love driven by the determination to only expect from the other what we could expect from ourselves, the sort of high-school relationship that moved so easily, naturally, and innocently that whispers of “high school sweethearts” grew and grew in our minds. As many of our friends’ relationships ended the summer before college, ours prospered, and we left for school with a prideful determination to outlast all the others.
But our college experiences couldn’t have been more different. Everywhere I found joy, she seemed only able to find another disappointment. While I had professors who made me genuinely enjoy hour-long lectures, her professors were rude, unhelpful, and apathetic. While my teammates were some of my closest friends, she felt ostracized by hers. While I found time to join clubs and met some of my favorite people through them, her life revolved only around class and athletics.
Throughout our relationship, her joy was my own and mine was hers. When something positive happened to me—a good practice, a great conversation, an interesting class—telling her about it was a reaction second only to smiling. But as our time at college continued, as our lives became more severe inversions of the other’s, my continuous need to tell her about all the joy in my life began to hurt her. Stories about my team served only to remind her of her dissatisfaction with her own. Simple texts about enjoying lectures made her boredom in class that much more apparent. You can see it in people’s eyes when they smile without happiness, when they have to consciously command their muscles to not take the shape of sadness. I saw it in hers and it killed me.
To know that my joy was hurting her crushed me. My learned reaction of wanting to tell her about my happiness—and its new connection to upsetting her—began casting guilt over everything I did. I stopped sharing the things I loved with her, and over time, I stopped experiencing that love. My desire for her to be happy resulted in me not wanting to be happy. I no longer told her about anything that happened to me. My happiness, which became rarer and rarer, was off limits in our conversations. All I had left were the sad parts of my life, and I wasn’t going to share those when she was already hurting from her own. Our conversations revolved completely around her stress and pain.
I disconnected from friends, lost my enthusiasm at practice, barely went out, and drank too much when I did. For four months, I allowed my relationship to remove happiness from my life, caught between my guilt about hiding my pain from her and the guilt from wanting to tell her that the issues in her life were not only hurting her but were also destroying our relationship—something I knew would have only made her feel worse. I tried to help her, tried to encourage her to make the changes she needed to make in her life. Throughout our three years, I’d always known exactly what to say, exactly how to help her frame issues in her life. During those four months, conversations that began with her asking for my advice ended with me asking her not to hang up.
Eventually, I did tell her how I was feeling. Our solution, the masking tape meant to save our nose-diving relationship, was for me to start telling her things again, to just act like everything was fine. I agreed, so desperate to save us that I ignored the ridiculous futility of closing my eyes to how much I was hurting. But after my friend took me aside and asked me why I hadn’t eaten anything at meals—ones I was practically dragged to—I realized that I needed to end things.
The first three days after were intoxicating. I was back to me, back to enjoying shuttle runs and being attentive in class. But behind that resurgence was a wall of self-doubt, and as it crept into my mind, I began doing what we all do with pain: I began building a storyline.
Obviously, I only truly experienced that break-up once, only heard her say “you didn’t try” once. But those words haunted me, chased me from classroom to dining hall to dorm room. Every time I thought of them, I began adding to a storyline that, despite me knowing it to be wrong, emotionally convinced me that I hadn’t tried, that I’d given up and destroyed this beautiful thing we’d worked so long to build. During the day, I’d push those words out of my mind, but that only added to the story the idea that I was running from my failures. The story grew to include the belief that I’d never find such happiness again.
During the third week after my breakup, I began reading the works of the American Buddhist Pema Chodron—specifically, her writing about the story-building we do with our pain. When we experience negative emotions, we often treat them as an invading army, one that we either cede control to or push away and pretend doesn’t exist. Both actions build onto our storylines of pain. Until we stop building that story, we cannot heal because the pain will always be fresh, debilitating. What we must do is accept that negativity, familiarize ourselves with it, and naturalize it in our bodies. We must reach an understanding with it.
When intense emotions come to us, we feel physical discomfort. What Chodron teaches is that we need to hyper-focus on the feeling and explore what it’s doing to us. After reading her work, at night, instead of allowing that discomfort to drag me into that painful memory cycle, I focused on how the burning in my chest crept downwards, twisted through my ribs, surged into my legs, and weakened my knees. I took a deep breath and then moved on. Chodron teaches us to feel, breathe, and let the discomfort dissipate through us. We don’t push it away. We don’t cede control to it. We accept and understand how it affects us, and we move on with our day. Feel, breathe, go.
When we do this, that physical discomfort doesn’t metamorphosize into new additions to our storylines of pain. As I practiced this technique, the waves of emotion still hurt, but the pain stopped increasing, I stopped adding to the story, and soon after that, the storyline began fading. Only then, only when I reclaimed my negative feelings as a part of me, could I heal. Sometimes I still find myself regretting what I did, still get that burning in my chest or a memory marked by distorted happiness. But that’s okay, because I broke the storyline.
It can take untold amounts of time to break the stories we’ve built around our pasts, but if we ever want to heal, we have to try to break them. We have to free ourselves from our self-imposed cycles of pain and familiarize ourselves with our emotional discomfort. Our emotions—the beautiful ones, the painful ones, and all the ones in between—are our own. Claim them, know them, and grow with them. We can’t change the past, but we can break the storylines about it.