Way back in January, I wrote a blog post about breakups. If you don’t remember that post, it’s not because you aren’t an attentive reader. (Although that may also be true.) Rather, you don’t remember it because I chose not to post it. It’s been sitting in “draft” for three months, and occasionally I eye it and rather abusively think You were never good enough to post.
Then, six weeks ago, it happened again: I went through a breakup. Right on cue, I returned to my drafts, re-opened the unfinished post. And what do you know? It spoke to me. Turns out I find myself very relatable.
Four months later, I’m older and wiser. I’ve made a few revisions to the first draft, and added to it the end of one more relationship. I know what a breakup is like drunk. I know it at two years sober, and now I know it at three years sober, too. Perhaps I'll know it differently at four.
I’ve learned a lot along the way. But first, let’s start at the beginning.
This was the month of my first breakup. It technically occurred in February, but the aftermath was only felt in March. I had followed that first serious relationship with a two-week rebound. As I later found out, rebounds aren't exactly a first-class ticket to a painless breakup.
Neither, as it happens, is alcohol. At the time, I was 19 and only just learning to drink alcoholically. I wasn’t prepared for the feelings associated with a breakup, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the vulnerability of falling for a new person in close succession. I did my best to mute these feelings with alcohol; I really tested its capacity to induce apathy. The effects of alcohol, while strong, were also incomplete. In between distracting myself with partying and new, nameless faces, I felt self-conscious, alone, and undesirable. So much for a quick fix.
I was nearly a year sober, and finally (but just-barely) ready to feel the vulnerability of falling for someone without drinking my way through it. I’ve written before and will probably write again about the sheer magnificence of infatuation unmuted by alcohol. Any amount of pain that ensued from this relationship was well worth it, because the fact that I can and will feel high without alcohol is actually indispensable to my recovery.
And pain did ensue. By February of 2018, that relationship, too, had ended. Internally, that breakup felt disappointingly similar to the one I’d experienced five years prior, right up to the two-week rebound. I couldn’t drink my way through it, but I wasn’t quite prepared to feel my feelings, either.
Say what you will about rebounds. “They’re not real feelings.” Fair. My best guess is that rebounds are like the echo or ghost of the first relationship, the redirection of strong feelings to an (often-undeserving) target. Anyone who has ever encountered a feeling knows it doesn’t have to be “legitimate” in order for it to hurt. And when this one ended a mere two weeks after it started, it did hurt. I was so caught up in processing the immediate pain of the rebound that I delayed recovery from the more important, more psychically relevant breakup.
Most humbling of all was the fact that I could make the same mistakes drunk and sober. Wait - I thought enlightenment came with sobriety? I was over two years in, sponsoring other women, and even seeing clients as a therapist. Why couldn't I withstand the urge to numb out with a new person? Why was I still powerless?
In a mystifying turn of events, I seem to have learned my lesson. When this relationship ended, there was thankfully no urge to drink. And while the urge to rebound was alive and well, my actions oddly did not follow suit.
Could it be that I’ve learned through experience?
When I was little, I’d occasionally scrape my knee playing outside, or get a splinter on our wooden playset. I’d display the disturbed appendage to my mom and demand the proper aftercare. Very often, the aftercare involved a bandaid, Neosporin, or (confusingly) hydrocortisone cream, back when I thought it was the same as Neosporin. More often still, my mom said it would stop hurting soon on its own. Well, that's disappointing. Even at seven years old, I wanted a funeral for my damaged appendage, a prayer vigil for its swift recovery, and a surprise party when it returned to full health.
Over three years sober and working through a breakup, the notion of just waiting out the pain was still just as unwelcome, and still just as true. The proper aftercare included sufficient sleep, more recovery meetings, maintaining my gym schedule. Finding more audiobooks, spending time with girlfriends, journaling. Feeling sad. These actions felt as mild and unceremonious as a seven-year-old presented with a skin-colored bandaid - a band aid that wasn't even Princess-themed and, I later learned, not even the color of most people’s skin.
Something I've learned and continue to learn in sobriety is that there is no alternative to waiting out the pain. For too long, I thought alcohol was a feasible alternative to pain. For longer still, I thought new relationships could obscure the loss of old ones. As I write this, I wonder about the delusions I’m currently working with; a year from now, what will I wish I'd known?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about relationships and breakups, it’s that we only ever learn as fast as we can - and never as fast as we want. There aren't any shortcuts, and as it turns out bandaids are actually pretty racist. Today in recovery, I'm still seven-years-old at heart - and we're going on a bit of a bear hunt: Can't go over it. Can't go under it. Can't go around it. Gotta go through it!