“Hearts can break. Yes, hearts can break. Sometimes I think it would be better if we died when they did, but we don't.”
– Stephen King
We may not die from heartbreak, but it changes who we are.
It may be a subtle change – the decisions we make to keep our hearts safe or the places we avoid create an untraceable shift on the people and circumstance we will know in the future.
Or it may change us so profoundly that our lives are rendered unrecognisable. We have not died, but perhaps a version of us has.
Experiencing a string of romantic heartbreaks of my own, I was all too aware of how the experience can have an extraordinary impact on our daily lives – how we eat, sleep, interact, think, work, and communicate. Yet aside from a few candid conversations with great friends, it was hard to find other references for how ordinary people deal with what feels like an extraordinary disturbance.
How were so many people out in the world, still functioning with their broken hearts? In an attempt to uncover the hidden experiences of the heartbroken, I put out an open-survey to find out just how people coped with the day-to-day jolt it causes.
The result was almost 100 participants and thousands of responses. Questions ranged from what the experience of heartbreak felt like, to habits that helped or hindered their emotional progress. I heard from those recovering from the end of long-term relationships, unrequited crushes, broken marriages, or a romance from decades prior – no feeling of heartbreak was too fleeting or forlorn to unpack.
Overwhelmingly, people shared how they were deeply marked by heartbreak – for better or for worse, and often after a period of time, simply for the better.
“You mourn for what could have been,” writes one survey participant, reminding me of the words of poet David Whyte:
“One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much, at the end, leaving the person themselves – because, by that time, you’re ready to go; what’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow – no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you would share with them – you will never, ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate of giving away but making space for another form of reimagination.”
The jolt of heartbreak requires reimagination, and this three-part series will explore that personal accounts and advice to do just that.
In Part I of our heartbreak series, we share real excerpts from our survey about what heartbreak feels like, how it impacts daily routines, and how it touches and changes every part of our lives.
The aim is not to provide a how-to guide or a manual when it comes to dealing with heartbreak, but instead this collection aims to normalise the experience, rid us of shame, and help us all feel less alone in our heartbreak and habits.
The responses themselves are heartbreaking, poignant, illuminating and at times hilarious, but most of all, I hope you find them comforting in their candour – and a big thank you for those who opened their hearts for the survey.
On heartbreak as freefalling…
“It felt like my heart was walking outside my body.”
“Falling apart piece by piece; like liquid falling out of my hands without anything to save it. Painful, lonely, excruciating, long.”
“I felt bereaved, adrift, lost in a fog.”
“I feel lost, afloat, weightless and sad. Really, really sad.”
“At the time I felt like a bit like being an astronaut who, having left the shuttle was on their way back to safety when all of a sudden the lifeline was cut by the very person I was relying on. I was in freefall.”
“It feels like life is not worth living even though I know that things will get better eventually. I feel like I am stranded out at sea and don't know my way back to shore.”
“I was completely out of control of my emotions, it's like they took on a strength of their own and tore me down over the following months. Almost like exposing the bare brick walls of a house when renovating, I was raw and vulnerable for months, unprotected from the elements and wearing down.”
“Complete loss of sense of self, like an open wound, all information is overwhelming, visual, sensory... Depression, isolation but also a desire to reach out, appreciation for any connection, rebuilding of self, anger, crying, the power of the universe becoming more visceral, feeling the feeling of being so small.”
“It feels like I have no anchor, that I am drifting and I have a reminder of the experience as I have a belly ache all the time.”
“I felt like I was underwater. Everything was very still and quiet and there was heaviness in my chest that I couldn't shift. I also felt hollow and empty.”
On the physical pain of heartbreak…
“It felt like I had broken into one hundred pieces, not just my heart, but my whole person. Breathing felt hard, for weeks and months and at certain moments even a year later, like my heart was rattling around at the top of my chest, or dropping suddenly to my feet.”
“Physically I'd liken it to that scene in Indiana Jones Temple of Doom where he pulls the heart out of the guys chest. It really, really hurts.”
“It felt like I'd been turned all brittle and calcified like an old tree. A weird physical sensation of weightiness around my chest that lasted all day and the desperation to appear just like normal around workmates and casual friends.”
“I'm actually experiencing heartbreak right now. Sometimes it feels like living is too much for me to bare. My stomach hurts and I think I'm gonna vomit (but I never do).”
“I feel like I've been perpetually slightly heartbroken for three years now, although this year it's intensified to heartbreak that I feel like I will carry forever in one form or another. It obviously comes in waves some bigger than others, ranging from a gentle melancholic lap at the toes to can't breath feel like you might die crash of a tsunami.”
On the oscillation between clarity and confusion…
“I have waves of depression, despondency and despair. Moments of completely confusion yet moments of complete clarity… Sort of a twilight zone feeling.”
“I was like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz going from black and white to colour. I was truly heartbroken (sobbing, dreary, angry at happiness) for about a week, then I realised the amazing adventure I was in and how the heartbreak was necessary to allow that.”
“It felt terrible, like I was a failure and every day for a long time I asked myself if I made the right decision but, at the same time I felt liberated and independent for the first time since I was 17.”
“I want to be alone, I cry to sleep I can't eat and I don't want to be with my friends.”
“I can't sleep. Find it difficult to maintain any form of self-care. I shut off from the world.”
“I never had an evening alone. I'd stay out with friends later, take longer showers, stay at work later. Anything to stop me from thinking too much. Initially I lost all appetite – but food is great so it came back pretty quick.”
“When I'm heartbroken I can't do much. It's too hard. Too overwhelming. I have to get out the other side before I can create anything.”
On how heartbreak jolts our daily routine…
“Everything was thrown. My sleep and eating habits went out the window, I completely withdrew from friends and used work excessively to distract me. This has been the same for all heartbreaks before and since – I posit that I can prove my worth to myself through meaningful work and it will mend the broken heart (spoiler: it doesn't work)”
“I have not felt like eating for weeks due to feeling sick in the stomach. I have been walking alone every day to clear my head. I burst into tears in public places. I can't play the music he used to play to me or go to the places we used to go because it is just too sad. I have nightmares when I sleep about him and wake in the middle of the night but during the day I just want to sleep so that I can stop the hurt.”
“Heartbreak is such a wide wet blanket that falls over every part of life. I found I was heavy in my heart and so would move slower and act slower. I also found myself hungry to work more and accepted more projects than ever...I wanted to skip across time and forget my brokenness.”
“Heartbreak affects absolutely everything. Your mind is in overdrive, over analysing everything and remembering the love you just lost. You lose the desire to eat and then at other times you over-eat. It's hard to sleep, your mind plays all the flashbacks and then associates songs with these. At work I felt like a mess, everyone could tell something was wrong but they couldn't ask. For a few weeks in social groups people would ask how you were doing and then after that it was like it never happened.”
“Heartbreak made me very tired and all I wanted to do was sleep.”
“I slept lots, ate lots, avoided company, lost myself in my work.”
“I find it really hard to get moving in the mornings especially. I wallow in indecision about what to do, spend waaaay too much time on the internet, I withdraw. Work provides a structure and there's nowhere to hide so it helps me put a box around the ruminating that goes on after. I get very locked in my head and argue with myself and my ex. Sleep is usually interrupted by 3am wakings.”
“Interrupted sleep or wanting to languish for hours in bed. Lack of concentration at work. Limiting social interactions.”
“While I was going through the separation my head was full of fog – there was no space at all for creative work. It was like my head had turned to mush. I was off food, only managing to keep my head above water at work, I was avoiding social occasions and sleeping poorly. My life was also overtaken with a tonne of highly administrative chores… invasive and blood-sucking.”
“I slept more and cancelled plans more often. I didn't want to eat much, or I went through periods of being very hungry and then not eating for hours and hours.”
“The daily routine disappears. Time stretches out and pleasure diminishes (I usually take a lot of pleasure from my daily routine...a hot shower, fresh coffee, walks, before bed routine.)”
“My heart has been broken enough times that I have learned it's okay to allow myself to wallow for a few days because I will feel better with time. But, I would prefer to sleep through that initial period, rather than feel the pain I feel while awake.”
“Everyday a little different. Things got a little bit easier and that a lot worse over and over for a while. Struggling with myself as to why I couldn't just 'let go' in an efficient manner. Eventually realised that remembering moments together was like summoning that person up from beyond the grave.”
“Initially, I couldn't sleep at all. I would lie awake for hours tossing and turning, attempting to relieve the relationship and all the best parts. When I did sleep I would abruptly wake up and remember that I had lost someone who I considered to be the love of my life. After a week or so had passed, I then started to have issues with dreaming. Would fall asleep but spend the entire night dreaming of my partner, unable to escape thoughts of them.”
“The impact is subtle yet major. I am not sleeping like I used to, so then I am tired and not functioning at a reasonable capacity. I haven't had an appetite in about 5-6 weeks as well so that is affecting energy. I don't feel very efficient with work however I also know I used to function at an abnormally high capacity so I could just be adjusting to allowing more space for myself. I also am limiting my socialising for many reasons – one reason being that I take on to many other people's words and beliefs and as I am trying to shift through what is mine, I don't need any more beliefs to carry!”
On the secret habits of heartbreak…
“Social media stalking, getting day drunk and listening to/singing along to favourite songs, cleaning everything, sleeping and binge watching American Horror or similar.”
“Social media stalking, staring at the wall.”
“I usually reach for food, junk food or chocolate or something that I am not supposed to eat. My usual is a cheeseburger from McDonald's, which I am not supposed to eat because I am now gluten free.”
“So.much.social.media.stalking. The worst part about breaking up in this era is you can never really break up because they're still accessible via the internet! I stopped following him on Facebook, but sometimes go to his page if I'm feeling particularly masochistic.”
“Keeping myself suspended. I find myself waiting by the phone for a message from him. That's probably the most damaging habit of heartbreak, because you just feel like you're waiting for something that will never come.”
“I've replaced him with coffee – I can't get out of bed without the promise of coffee.”
“I started going to bed earlier as a way to limit the late night messages or desire to check my phone.”
“Lots of time on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of tea in front of the TV. What a cliche!”
“I started watching a lot of crime documentaries, specifically on serious killers. Also Bollywood movies. I would wail at the scenes where after they'd finished up singing and twirling about on mountain tops, the boy from opposite ends of the track would confess his love for girl. He would singlehandedly beat up like 36 men, set upon him by the girl's wealthy father. I started to eat several packets of chilli kettle chips in one sitting. I archived photos, not ready to completely delete four years of my life. I got chip crumbs all over my laptop keyboard. Then I tried to get them out, almost vacuuming up the shift key. Crumbs still remain. I realised that I had missed myself, so although I was quite social, I did start spending a lot of time alone. I started to write again, which made me grow closer to myself again. I decided that I still liked me even without someone else telling me how much they did.”
“Being cry-ductive! Letting myself cry and feel while keeping myself distracted.”
“I always need to do something intense like doing a crazy work out or going rafting.”
“Reading – to escape from the world.”
“Listening to a certain playlist and drinking a whole bottle of wine in one sitting every three days.”
“Social media stalking. Many one night stands”
“I buy new things, unashamedly I feel like new things temporarily fill the void and give me some fleeting joy.”
“The day of, I usually sit in the tub. There's something incredibly calming about it. I definitely eat a pint of ice cream. I also run my body into the ground with exercise. I let my yoga teachers know what's going on. I call friends excessively, I process. I go to therapy. I definitely stalk on social media and post more too (I'm happy! I'm fine! I'm living my best life!).”
“Draw my ex in unflattering ways.”
“Allowing myself to gaze at the night sky before walking into my house, and enjoy its beauty, while breathing deeply and wondering what he would be doing.”
Next in the heartbreak survey series...
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