Not too long ago, a friend was talking to me about a painful breakup she was going through. It was in those really rough first few weeks where, no matter how much the dumped party insists on their hatred of their ex, you can tell that it would all change in an inelegant heartbeat if they received a text from them. “I’m so much better without him,” she said, through tears, as she surreptitiously checked her phone to see if there was any news. And I knew that, at least for a while, she would be in that limbo — the one everyone who has lost someone has been in.
It’s the moment between being together and fully being apart, where everything is a reason for pathetic hope, and you’re ready to interpret the smallest gesture as a cosmic sign that you should be back together. Someone mentions their name in a crowd and you go crazy, wondering if it’s secretly about you. Even though you try to remain dignified — at least pretend that you want to talk about anything but your breakup and your beloved ex — people learn to avoid you if possible for fear of getting sucked into an hour-long paranoid breakdown of the last four Facebook messages you exchanged with them. It’s a raw, ugly time.
And then comes the moment of realization. “Oh, they’ve found someone else.” “Oh, they actually moved away.” “Oh, they’re really happier without me.” And even though it’s distinctly more painful than being in limbo, it’s akin to plunging into the freezing-cold deep end instead of agonizingly adjusting to it, inch by inch. It’s the medicine you don’t want to take, but which will eventually let you heal. Once you can no longer hold onto every sad little shred of hope that it will work out, you can finally start being a real person again, and having interests beyond “I wonder if they’re thinking about me right this minute.”
It was hard to see my friend going through it, of course. Mostly because, no matter what you say, you know that none of it will really make a difference. It feels like being next to someone with searing tooth pain and telling them that, in a few short weeks, chewing will be totally normal again. All they can feel is their raw nerves, and all they want is the doctor to come in with some Vicodin. And I admit that my first instinct was to cut it short, because encouraging her to obsess about her recent loss wasn’t going to help her move past it.
But she said something to me, in the midst of her delusional reading-out-loud-of-indifferent-emails, that has stuck with me. She said,
“I’m so glad that I can be crazy with you.”
And isn’t that what is so awful about the limbo stage, about the devastating breakups? It’s having to pretend to not be crazy. It’s having to be totally calm and collected when you briefly speak with the ex, or keep up a good face for the mutual friends, or spend entire days at work where you stare right through your computer screen, trying not to cry. It’s having to keep living a life that has suddenly been stripped of meaning, and pretend that you’re not as utterly devastated as you are. It’s asking five other questions before you allow yourself to ask one about the ex, because you want it to seem random and offhand, instead of the only thing you can think about.
When I think of my universal breakup stories, I often think of the mess I became, the crazy that I allowed to consume me. And I think about the one, maybe two friends I truly let into my pain. I cried on them, and ate pizzas with them, and watched distracting TV. When I laughed for the first few times, it was with them. And if I broke into tears right after, they didn’t judge me for it. They acted as a kind of nurse to my pain, easing it and making it feel like it was a little more under control.
Maybe a breakup story — the kind we all know — is ultimately more about the people who still love us after, the people whose love is revealed by another one stopping. I think of all the time I wasted crying for guys who would, years later, mean nothing to me. And sometimes I wish I had taken even a moment of those tears, no matter how real they felt, to tell my friends how much it meant to me that they were still here.