I wake up to the sunlight streaming through my drapes and my conscious mind slowly pieces itself together. My toes crack as I stretch, the world around me coming into view through blurry eyes that peek over a duvet. Another day. Before I swing my legs over the side of the bed, I pause and take a split second survey of how I feel. Could be worse. It’s there, of course, lingering at the edge of my brain and demanding to be recognized, but I have enough strength to push it aside and choose to ignore it. I actually feel pretty good.
And so my day begins, with a small bubble of hope in my chest. Maybe it won’t be so terrible. It doesn’t matter what yesterday was like. I can make the choice to move forward and do things differently and not linger in negativity. As I make my way through my condo, memories threaten to elbow their way to the forefront of my thoughts, but I focus on my mundane morning tasks: get dressed, do my makeup, make coffee, grab my lunch. At least when I’m busy, I’m less likely to lapse.
The first few hours of work aren’t bad. It isn’t until shortly before lunch that the first knife wedges itself firmly between my ribs. It catches me off guard, actually making me gasp as I’m sitting in my chair. I put my hand to my stomach, half expecting it to come away covered in blood. A thought pops into my mind: the way she used to wrap her arm around me when we slept. Closing my eyes for a moment, I try to steady my breathing and swallow down the lump in my throat. I hate breaking down in public. Besides, it’s just a fleeting memory, right? I can stomp it down and keep going.
Here’s the problem: once a single memory slips through the smallest of cracks in my composure, it’s like the welcome mat has been laid out for the rest of them. I keep hoping that it won’t happen this time, but sure enough, the next knife slams into my arm where she used to hold it it when we watched movies. The next is in my foot, because I always used to sandwich her icy cold toes between my warm ones. Then my neck, where she would nuzzle her face, and then my scalp, because she used to play with my hair, and my hands because her fingers always fit so perfectly between mine and my thighs since she used to rest her head in my lap and my back because she would absentmindedly trace pictures on it and my lips where I can still taste her if I concentrate long enough and it just keeps going and going until it feels like every inch of my body is riddled with blades and I can’t even pretend I’m not crying.
Everything hurts, from my skin to my eyelashes. All I can do is stand still and wait for it to pass. Wait to have the strength to pull out each knife, revisiting the memory it holds in extreme detail as I wrap my hand around the hilt and rip it out of me. Wait to have the sense of calm not to mind the fact that it feels like I’m bleeding out onto the floor. It can take minutes or even hours. Sometimes, it takes much, much longer.
See, with chronic illness, we talk about spoons. How many spoons you have available to get through the day, how each thing you do decreases that number. But heartbreak isn’t measured in spoons. It’s measured in knives. Knives and how many gradually embed themselves into your body as the day goes on, until you’re pinned down in your misery and can barely catch your breath.
When I inevitably succumb to my heartache, a familiar litany of “encouragement” comes my way from well-meaning friends and coworkers.
“You were doing so well.”
Yeah, I guess it looked that way.
“Don’t let yourself go through this again, okay?”
“You need to fight it.”
I am fighting. This is me fighting.
“But you were fine a week ago!”
I was fine a minute ago, actually, but now I’m sitting in a McDonald’s parking lot at eleven-thirty at night because I started crying so hard while driving that I couldn’t see the road. I was fine a minute ago, but now my sobs are ripping the air out of my lungs and my wails sound like a wounded animal trapped under my tires. People are staring at me through the windows, and I’m beyond embarrassed but I can’t seem to stop.
I’m not proud of this. I so badly wish I could just move on and brush it all off, unfazed. But every time I seem to make progress, I backslide – hard – and find myself at step one all over again. Not that anyone would know just by looking at me. I’m a functional adult. I can get dressed and look pretty and go to work and pay my bills. I can spend time with people, try new things, have fun. Most of the time, I seem normal. Behind that façade however, there’s a constant and enduring pain. And there are moments when I can’t take it anymore and I crumble into an unreasonable, wretched, pathetic lump.
I never know what might trigger these moments. It could be a line from a song that I associate with her playing in a waiting room. Or driving past that new restaurant we always wanted to try. Going to the theatre and seeing the name of a movie with her favourite actor, or grocery shopping and seeing the brand of tea she likes. And these are only the reminders I find outside the house. My condo itself has become a museum full of painful relics. There’s the wall I called hers because I would press her up against it and kiss her until her legs were weak. The kitchen where we used to dance as we sipped wine and cooked dinner. My bedroom is the worst. Sometimes, I swear I can still smell her scent on my sheets, or feel her next to me when I wake up. I can’t bring myself to fill the drawer that held her clothes. My days are a series of triggers and all I can do is wait for my next relapse.
I’m bed ridden from the side effects. I don’t clean my house. I have no energy. I isolate myself because no one can possibly understand what it is I’m going through. I can’t eat and can’t sleep. I entertain ideas of setting my apartment on fire just to be rid of the memories. I plan out escapes, long vacations, and disappearing acts, anything that will allow me to run away for a while. My heartbreak is incapacitating. I lay in bed, on her side so that I don’t miss her quite so much, and cry until my pillow is soaked and all that’s left inside me is emptiness.
And then it passes, as it is wont to do. Eventually I recover from my sickness, feeling clearer and happier than before. The threat of it is always lurking on the periphery though, and I can never quite forget about it. I start the process of rebuilding again, slowly filling the hole she left behind. I try my best to play the part of someone healthy. I focus on learning how to be happy without her. Sometimes, I almost feel normal. I wonder if I’ve maybe, miraculously, been cured.
But heartbreak is a chronic illness, you see. There is no antidote or treatment. There is no recovery.