I drive down the boulevard towards the night ahead. Through the dry, hot car window caked with summer dirt I see places we spent time together, parks, restaurants, bars, memories of us floating by as fast as the spaced white lines underneath.
At the bar, I’ll hear the songs we danced to, the songs we argued about, and look over at the spot where we sat together on a similarly hot night years ago, when our story was in front of us, not yet rooted in an ever-growing and expanding past.
The bartenders will smile and welcome me by name as I walk in and ask how I’m doing.
In that moment I’ll wonder how today went. Did I cry today? How often did I think of you and us today? Did I think about things other than you and us today?
“Day by day,” I say. It’s all I can muster.
I’ll drink an expensive glass of wine and make jokes with the bartenders and casual conversation with the other regulars. When I meet someone new, and they ask me who I am and what I do, I move past the instinct to mention us first and instead provide my name, my occupation and my hobbies.
And that’s what I am there for. To be reminded, and to hear myself say out loud, that I am more than just my heartbreak.
What does dealing with and (eventually, hopefully) overcoming heartbreak have to do with being a man today? Everything.
Because in the moments when I struggle with depression, loneliness, anger, frustration, and the frequently overwhelming pain of sadness and loss, I face myself in a mirror, sometimes literally, and ask, what will it take to get me out of this? How did I get here and how do I move on? Who have I been, and who will I be, and what is the difference between the two?
You don’t lose just a friend and lover when a relationship ends. You lose a dream.
You lose a vision, cultivated over so many years, of your future, a future that you craved and foresaw, of yourself and with your significant other. You are transplanted, perhaps against your will, onto a different path.
Some of that is exciting and offers avenues of opportunity that challenge you to reimagine what your life should be, what your life can be.
But it takes a long, concerted effort to get to the point where you see your new path as an opportunity, especially when the dream you had and the life you had been living were so closely aligned.
I am forced to reimagine a new future for myself — and what is so painful is that what I envision for that future resembles so much of my recent past. Minus the problems and the stress, anxiety, and bitterness.
Friends and family, bartenders and therapists talk to me about the next one, the next relationship, the next shot at love. It will probably take a year until you are ready, said one. You should go on Bumble right now, said another.
The beauty of the answer is that it is mine alone to decide.
My writing on Medium has explored what it means to ben adult male today, both in the context of #MeToo, and our relationships, either romantic, social, or professional, with women, but also within ourselves.
In so many cases, it comes down to a simple premise: I alone must take responsibility for my actions, my feelings, my sense of self and happiness.
My healing won’t be marked as complete when I deem myself ready to start dating again. While I recognize that might become a milestone, while I admit to the need to eventually get out there again to seek love, companionship and sex, I refuse to let my dating status define me as a person.
I no longer want to, ever, define myself by the context of having or not having a spouse or significant other. It’s forced me to lose my sense of self-identity, it’s caused me to stop focusing on my needs, wants, and personal development.
Really, what I’ve had to re-learn during this period of recovery is the need and ability to love myself, to reclaim control of my life outside the context of the shared compromise and sacrifice of couplehood. All that I poured into that relationship, all the intention, all the passion and commitment — that energy now must be redirected to myself, and be un-shareable until I’m ready.
As much, at times, as I don’t want to. As much, at times, I yearn for what was lost.
As much, at so, so many times, I can’t let go of the love I’ve lost…when that is the single most important thing I need to do.
A few weeks ago I traveled to the East Coast for an annual guys trip. On our first afternoon together we sat around a picnic table in the yard of our rented house, drinking beers, kicking off the weekend. Internally I counted down the minutes until all of us, as a group, starting talking about my break-up.
It has been such an all-consuming obsession, mentally and psychologically, that I’ve had difficulty envisioning a conversation in which I’m involved being about anything else. Over the entirety of the weekend, it never came up, giving me a reprieve for a few days for which I was so grateful.
At the gate in the airport, about to board my flight back home, tears streamed from my eyes as I faced another return to my hometown, another trip from the airport to my place instead of hers, another of those things that at some point I assume will seem normal.
I went to a movie the other night, and outside the theater, I bumped into an old friend. We talked about movies and caught up a little bit. He asked me what I was up to and how I was doing. I didn’t mention my break-up and neither did he. I talked about my job, my writing, my upcoming travel.
Turns out I do have a life outside my latest relationship. It’s not lost on me that sometimes it takes speaking to other people to realize it.
Earlier that day I complained to another friend about the slog of recovery, about how it feels that day in, day out, I am still ensconced in the swamp of depression. My friend reminded me that I will not see progress as it happens and that I must still recognize and endure pain as it happens.
Because it will, only less and less. It will never disappear completely because of this is what it means to be human, to live life.
At another bar last Saturday night, someone recognized me from having met at a separate wine bar. (Yeah, I know. Everything in moderation. But I’m not sitting alone in my apartment on weekend nights.) I got to know him a little bit, told him my story, and did mention my break-up, but only as it was relevant.
Afterward, I thought of how he might see me. I choose to see myself the way I want to and would not have it any other way. But based on the little he knows about me, he can’t see me through the prism of a break-up. That’s not the story I told.
That’s the story I want so desperately and need to tell myself.
I am not my break-up, nor its sadness or loss or pain or hurt.
I have those things and always will. The love I lost, and the dreams attached to that love that is now gone like steam off a mirror, will leave a scar on my heart and being. Forever.
I’m OK with scars. Scars tell stories.
If I’m lucky, there will be more scars and stories to come.
Just as I need to not see my past or present in the context only of loss, or of relationships I’m no longer in, so must I see the future. This is my life, not a potential lover, as much I hope to meet her one day. I was at a presentation last week on climate change (another uplifting topic, you can’t just kick it at fancy cocktail and wine bars all the time) and before it began, as people arrived, I scanned the room.
And yeah, I looked at the women, and in the back of my head, I could sense myself asking, “What about her? Or her?”
Then I stopped that and took a seat. I don’t want to see women as potential lovers or girlfriends. I want to see them as people with whom I have shared interests.
But more than that, I don’t want to be constantly thinking of my next relationship. I don’t want to operate and live in the world defined by my relationship status, whether or not someone else makes my life important, or meaningful or enjoyable.
When I and I alone deem myself ready, I’ll get back out there. Yeah, yeah, life is short, go ahead and have some fun, make some questionable choices. You know what? I’ve done that. And that doesn’t work for me anymore.
I believe spending this time alone, healing, is making me a better partner for down the road. I don’t want a woman or partner to fill a void. I don’t want or need a woman to make me feel better about myself.
I don’t want or need a woman to fix anything, to be honest. Being a man means taking that on for myself.
Our society bestows a status to individuals who are in relationships that it keeps away from singles. I know I’m not the first to recognize this. It’s not that status that made my eyes wander in the room of the presentation. That was driven, I would imagine, by more primal urges.
This is not a piece on the benefits of being single or coupled. Either route, either status, poses its own set of joys, challenges, benefits. In relationships, things get more complicated, and often life can be more rewarding with a challenge, with pushing yourself, with forging the bonds of love and sex with another person. But sometimes it doesn’t work out, and you need to find that meaning by yourself, for yourself.
For it is yourself that is the constant regardless of your relationship status. Whether you are single or married, married or divorced, dating or not, you are still you, a broad universe of drives, passions, desires, interests, emotions, challenges, loves. All the self-help books in the world, all the recovery advice out there, will emphasize this: the importance of self-care, personal development, taking ownership of your own happiness.
Twice I’ve been close. Twice I’ve felt the overwhelming flood of joy and happiness that only deep, passionate love can fuel. Twice I’ve had my heart shattered — and I am still dealing with the consequences, every day. The heartache and pain it has forced me through are the most humbling experiences of my life.
The other day at the doctor’s office for a check-up, I was asked to provide my relationship status. I skipped it, leaving all checkboxes blank. Whether or not I’m partnered, whether or not I’ve been partnered in the past, is not who I am. It has no bearing on my need for asthma medication.
I refuse anymore to define myself by checkboxes. I refuse to let the concept of whether or not a woman is in my life define my identity, at least for myself. Society can do what it wants. It will anyway.
But since this struggle is mine alone, I will take over and define for myself how I choose to see me.
I am more than just someone going through heartache. I am not just someone who has been divorced. Have I failed at love? It depends. I’ve had relationships end, but I’ve also had the highest of highs, which, despite all the agonizing pain that followed, I wouldn’t trade for anything.
When I see a friend or meet a potential new friend, I need to remind myself, I am a whole person.
The love I’ve lost will reside in me forever; so too the crushed and vanished dreams associated with that love. But I’ve also lost friends over the years. I was laid off from a cool job once and there have been other emotional gut-punches that still linger in my psyche.
But they are not me. They are a part of me, but I am so much more. Within that more exists a world of opportunity, of wonder, of growth, of fun, of the unexpected of what is to come.
The greatest favor I ask of my past is to smile back at me, recognize me, and remind me to turn around and face the future. My past will always be behind me. What lies in front is up to me.
Previously published on Psiloveyou.xyz.
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