It was the dead of a New York City winter and I had just been dumped by a girl I had only been dating for four months. She dumped me over text message two days before Christmas while I was visiting my parents in Florida. I wrapped myself up so tightly in a cocoon of booze and hometown friends so I was safe from the sting of rejection.
Until I went back to New York.
New York is depressing after Christmas, even if you haven’t been freshly dumped. The pretty-strung lights are gone, rendering the streets barren, cracked, naked and vulnerable. Leafless trees pepper lonely streets. Everyone is walking around with their heads bent toward the pavement, weighed down by the pending doom of a dismal January. A dismal February. A dismal March.
If New York City in the winter is dark for the happy entity, it’s a surefire blackout for the broken hearted. The moment I landed in JFK airport I was in a fog so thick I couldn’t see my way out of it.
No one seemed to understand why I was so sad.
“I mean, honestly, Zara, it was only four months. That’s nothing!” My mother lectured me over the phone.
“Didn’t you want to break up with her anyway?” My best friend Owen asked me in the backseat of a taxi on the way to a party, taking a big swig out of a red plastic to-go cup of wine.
“You should be excited to be finally single and free in the city!” My other best friend Ruba chirped to me on a crackling cross-continental phone call from London.
“I have so many people I want to set you up with!” My matchmaking bar acquaintance enthusiastically yelped, pointing to a flock of girls taking shots in the corner of the bar.
They were all right. I had desperately wanted to free myself from the drama of my turbulent, short-lived relationship. The city was, indeed, teeming with a diverse array of eligible lesbians to pine after.
I had every reason on paper to be just fine after this breakup. The relationship was too short-lived for our lives to be intertwined. I still had my dream job, a fully-realized apartment of my own in a coveted neighborhood of Manhattan, a handful of loving friends; the kind that feels less like party colleagues and more like family.
But I was still so sad.
Why was I so sad? I couldn’t figure it out.
Or could I? Was I just too afraid to dig deep and unearth the ugly roots of my unshakable sadness? Wasn’t it sweeter to take the easy route and blame “the breakup?”
I thought so. So that’s what I did: I glorified our sex life and I inflated our happy memories in my mind until they grew so big they hid the bad ones. I romanticized our “connection,” artfully exaggerating a four-month fling into the greatest love of my life.
A tucked away part of me was secretly thrilled that I something to blame my sadness on. I didn’t have to fight the exhausting current of depression, my breakup gave me permission to peacefully sink to the bottom of the ocean.
“Zara, why don’t you want to go out tonight?” My friend Lauren asked.
“I’m heartbroken,” I answered.
“Zara, why don’t you want to audition for this film, you’re perfect for the part?” My brother Blake asked.
“I’m heartbroken,” I answered.
“Zara, why are you going back on Prozac? Why are taking Ambien to sleep every night? What’s with you drinking a bottle of wine to your head daily? Zara, why has your ambition flatlined?” I asked myself at 2 am in the throes of a restless sleep.
“I’m heartbroken. I’m heartbroken. I’m heartbroken,” I repeated.
One hungover morning I couldn’t pull myself out of bed. The negative self-talk was screaming so loudly in my ear, all I could do was pull the covers over my head in attempts to drown out the sounds.
When that didn’t work I broke down and called my therapist. I had stopped booking sessions with her when I was dating my ex, because our relationship had worked as an anesthetic, gorgeously numbing me from the pain of my decade-long sadness. It’s easy to run away from the bad feelings when you’re tethered to another person.
You can just pour all of yourself into your partner. Empty yourself of all that lives inside of you, spoon feed yourself to her. You’ll feel empty, but free. Disconnected from your emotions, which is totally great when it feels like your entire emotional repertoire is painful.
However as in my case, once your tryst with whoever your dating ends, you’re once again locked up, all alone, forced to deal with the remnants of yourself.
“Your sadness isn’t about her,” my therapist said at my first session back. I responded with silence.
She continued. “Your sadness is about you. You haven’t cultivated a healthy relationship with yourself. You’re sad because you don’t like yourself.”
I dug my nails into the couch. She was right.
I had been waging a war against myself for most of my life, only feeling fleeting bits of happiness when I was in “love.” Since “love” seemed to be a cure for my depression I fell in “love” constantly.
I was stuck in a cycle. It felt like I was a leap frog hopping from relationship to relationship, terrified of drowning in the quicksand lingering beneath the lily pads.
Yet I always fell off at some point. “Love” can’t be sustainable when it’s used for medicinal purposes—when it’s not about the person but about your own problem. The illusion fades and the reality sets in and oops. It’s time to project those fantasies onto someone else before shit gets real.
I would briefly subsist in the darkness, the depression, the sadness of singledom until I found someone new to alleviate the pain. There was always someone new to alleviate the pain. This city is full of people running away from themselves, ready to self-medicate with a warm body.
It was time to break the pattern.
When my friends asked me why I was sad, I stopped telling them it was about my breakup. For the first time, I got fucking real with them and with myself.
“I’m sad because I’m depressed. I’ve been depressed for a very long and I’ve been using love as a drug to numb it.” I told them. It was the first time I had ever been so brutally honest with the people I loved.
And you know what’s amazing? I realized that the healing process begins the moment you twist your lips around the truth. The moment you stop blaming your ex for your sadness, your breakup for your breakup for your sadness, all the exterior things for your sadness and instead look within.
Gaze into your reflection and fucking dare to look at yourself, really look at yourself, and ask yourself the hardest but most liberating question of all: Why aren’t I happy? Why don’t I like myself?
When you let go of the blame, you find clarity. You’re able to see when you’ve stripped away the shadows of others. You’re able to see what the wounds really look like and where they really came from.
They didn’t come from her. Those feelings were there long before she came along. She is the pretty pink band-aid that’s been suddenly ripped off and you’re upset because you liked the band-aid. You’re pissed at her for leaving you to look into the grotesque scar, alone.
When really, my sweet kitten, this is the best thing that has ever happened to you. Wounds need air to breathe.
So breathe into the pain. Talk about the pain with a therapist, with your friends, write it all down in a journal and light it on fire if you want. Do whatever you need to do to get down and dirty with the truth.
Because you can’t have a solid relationship with anyone when you’re avoiding the truth, let alone one with yourself.
And the relationship with yourself is the most important relationship of all, babes. It is the soil from which every other relationship grow. If that soil isn’t cared for, the fucking flowers will wilt.
So how do you get there?
I don’t know. I’m not a shrink. I can tell you what worked for me: letting myself feel. Letting go of the resentment. Treating myself kindly. Caring for myself by going to through therapy and being as nice to myself as I’d ever been to anyone else.
It wasn’t easy, but the better I began to treat myself, the more I began to respect myself. Once I respected myself, it became sort of impossible for anyone to truly disrespect me. That Eleanor Roosevelt quote finally made sense: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Maybe they can spread vicious rumors about you or dump you out of the blue over a text message or betray you in a terrible way—and trust me all of those things will still sting, but the pain isn’t so overwhelming when you’re in healthy relationship with yourself.
You have built a stable home for yourself. That home is you. You are the woodwork that holds everything together. No one can ever knock down what you’ve built on your own two hands.