Under the Skin: Heartbreak, Repetition, and being the Catalyst
a person or thing that precipitates an event or change.
A little less than a year ago, my heart, grit and independence were tested as a long-term relationship met its end. A home built together, a cat adopted in partnership, and many years of friendship and love were all halted on one sunny October afternoon. Devastating and draining as the experience was, I barely remember the weeks that followed. I slept on friends’ couches, drank more than I normally do and frequently felt the sting of tears flowing. What I do remember clearly is the feeling of resentment that bubbled inside of me. I felt that I, and the relationship that I had committed to, had turned out to be nothing more than a catalyst for this man to take the next step in his life, while my dreams and I were left in the dust. I was the spring from which he had catapulted and as he shone overhead, I sat on my ass, bruised from the impact of his takeoff. Hurt, angry and disoriented, I nursed my ego and cursed him under my breath through the cold winter months.
By February, I had endeavoured on a new romantic journey.
“He’s different,” I told my friends. “He’s perpetually young — like Peter Pan.” I need this, I thought. As I stepped out of a hyper-adult, mature and majestic relationship and into one that was hyperactive, youthful and curious, I hoped I might un-age myself. That I could grow younger, brighter, and perhaps undo the damage done without fully stepping into my pain. As you can probably imagine, it didn’t end well. I knew that it wouldn't… but for a reason that I made about him instead of about myself.
You see, Peter Pan wanted to fly away. He would dangle the idea in front of me like a carrot before a horse. Where would he go? He hadn’t decided. He had trouble deciding on anything at all, to be honest. (Isn’t that appealing though? The intrigue! The wonder!) (Oi vey.) All he knew was that he felt a burning desire to leave this city, and he would frequently thank me for offering him the space to explore those dreams through our conversations. He would come away from our talks with renewed validation on these hopes that he wanted to explore, like books that he didn’t want to return to the library but still wouldn’t commit to buying. This frightened me, and I wondered why I was offering this safe space for him to toy with the idea of growing away from me. For some reason, I continued to do it.
“I don’t want to be another catalyst for a guy in his coming-of-age story,” I told a friend. “I’m a person with depth and desires — I’m not some supporting actress to his lead role, here to be left behind as he goes off to find himself.” The uncertainty of what I meant to him turned over in my belly but I was hesitant to acknowledge it until our relationship disintegrated. He broke up with me a few weeks ago, citing his desire to leave this place. A dream that I had helped him to confirm in the safe space we had cultivated under his duvet. The night that it ended, I called my friend in a confused, teary haze: “I’ve done it again. I’m a catalyst.”
What’s interesting (and heart-wrenching… but interesting) is that although this experience has been directly painful, it has also brought up a lot of indirect pain from my previous relationship’s end. Tears over grilling dinner on the porch last month are mingling with tears over the afternoons I napped on my first love’s couch and the way his father kissed my ponytailed-head after we went out for pizza that night three summers ago. I’m realizing now that I slipped into coping mechanisms that allowed me to slide past my heartbreak and dive into a new relationship without ever addressing my feelings.
These coping mechanisms aren’t ones that we commonly think of as unhealthy: yoga, meditation, and reading a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh were major players in my “healing” the first time around… after the weeks of late nights and extra wine, of course. These interests aren’t inherently bad, and they’re still important to me, but lately I’m thinking about them differently. When I first dove into mindfulness as a way to navigate my broken (no, shattered) heart, I approached the practice seeking constant “peace.” Whenever painful emotions came up, I would zoom out from them and draw my attention to the bigger picture. I invalidated my own sadness by concluding that peace is the only feeling that makes any sense at all.
I understand mindfulness differently now, and I’m recognizing the importance of really feeling our feelings if we hope to ever move beyond them. If we don’t, they’re going to come up even more fiercely the next time they sense a trigger. Feel it to heal it.
My long-term struggles with nerves and “type A” tendencies finally exploded into a full-blown anxiety disorder a couple of years ago. As I reflect on the ways I’ve managed avoided the pain of my long-term relationship ending, I realize that this is a pattern of mine. I struggle with anxiety because I struggle with anxiety. I have panic attacks when I allow myself to be attacked by panic. At their cores, anxiety and panic are not bad feelings. They’re simply more feelings, asking to be felt, and I’ve been rejecting them. Uncertainty isn’t bad. Pain, heartbreak, remorse, guilt, regret, shame, embarrassment, anger, disappointment, grief… are not bad. We don’t like to experience these emotions because they are unpleasant, but unpleasant does not mean evil. We need the unpleasant, just as much as we need the pleasant, in order to know the fullness of the human experience.
Now is my time to dive into the discomfort I’ve been avoiding for so long. The feelings of loss, hopelessness and hurt are mine to hold. They need me, and I need them, so that I can finally offer my heart her closure. Someday, when she is recovered, she will be brave enough to open fully to someone again.
Something is shifting inside. I’m working on myself these days, but not like a fix-it project. More like an abstract painting that I started with my fingers when I was a small child. I’m looking at it for a very long time. Admiring it; trying to remember why I made certain marks the way I did, and considering the most fulfilling, interesting and creative way to move forward.
Funny — the fear of being a catalyst for others has turned into a catalyst for myself.