It’s the middle of the afternoon as my mother leads me to a secluded bench in our local park, away from the murmurs of ordinary life around us. I usually love this space, but on this day I don’t want to see or hear any of it. I feel so far from myself that the happy cries of the children surrounding us barely even register.
Mum sits me down and rolls a cigarette. I’m grateful for the momentary silence this act offers because I can feel it coming – a fresh wave of pain that hits me with such ferocity that all I can do is hug my legs to my chest and cry. Mum pretends she hasn’t noticed, which is a kind gesture that makes me feel at once appreciative and even more sad.
The week before, my partner of three years ended our relationship. Admittedly it came after months of trying conversations and unmet expectations. Despite hoping that it wouldn’t happen, I think I knew it was coming. Though that didn’t soften the blow of his absence or the debilitating self-blame.
During those first few days, everything reminded me of him. The smell of fresh coffee in the morning, the sight of the bike he patiently assembled for me in a happier time – even a comment from my mother about how well I cut vegetables leaves me sobbing over the kitchen counter, crying: "He taught me how."
The breakdown of a relationship rarely rests entirely on the shoulders of one person, even if it is placed there.
The truth is that he taught me a lot. A much harder truth to acknowledge is that he won’t teach me anything again.
The immediate aftermath of the breakup felt like a daily battle to pass the hours. Mornings were the worst. For a while I didn’t feel like I could handle the newness of my mornings alone, instead reaching for the phone to call my mum. After a few days of this, I started waking up to missed calls from her, like a life raft waiting for me. She would sit quietly on the other end, listening to the pain she surely knew I would just have to endure. She told me it would get better and though I didn’t believe her, I clung to her words.
We are so rarely told stories of women in their late 20s or 30s who don’t have their lives in perfect order. Their earlier mess has been cleaned up because there’s a myth that you’re sorted by the time you turn 30.
My loss felt late in the game and colossal. I sat at dinners with coupled-up friends who spoke about their impending plans – house deposits, engagement rings, the names of their future children – and felt like a child at the grown-ups' table.
My brain had convinced me that I’d missed the boat and would spend the rest of my life adrift without my ex.
When we hear of life-changing moments, the significant breakthroughs that people have after a difficult experience, they sound vividly important: a monumental landmark in a personal map of a life. My turning point was comparatively subtle. For weeks, mundane tasks felt like mountains to climb. I couldn’t think of where to go, what to wear, what would bring me any joy.
Somewhere, in the chaos of my 20s, I had lost my sense of self. I had little idea of what I wanted or who I was. I had so readily become an ‘us’, embroiling myself in the narrative arc of a strong male protagonist, that I had no clue where I wanted my own story to head. Realising this was when everything changed.
From then, I chose to sit with the discomfort and loneliness of the place I had unwillingly landed until I got to know myself again.
First I had to look at the demise of the relationship like an observer on a viewing platform, taking in the scene from a safe distance. I walked the line between owning my mistakes and falling into complete self-blame. It felt like taking to a world stage as a ballerina with two left feet and no sense of grace. It felt impossible.
I persevered. I committed to myself as determinedly as I had to my ex, taking temporary leave from work to allow myself time to grieve and grow. I started therapy, going into excruciating detail about experiences and uttering words I’d never dared to say aloud before.
I didn’t like everything I found but the more I dug, the deeper I could see into the wounds that had got me to a place I didn’t want to stay in. With a total lack of sense of self and an abundance of insecurities, I had sought an unwaveringly self-assured partner, who I saw as superior in every way.
Somewhere in the chaos of my 20s, I had lost my sense of self. I had so readily become an 'us', embroiling myself in the narrative arc of a strong male protagonist, that I had no clue where I wanted my own story to head.
Early on after the breakup, and shortly after I started this process, I was walking through a park with a close friend. With shame, I admitted to her that I suspected I had low self-esteem, at which she laughed and said: "Of course you do." We both laughed. She already knew of this personal flaw I’d just unearthed and loved me anyway. I felt lighter.
I became determined to create my own occasions for personal fulfilment, rather than waiting for them to appear. I divided my weekends equally between time spent alone and with people who lifted me up. I planned solo activities: holidays, long walks, wild swims, new experiences in unknown terrain. Together, these incremental steps were substantial.
Eventually I gathered up the self-help books and put them to one side. Instead, I read all kinds of stories that had gathered dust on my shelves. I watched Frances Ha again and again. I imagined a life with purpose, as a woman with time on her side and courage in her convictions. In this way, I dared myself to dream again.
Months on, here are some lessons that I’ve learned.
The things we don’t say can be as detrimental as words said in haste. To love someone isn’t a choice but to continue to do so is a choice we make every single day – especially on days when the sky doesn’t look as blue and it seems that bit harder. Like colour, the pigment of love can fade without enough light. Love can also flourish beyond measure, through the mess and mishaps that make up a life. It can become sturdier, as cement turns into concrete. But it is also a fragile thing. Its longevity comes from deliberate acts and the sheer will to believe in it.
Other lessons have taken me longer to learn. One of the most important is this: the breakdown of a relationship rarely rests entirely on the shoulders of one person, even if it is placed there. It is normal to continue loving someone once they cease to be the person you fall asleep beside and wake up next to. Their body will leave a shape in your sheets after they’ve left and another body will not fit that mould. Nor should it.
Perhaps the hardest lessons of all: it isn’t possible to be too much or too little for the right person. Closing off from love doesn’t get anyone anywhere worth going. Love can surprise us in the best and worst ways. And it’s never too late to surprise ourselves.
There’s a line by the poet Mary Oliver which I come back to time and time again. She asks: "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" My answer is this: to live with love that starts at me but that has no end. To give it freely and fearlessly, despite – or because of – knowing what can come after. A life where I continue to dream, hope and learn. A life where I stay firm even on shaky ground. A life where I allow my mind and my heart to roam unencumbered. Because in the end, you have to start with loving yourself.