I never considered myself to be someone who would put my happiness in someone else’s hands. I’ve always been very independent; I value my space and put a lot of importance on being a complete person outside of any romantic relationship.
So when my eight-year relationship came to a close in 2020, I was shocked at how incomplete I felt. Despite thinking I was well-prepared for the breakup — which probably should have happened two years earlier — I was thrown off balance by the grief, anger, and confusion that overcame me after I received a Dear Jane letter — in the form of a short, cold email, no less. My ex and I had started dating when we were 18 years old; I had never been an adult without him, and I wasn’t sure if I knew how. And while I may not have put my happiness in his hands, somewhere along the way, I had put my self-worth in them. Now, the same question kept ringing in my head: How can someone love me so much and then all of a sudden… not?
Shortly after the breakup, I was lying on my floor, blinking through the tears and trying to distract myself on TikTok, looking for other people’s breakup stories. I thought about how helpful it would be to see the chapters of someone else’s healing, so I could know that one day, somehow, I would stop hurting as much as I did in this moment.
After hours of scrolling, finding nothing, and swiping past a few “take a break, you’ve been scrolling for a while” alerts from TikTok, I said, “fuck it,” out loud to an empty house, and decided to make the content I’d been hoping to stumble across: a Day One of Healing video. I turned on my phone’s camera and, through tears, said, “I’ve been going back and forth on if I wanted to do this, but if it can help anybody, then it was worth it.”
I went on to tell a one-minute version of the story, my voice shaking. I ended by saying, “I’ve completely lost myself this past year, and I wanted to document my… getting better. So this is me on Day One.”
I watched the video once, laughed for the first time in 24 hours at the sight of my ugly cry-face, then uploaded it before going to sleep. I thought that maybe one of my 300 followers would connect to my experience, and if not, I figured that at least I would have a video diary that would help me to track my own progress through Breakupland.
I woke up in the morning to hundreds of notifications from TikTok. There were comments from people I had never heard of before. Duets of my video. Dozens of people were following me every minute. I watched the video tick up by 20 views per second. And the responses were overwhelmingly positive.
“Oh my gosh. Sweetheart I wasted 8 years of my life on someone too. It sounds so stupid and redundant but it changes you for the better. I’m here.”
“Been where you are. Finding who you are outside of another person is the best feeling in the world. You will find your love.”
Watching my TikTok go viral was amazing (and surprising and baffling), but it didn’t distract me from my heartbreak. Despite being given so much love from so many people, I still felt deeply lonely and hurt. I couldn’t stop crying, and could barely focus on work as I thought not about all my new followers, but about whether or not I should answer the Dear Jane email — and, if so, what I should say.
Even as that internal debate continued, I knew one thing for sure: I was going to keep posting about my experiences on TikTok. I had eyes on me — 10,000 people who didn’t know me 10 hours ago, and yet were being so supportive. I couldn’t back out now. So I kept talking.
I posted TikToks that tracked my healing every single day for a month and a half. I asked my followers what I should do with all the photos I had of me and my ex. I talked about wanting to call him, wanting to curse him out. I talked through the realizations I was having each day about the relationship — and my own strength. I talked about every cry-hangover, hurt feeling, glimmer of hope, and moment of despair. In many of the videos, I felt like I was repeating myself. But, that’s the nature of a breakup — there are many plateaus. Healing from heartbreak is a lot of things, but “linear” is not one of them.
Still, I kept pushing through. I was my own role model of healing. I became a student of my emotions, and was able to give myself the grace I deserved when I experienced the inevitable backslides. Being able to look back on my day-to-day progress showed me that even when I had a bad day — or a bad few days — I never hit rock bottom again. I was stronger with every video, and I was falling in love with myself for the first time in my life. It felt like an act of resilience to lean into the sadness and let it move me forward. Somehow, I was getting through something that I never thought I would.
My video diaries continued to get more and more attention; podcasts and publications even started reaching out to interview me about them. I felt — for the first time — that the pain I was going through was not for nothing; even my worst moments were productive. It was a funny little cycle: Other people were finding it helpful to watch me pull myself out of a ditch, but knowing I was helping other people was how I was pulling myself out of the ditch.
If you’ve had your heart broken, you know how emotionally isolating it can be. While your brain tells you other people have been through it, it feels like nobody could have ever possibly felt like this before, so nobody could ever understand. If you’ve ever had your heart broken in the middle of a pandemic, you know the added torture of the physical isolation. From the beginning, the comments section of my videos offered some comfort. I almost always scrolled through, reading and liking and responding and pinning. That’s how I started noticing that people were giving each other advice in the comments. Some people were asking each other how to get through certain situations — what would have been their anniversary, running into an ex in person — and others were responding with their own experiences, or simply with empathy. Watching everyone connect with each other somehow made me feel less alone than when people spoke (or typed) directly to me.
Eventually, I figured it could be helpful for those people to have a designated place to chat — especially since I hoped to stop posting breakup TikToks eventually, or at least to stop posting so many. I didn’t want this community to go away when I did. I started “a garden of flowers picking themselves,” a support group on Facebook for people going through heartbreak, or people who have been through heartbreak and just want to offer some advice. Today, the group has over 1,000 people. It’s supportive and empowering — a place where people can go to be reassured that their feelings are valid and that, even during the loneliest time in their lives, they are never alone.
At first, I spent hours each day in that Facebook group, working to foster the sense of community that I’d so desperately wanted in the minutes and hours after my relationship ended. Quickly, it began to grow, then flourish, until it took on a life of its own. These days, I take a backseat. But when I do visit, reading the posts reminds me of the early days of my breakup, and gives me so much hope for everyone posting. I know first-hand what being surrounded by that kind of love can do for grief.
This month marks a year since the breakup. I no longer post daily healing videos, and instead use my TikTok, and the sex-positive podcast I cohost, The Hoely Hour, to talk about what it’s been like to navigate dating again — and to roast cringey dating app profiles. Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having posted that Day One video. I think all the time about how different my healing would have been if I hadn’t found purpose in the pain. I feel so grateful that I could provide even an iota of comfort for even one person who needed it, and get that comfort back from tens of thousands of strangers. I scroll through my old videos every so often just to remind myself how far I’ve come; my cry-face still makes me laugh.
Having your heart broken can feel like the end of the world, or, at least, of your world. And, truthfully, in a lot of ways, it is. But, rock bottom is actually a beautiful place — it’s all up from there. Even before the breakup, I would say, “Getting through something difficult raises the bar for what you can handle next.” And this experience proved these words to be true. Being able to get myself through something I’d never thought I would, raised the bar for me in a way I didn’t expect. I’m not afraid anymore — of anything.
I know I will get hurt again one day. But I also know I’ll be able to survive it. And, as of right now, the only hands holding my self-worth are my own — just like it should be.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's column features a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.