The first time I heard the word 'coronavirus', my long-distance boyfriend and I were celebrating our one-year anniversary in Mexico City. It was the middle of January and we’d decided to skip presents in favour of an adventure we could add to our growing list. Amid visits to markets and art galleries, I texted my mum and mentioned that I was having trouble breathing because of the city’s pollution. She told me about a new illness that was attacking people’s respiratory systems, concerned that I’d somehow contracted it. Rolling my eyes, I assured her that she was overreacting.
By March, the threat of COVID-19 no longer seemed so remote. I began to worry that the border between Canada, where I was, and America (his home) would close (it eventually did) and I’d be separated from my boyfriend for weeks or months. He didn’t share my fears and we started fighting over text messages, phone calls and FaceTime. I wanted him to show his love for me by racing to my side. He wanted me to relax and play it by ear.
We were arguing about our differing needs – mine for closeness and his for independence – when he told me that he wanted to be alone. For good. My entire body went numb. I’d assumed we were going to get married. (He was using face cream because I asked him to, which is basically the most committed thing a guy can do.) Just weeks before he dumped me, we started dancing next to the bookshelf we’d built together during one of his many visits to Toronto and I thought to myself, We’ve found our wedding song.
The same weekend he ended things, Canada turned upside down and social isolation became the new norm. Non-essential businesses shuttered and all of my friends retreated into their homes with their husbands, partners and children. But for me (and the 4 million other Canadians living alone), physical distancing plastered a giant billboard across my world that screamed "YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN". Through this pandemic, I would have no one to hug, share my financial burdens or look after me if I fell ill. I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression since puberty, and in isolation – especially after a life-altering event like a breakup – I feared that I would revert back to the hole of depression I’d just managed to claw my way out of in the past two years.
For me (and the 4 million other Canadians living alone), physical distancing plastered a giant billboard across my world that screamed 'YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN'.
But to my surprise, I didn’t. Sure, there were plenty of mornings I woke up with puffy eyes. And there were times I blamed myself. I worried that, at 32, all of my good years were behind me and I’d never find love again. I was sad but not overwhelmingly so. When I’m depressed, I obsess about death and can barely get out of bed. But this time, I didn’t feel hopeless.
So, what changed?
For one: me. After years of therapy and self-reflection – plus regular stress-relieving boxing workouts and antidepressants – I’ve finally found self-compassion. Even though I was tempted to minimise my emotions and think, Suck it up. The world has more important stuff to worry about than your little breakup (like a global pandemic!), I decided to skip the guilt and give myself permission to grieve. And that’s crucial to healing, according to Jennifer Hollinshead, founder and clinical director of Vancouver counselling centre Peak Resilience. "The first step [in getting over any breakup] is not pathologising yourself for being sad that you don’t have love. Recognise: 'I want it. It’s a need that I have that’s not being met, so of course I’m sad.'"
Breaking up during a pandemic also reinforced something that I already knew: control is an illusion. It reminded me that the only thing I’m in charge of are my actions. Everything else – from my ex’s feelings to the status of the stock market – is out of my hands. That I’m relearning this lesson alongside the entire planet has made me feel less alone. "There is something to a shared experience," agrees Hollinshead. "Knowing that everyone in the world is in it allows for a little bit of wiggle room in terms of coping."
Of course, there may be other reasons why my mental health remained stable in recent weeks. Some people with a history of anxiety have reduced symptoms right now because our minds are already geared to anticipate worst-case scenarios – even the unlikely ones. The fact that some of our greatest fears have been realised during this pandemic means we can finally take a breather because the worst has already happened and we're still okay. "Data shows that there’s a tendency for people to focus on the things they need to focus on during traumatic circumstances," says Hollinshead, and put non-essential matters – like crappy breakups – on the back burner.
Whatever the reasons, I’m now entering my fifth week of self-isolation and I’m still surprisingly fine. I have a job as a freelance writer that I love, two little dogs, and a condo that’s become my sanctuary. My therapist, friends, and parents in Winnipeg have been a source of strength; we’ve been talking on FaceTime and Zoom almost daily – connecting way more often than before physical distancing began.
I’m also using this time to understand that, even though I wish my boyfriend and I were still together, I will survive (and maybe even thrive) without him. I admit I’m tempted to plan Zoom dates with all the dudes I’ve matched on Tinder, but I’m trying to rein myself in. When all is said and done, I want to use this breakup as an opportunity to focus on me and emerge from this pandemic with more self-love, resilience and independence than ever before.