By Kate Ellis
My first mistake was reading Wuthering Heights at 15.
Most psychologists would tell you my issues with men stemmed from a bad relationship with my father, but I still blame the majority of my problems on Victorian literature. If you’re not familiar with the genre, basically, it goes something like this: Boy meets girl. Girl falls for boy. Boy is damaged, but she just knows there’s good in there somewhere. They fall in love. They fall apart. They both die. The End.
I grew up with the notion that unrequited love—especially with “misunderstood bad boys”—was the holy grail of romance. If it didn’t hurt, it wasn’t love.
You can imagine the relationships I built with that blueprint.
It shouldn’t be surprising that, after another failed and humiliating romance, I turned to pain as an antidote. Guy you love is growing distant? Go get another tattoo! The needle being drug across my spine was a distraction (at least for the moment) from the grinding pain in my chest that never, ever relented. However, the heartache returned before the artist laid down the gun, and I was in tears before I hit the parking lot.
So I decided to hit the gym. Hard.
I ran until my lungs burned, my legs gave out, my shins erupted in splints, and I vomited my lunch all over the parking lot. I tore a rotator cuff, strained my medial collateral ligament, and still the physical pain couldn’t mask that damn ache in my chest that wouldn’t be ignored.
In desperation, I went to an acupuncturist. Acupuncture, like exercise (done correctly), shouldn’t hurt. But I was split open from my relationship’s end. I felt as if I was walking around turned inside out, wearing my nerves on the surface of my skin. The slightest touch from anyone caused me immense agony, because it wasn’t my lover’s fingertips that were brushing against me. Every needle that the acupuncturist tapped into my skin sent a hot, shivering bolt of pain into me that I welcomed, then cursed because it didn’t last long enough.
I stopped going when the needles no longer made me flinch.
The list of stupid things I did to hurt myself continued, although they got more mundane and predictable. I drank until I passed out, and awoke with a throbbing head and humiliating memories of begging him to come back to me. I listened to angry music so loud that my ears rang in protest. I slammed my fists into things until they turned black and blue and my knuckles split. I cried until my eyelashes fell out and my lids swelled shut. I stopped eating and concentrated on the hollow pain in my stomach, which almost mirrored the gnawing in my heart. I bit my lip until blood ran down my chin. I fought against anything that might actually release me from my pain, because I didn’t want to be released from him.
Once pain became my baseline, I didn’t want to let it go. It was the last vestige, after all, of the relationship I once had. Letting go of it meant letting go of him. And letting go felt disloyal, unfaithful and too goddamn permanent. I clung to it, because it’s the only thing I had left, and one day I found that pain was the only lover who refused to leave my side.
I write this as a way to say, “I get it.”
Sometimes friends forget what it’s like to be in so much misery that you don’t know how you’ll ever find your way out again. They forget that pain can become so familiar to you that you refuse to give up its strange comfort. Well-meaning friends who tell you that “He didn’t deserve you anyway,” or, “You’ll find a better man,” don’t realize that they’re dismissing your feelings by giving such glib advice. None of the sweet platitudes will ever reach you until you’re ready.
Instead, the words just piss you off, and you wrap your pain to you even tighter in defiance.
I’m still dragging my pain around behind me like a security blanket, but I’m not causing myself physical pain anymore. The last straw was when I found myself balancing a box cutter against my thigh. I’ve found healthier ways to deal with it now, like writing, kayaking, yoga and meditation. And I’ve learned not to try to distract myself from emotional pain with physical pain.
When the heartache wells up inside of me, I honor it, and my failed relationship, by letting the tears come. Fighting it only makes it worse. I’m new to mindfulness, but I’m also trying that as a way to deal with things. I’m learning that feeling love doesn’t always have to hurt, but when it does, it doesn’t have to be tempered with physical pain.
I’ve also learned that my original construct of what love is supposed to be (Victorian literature be damned) sucks. Emotional pain is an inevitable part of life, growth and love. However, it is not somehow proof that you have found love. Pain is there to teach and serve you, not help you torture yourself under the guise of romance. If your relationship ends, you master the pain the best you can.
You must never let it become the master of you.
Kate Ellis is a mother of two boys who lives in the suburbs of Virginia. Nursing is her passion, but she still dreams of being a writer when she grows up. She works with animal rescue groups, the Medical Reserve Corps of Virginia, and enjoys hiking, camping, kayaking, and meditating. She credits her love of literature to her high school English teacher, who took a trashy novel out of her hands and replaced it with Wuthering Heights. Kate believes words are powerful, especially the ones you whisper to yourself.
Editor: Dana Gornall