“Grief is like a heavy coat, too warm and too tight”: Confronting Trauma During Quarantine

I’d like to preface this piece by saying its intent is the process of healing and trusting in that process. It is about me becoming whole again after heartbreak, not about my ex. The thing about heartbreak and broken trust is that when you’re going through those feelings you feel like you’re completely alone. The pain is so intense you feel as if you’re the only one to have ever felt it. Irrational thoughts of course, but love and loss tends to abandon the rational part of the brain. That isolation in despair and the chaos of physical violence was deepened as the world plunged into pandemic quarantine. My hope is to reach out to anyone struggling through hurt “in these uncertain times” and to show that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  

About a year ago my relationship began to free fall. Unprepared for how quickly things would change, the dramatic and aggressive ending left me reeling. The night my ex left our shared apartment I felt like I had opened a door and fell off a cliff, with nothing to hold onto or land safely. My first instinct was denial, that this couldn’t be happening, and I could fix it. Codependency and first love exhilarations had left me feeling as though I couldn’t survive without this person. Even if the relationship had become toxic I was addicted to the feeling it gave me. 

Next came the turbulent months of still trying to get back together. He had moved out but we still talked every day. Technically broken up, but still “entangled” (thank you Jada). I told my parents and friends everything was going to be okay, that it was a mistake, and he didn’t mean it. The same things I told myself over and over. 

In order to not face the truth or pain I threw myself into work. Two jobs left me with very little time to think or feel. I distracted every thought away from the anguish. When I wasn’t working I found other ways to numb my senses including going out so late that I’d fall into bed asleep. However, untended trauma can find you in your sleep as nightmares that I later learned was a symptom of my PTSD. When I awoke the dread and trauma lingered until I could numb it again. This was working superficially for some time, but everything changed for everyone when quarantine started. There could be no distractions with my line of work closed indefinitely. I was stuck in the apartment that he had left me and forced to face that grief. My whole body and mind were tensed up all the time holding onto that betrayal, sadness, resentment, and confusion. Enter forgiveness, which is not about saying that everything is ok. Forgiveness is about accepting that the situation was not okay and releasing yourself from the negative emotions surrounding that person or situation. But you need to be able to forgive yourself too, and I, the eternal self-deprecator, found that particularly hard. 

I was mad at myself for going back so many times, for being weak. During quarantine I spent many hours replaying scenarios over and over wishing I could go back and be more powerful in that moment. To have locked the door behind him, a Beyoncé Lemonade type move; however, I was so codependent on the love and companionship I tried to make it work. I downplayed the situation. I let him back in and comforted his hurt feelings before my own. In the emptiness I was yearning for an ounce of the affection that I used to get in abundance. Breadcrumbing is a fun term for this. When you follow a person’s ambivalent or sporadic displays of attention they keep you on the hook. You become a servant to the reward of love when it shouldn’t be begged for. 

At this point my ex had moved away across the country, to deal with his own demons (which I know that he has). Perhaps to a rational person this would have seemed like the universe telling me it was time to move on, but my heart was still broken and I still hadn’t accepted the trauma that someone I loved and trusted could hurt me so badly. It wasn’t until he moved away and quarantine was now in perpetuity that I knew I had to face my pain. 

Grief is like a heavy coat, too warm and too tight. Each breath is laboring and every thought is racing. Sitting in my room I would feel a constant lump in my throat and whenever I swallowed my heart would sink a little more. I thought if I could just stop breathing, stop thinking, and stop living for just a moment the pain would stop too. I reached out to my friend Jess who is a bartender born in Brooklyn, so she knows not to mince her words. She told me “Bri the reality is the relationship is over and you need to face that hard truth.” She told me what I secretly knew was true all along. Finally instead of letting the sorrow and ‘what ifs” consume me, I let the pain in and felt everything intensely, hoping it would lead to healing. The immediate effect was hypersensitivity. Violence in movies, cheesy TV shows, obituaries of strangers made me cry my eyes out. Small gestures of kindness totally broke me down time and time again, but those were the pieces I needed to rebuild myself. I leaned on my friends who told me stories of their own heartbreak. While they may have been different, hearing them open up helped me feel less alone. My friends were my stability and showed me that some people only come into your life to teach you what love is NOT and when that happens you need to walk away. I know for a fact they’d never let me go back anyway so I needed to let go.

Now that I have let go, however, the fear of being alone set in for real. Yet, the thought of being vulnerable enough to start over and date again was a herculean feat that I was not ready for either. Going home to New Hampshire was a blessing and a privilege that not everyone in the city had the option to do. Sleeping in your childhood bed as a 26 year old can be a bit wistful, but looking up at the same ceiling tiles from 1997 I realized I was whole before this love and I could be whole again. In the weeks up with my family I remembered the things I love about myself. Taking long walks in the woods, feeling connected to the natural world on my own. Gardening with my Mom and reflecting that I too can grow into something beautiful. Hearing old stories from my Dad showed me that pain and hurt doesn’t have to define me and I don’t have to be a victim of the situation. My family reminded me unconditional love is compassionate and understanding above all else. 

Now back in New York, I’m not going to say everything is roses.While at the beginning of quarantine the thought of my unknown future was terrifying, but in the process of healing my perspective has changed. The future may be unknown but it’s an exciting opportunity for me (and all of us) to develop strengths, release what doesn’t serve us, and to create positive personal fulfillment. If you don’t have self-love you will tend to define yourself on your significant other, breeding codependency and barring self-actualization. In my quarantine Buffy binge I also learned a valuable lesson from the ill-fated Sunnydale guidance counselor Mr. Platt. He told a heartbroken Buffy, “A lot of people lose themselves in love. There’s no shame in that, but you can’t stay lost. Sooner or later you have to get back to yourself.” A lesson that the light at the end of the tunnel actually has to come from within. You can get all the advice in the world, and believe me I tried, but the decision to heal and move on has to come from inside of you.  It’s a journey with ups and downs, okay days, and very bad days. Your pain doesn’t magically disappear. You carry it with you, but it’s smaller, and more manageable. Maybe even pocket sized. So that’s where I’d like to end because it’s never really the end. Healing is not the ceasing of life’s ebb and flow, but the quieting of the riptide. 

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