“I hope you’re doing well.”
Was a message I received in the early morning hours after a breakup. I’d been in the kind of sleep it’s easy to slip in and out of so when my phone vibrated, it didn’t take much for me to roll over and check it. The contact wasn’t saved but I knew who’d sent it, I was only in one relationship worthy of a break up in the recent past so it could only be him. I didn’t respond but the message plagued my mind for days.
The heart is a fickle place. One full of growth and potential that could lead to madness or content and at times, both. My need for human connection has always looked vastly different than my peers. I have Autism Spectrum Disorder (what they used to call Asperger’s), and thus the way I socialize reflects my neurodivergent nature. I can mask like a pro but that leaves little room for showing up authentically in relationships. I’m not the easiest lover. I’m ritualistic, generally unyielding in my values/opinions, and have never learned enough tact to avoid hurting people with my words. Those things tend to seem like pitfalls but for some reason in relationships, they seem softer and less worthy of the cubby in my brain marked “damage”. All those insecurities tend to resurface when relationships end.
Luckily for me, I’ve never been one for messy breakups. My decisions always have a punctuation at the end so when I’m done, I’m really done. That doesn’t make the dull ache of heartbreak disappear. I found myself staring at the screen with teary eyes. Because what was I supposed to say? “I’m amazing, thanks!” or “I miss feeling your eyes on me” or “You never got annoyed at my stimming and I’m grateful for that.” Vulnerability is a masterfully crafted blade, a shiny surface forged with patient hands that gives us the capacity to maim. All of the angst I felt incapable of in my teenage years surfaced at the sight of a text from a mostly mediocre partner.
I was finally experiencing legitimate heartache, at the hands of a man no less. I thought I understood this feeling, I did live through the “fall in love with your straight friend” and “fall in love with the only other queer you know” phase but those times did little to prepare me for the first breakup I had as a mature, mostly put together adult. My tears that night were full of frustration because I didn’t know what outcome I wanted, I had initiated the breakup after all so I felt I had no right to be so sullen.
The science of heartbreak is lacking I’ll admit, but ever evolving. What I can tell you is that brains in love are much like brains on drugs. That was proven when the fMRI’s of truly besotted people were compared to those using things like nicotine and cocaine, the goal motivated center of the brain lit up like a Christmas tree in both study groups so in the same way a smoker will crave a cigarette, a person in love will chase the continued affection of their heart’s desire. The shot of dopamine and oxytocin you feel? Is basically as good as my Xanax prescription.
Following that same logic, when we are deprived of the objects of our desire, be it people or an eight ball, we experience a drop. That drop is what we call heartbreak. It’s the cocktail of heightened stress hormones and record low “feel good” hormones that make our chest burn and eyes perpetually weepy.
This information isn’t new news to me. My life’s work is quite literally sex, history and heartache but not an anthology nor science journal could chase away the swirling in my chest. I’ll foolishly admit that I spent years hiding behind my mental health like a shield, using my natural inclination to logic as a means of making my heart bulletproof. Breaking news: that didn’t work. Turns out you really CAN’T intellectualize every emotion to exist. For the first time in my life, I felt bested by my heart. The traitorous bitch! And even though I raged and grumbled about its need to make me unhappy for as long as possible, I learned a few things.
The first? That days feel longer when you’re lonely.
The second? Olivia Rodrigo made a banger album at the right time.
The third? Few things feel more human than heartache. As a species we’ve spent so much time boasting how advanced we are compared to the other creatures we share this planet with but that dullness, those days of grey skies? Is a great equalizer. The mighty fall too.
And maybe if I hadn’t adopted so much hubris I would have been better prepared for that transitory period where I had to find my bearings as an unattached person again. I’ve always loved being single but I’d be lying if I didn’t say those first three days didn’t hurt like hell. At least I bounce back faster than most.
The next time I broach the jungles of “something other than singleness” I’ll have a bigger backpack with more supplies and a big ass flashlight to illuminate the way. One of my lessons in life is to stop planning so far ahead and sadly, that includes future lovers. I’m grateful for everything I’ve gained over the years in various friendships, situationships, affairs and everything in between but I can admit it isn’t until this time with this man that I learned the value of vulnerability. That six syllable word that’s been written in bold letters on the wall I’ve kept around myself in nearly every relationship in my life.
For the first time, I showed up to someone completely as myself and was embraced. I didn’t have to hide my stims, apologize as often for my accidental rudeness or mask to the point of exhaustion and burnout. The end of that connection was never a failure but a masterclass in learning to show up for ourselves and sorting through the madness for a chance at bliss.
If you came to this article looking for a piece of advice I can spare a few words:
Be gentle with yourself.
Stand firm in your decisions and stop trying to rewrite the history of your relationship.
Never apologize for who you are to be who they want.
Invest in great sex toys and even better chocolate.
Lean on your community, let them remind you of your brilliance.
Don’t be afraid to cry.
One of my favorite songs to exist is Drown in My Own Tears by Aretha Franklin. I always found the notion of collapsing in sadness to be silly but I understand it now. That overflowing current of emotion and raw memories coming all together too quickly to process in anything other than salty rivers down the face and snotty noses. Aretha knew her shit (and there is some merit to listening to your elders). If you’d like, give it a listen and if you’re anything like me, you’ll do it in your favorite lingerie with big hair and a half finished glass of wine in hand belting your heart out.
Much love and less pain,