Navigating My Early 20s: Heartbreak

TW: Eating, anxiety, depression.

The irony of this Think Piece situated next to my previous one is not lost on me. Seeing them sitting next to each other like begrudging exes gives me that sinking feeling in my stomach, but I suppose it’s proof of how your life can change when you least expect it. The reality is that this post isn’t begrudging. There’s no hate, no bitterness, no resentment. This post is filled with love, admiration and respect. It’s been 2 months in the making.

I began writing some form of incomprehensible dribble about 3 weeks after it happened and then never touched it until now. Partly because it was too painful, partly because I had no motivation, but mainly because every time I tried I couldn’t see the words in front of me through tears. Now, today, after weeks of ups and downs, reflection and self-care, I feel more able to put something together that is actually coherent.

I know many cynical people reading this will question my motives: “why write a blog post about it?”, “why put your personal life online for anyone to read?”, “there’s not just you involved in this”. Believe me, those thoughts have been swimming around in my head too and I’ve been constantly questioning whether or not this post should ever be published. However, not only is it important for me to write this for my own catharsis, but I know so many people going through heartbreak right now that I feel it is my duty, as someone who writes, to at least speak about my experience and what is helping me. This has also been requested by a few people who have reached out on Instagram who are going through a similar time. As I said, there is no malice in this post, no dragging names through the mud. This is filled with love. Love for him, but also love for myself (we’ll come to this) and love for anyone who is going through this pain.

Therefore, if you’re reading this to be nosy or find some dirt or drama where there is none, read a tabloid magazine instead. This isn’t for you.

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As I spoke of in my last Think Piece, I have always gone from relationship to relationship in quite quick succession, each time being the person who ended it. Never did I imagine it would be different this time, never did I imagine it would end, full stop. We’re blessed with watching the people we’ve known for years grow - sometimes that growth is at the same rate as yours, other times their growth is in a different direction, down a different path in life. We’re all growing all the time, and just because you’re on a different path to someone else doesn’t mean that your love wasn’t real, that your memories and happiness weren’t real, it just means that now you both have to navigate your paths alone.


Unexpectedly thrust into ‘alone’. Going from having a little family and our home to having neither in the space of one afternoon. Whisked back to my parents house, I didn’t leave my bed for almost a week, I didn’t eat for two. I never wanted to come back to Lincoln and face what was now my life. I lived in a perpetual state of denial for a month, first believing that it wasn’t really happening, then that it would change. Even after I moved into my new place, it still wasn’t real to me. I cried, every single day. At work, in town, in coffee shops, on trains, in bed, anywhere that I found myself. I still cry.

Something I’ve learnt now is that this is normal. When a relationship ends that you never wanted to end (especially when it’s unexpected), you go through trauma, you go through grief. You grieve for your relationship and you grieve for someone who is still alive. Grief makes people react in irrational ways because there is nothing rational about love. You can’t test it with science or maths, or define it with a sentence. Love is the least rational thing in the world, you’re not going to become more rational when it’s taken away from you. The dopamine withdrawal in your brain hits you like an addict coming off drugs. No, really, that is something that science can prove - you go into a state of withdrawal and are constantly trying to get that fix any way you can. If that means making up scenarios or stories in your head, then that’s what it’ll take.

One of the best ways to understand and cope with grief that I’ve found so far is seeing a therapist…

(DISCLAIMER: I understand that this is not a feasible option for everyone as therapy can be extremely expensive, and I’m very lucky to have found such an affordable one that didn’t have a waiting list.)

...My therapist is teaching me that what I’m feeling is normal, won’t last forever and can be overcome. She’s teaching me coping mechanisms for grief and anxiety, and most importantly, she’s helping me to look inwards at who I am as an individual - not me in a couple, not me as an extension of someone else, but me, alone. Someone I struggled to describe to her when she asked me who I was. I would encourage anyone who has the means to get a therapist to do so. An invaluable asset of our wonderful NHS is talking therapies offered through local authorities, who can offer free counselling to people who need it - unfortunately the waiting list in my area was too long and I needed to see someone straight away, but this service is an option wherever you live. There are also services like the Samaritans who are available to talk to 24/7 and you do not need to be suicidal to do so, they can be used as someone to open up to if you feel you have nobody else or want someone impartial. You are never alone.

One positive thing to come out of this breakup is that it’s brought me infinitely closer to my family - I now speak to my mum nearly every day on the phone. It’s a huge adjustment to no longer have someone that you can come home to and speak about your day with, so that’s where your family and friends come in. These are the people who will love you unconditionally and want to make sure you’re okay, so lean on them. They will let you cry and will not get annoyed at you for doing what you need to do. Make up for lost time with them when you would have seen your ex instead, you’ve got that time now. That means nights out with them without anyone to consider but yourself, sleepovers (it’s fun to feel 12 again) and being able to drop anything you’re doing and see them if you want to because you’ve only got to take yourself into account. Sometimes even that will feel lonely, you’ll want that shared commitment and responsibility back, but it can also feel liberating.

I’ve really struggled adjusting to being alone. For weeks I would try and arrange to be with a friend for any amount of spare time I had when not at work - I’m learning now that's not healthy, nor possible. As someone who grew up an only child, you’d think I’d be used to having time to myself. Well it turns out I’ve long forgotten how to do that. I guess that’s what happens after living with a partner for years. When there’s no longer someone always there, you feel that loss like a huge weight on your chest. I’m having to learn to enjoy my own company and find new hobbies and interests.

* * *

An unwelcome guest in my heartbreak is anxiety. As someone who has never experienced anxiety before, this new and terrifying feeling has been debilitating. I’ve spent whole days and sometimes weeks in a state of sheer panic, either over nothing specific at all, or false scenarios that I’ve made up in my head. I’ve had my first proper experience of panic attacks and feeling like my thoughts and body are out of my control. It’s affected my work and social life immensely.

I’m still in the early stages of learning to manage, cope with and overcome anxiety, but one thing that has been a great help is cutting out stimulants. Caffeine, alcohol (and obviously drugs) are not your friend if you’re suffering in this way. As appealing as alcohol and a wild night out has been to numb my pain, the hangovers the next day have sent me spiraling into extreme anxiety, often lasting for days afterwards. I’ve taken the step to cut all stimulants out which has really helped: you will get used to the taste of decaf and if you’re with good friends, a sober night out can still be a great one. Trust me. Being strong-willed in this has taught me that I’m made of tougher stuff than I thought. I won’t need to do this forever, but for now the pros greatly outweigh the cons.

Self-care in this way is so important. I used to think that self-care was just putting on a face mask and having a glass of wine, but now I’m learning that self-care is anything that you can do for yourself to improve your situation, even if it’s as boring as not drinking. The gym has become a great self-care tool for me too, but trust me when I say I’m not pretending this has always been an option. I’m not one of these wonder women who go through heartbreak, hit the gym straight away and within a week they’ve started their new fitness Insta and are preaching about how cardio ‘changed their life’. There are still days when I can barely get out of bed, never mind go to the gym. It’s a hard hobby to muster up the motivation for, particularly when you’re grieving. But once I do leave the house I feel so much better for it - your body is in dire need of endorphins right now. If all you can manage is going for a little walk, then do that. Being out in the fresh air and preferably around nature can really shift your mood.

Weird Breakup Behaviour: A few weeks ago I managed to drag myself out of my bed for a walk and ended up walking for 6 miles. Six. I laced up my shoes, put on a podcast and just kept walking. No, that wasn’t a breakdown (I don’t think…), but it was because I just couldn’t stop walking - it made me feel too good to turn around and go home. It’s safe to say I haven’t gone that extreme since.

* * *

Making plans is helping to keep me motivated for each new week, I’ve found it’s so important to have something to look forward to, from as small as seeing a friend for a coffee to travelling somewhere completely new. I’ve been challenging myself to go on day trips to cities on my own, something I’d never have done before; it’s something to look forward to, I get out of Lincoln where I’m bombarded with constant reminders, and I can spend the day working to my own schedule. As this was so out of my comfort zone, I thought it would be something that my anxiety couldn’t handle, but it’s actually helped - it proves I won’t fall apart on my own, I can handle this situation and I don’t need anyone to help me. I am a whole, capable person.

It’s also good to make plans for the future too. I try not to think too much about the future as that does bring anxiety, but I also don’t want to keep living in the past. So trying to be wholly present and making decisions that will benefit me now and in the long-run is giving me things to look forward to. My list for 2020 so far is: festivals abroad, being in exciting shows, further actor training, (and the big one) moving to an entirely new city. Figure out what you want in life and throw your single self into it, you have nobody else to consider but yourself. Do it for you and start the plans now, there’s no better time to do it. The thing about rock bottom is, the only way is up.

I guess getting through this whole ordeal means being kind to yourself and figuring out how to love you, whatever that looks like and whatever it takes. I’m learning to understand that some days are going to be harder than others, I’m going to feel like I’ve regressed when I was doing so well. Grief is not a linear process, there will be peaks and troughs; days when I feel like I’m almost able to see through the mist; days when I laugh with my friends and genuinely mean it; days when my anxiety is driving me to extremes and panic takes over; days when all I can do is cry; days when my self-worth takes another hit. But kindness is understanding that all of my emotions are valid, and I don’t need to feel guilty for having a good day either (yes, that happens).

In many ways, grief and trauma make you revert to your childhood self. That need for constant reassurance, wanting someone to be there and look after you, uncontrollable tears and irrational fears. So imagine 10 year old you and tell her that she’s being so brave, that it will get better. Love her and look after her like she needs right now, and be kind. Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to her. Nourish your inner child, nobody else can love you like you can. I'm not there yet, but that’s the self-love I’m striving for.

* * *

I’m thankful every single day that I’m in the fortunate position of having an amicable break up where I can still be friends with my ex. So many relationships end on bad terms or through bad actions, whereas we still have love, care and respect for one another. It doesn’t make it any easier, in fact many people have said it would probably be easier for me if it were the complete opposite, but I’m so grateful. It’s a testament to the amazing relationship we had. Although I’m not emotionally able to spend much time around him yet, I know that when I’m ready we will have a great friendship. If friends is all we are meant to be, then I can’t wait for that day to come.

I want to extend a heart-felt “thank you” to each and every person who has reached out to me over the past couple of months. The friends I have in person and online have been utterly incredible and I’ve never felt so much love from so many different people - you know who you are.

If you feel compelled to reach out after reading this, please do. If anything I’ve spoken of resonates with you then I’m here to talk any time. I’m going to leave a list of podcasts and episodes below that have helped me on some dark days, I hope they help someone else too. Heartbreak is one of the hardest things we’ll ever go through in our lives, so the more people you can find in the same boat, the better. I’m here and I understand, there’s plenty of room in this boat and we’re sailing into uncharted, but exciting waters together.

Emily x

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'Breakup BOOST'

#5: Coping with Relationship Breakup Anxiety

#133: “That” Type of Connection

'The Bounce Back Podcast with Laura Yates'

#9: Talking Breakup Breakthroughs with Amy Young

#18: Talking Breakups & Heartbreak with Natasha Adamo

'Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations'

Brene Brown: Rising Strong

Glennon Doyle: First the Pain, Then the Rising

'The Female Struggle is Real'

#14: The Struggle with Heartbreak

'Dear Sugars'

'Just Break Up Podcast'

'Morgan Harper Nichols'

Photos by Steven Haddock