By Fern Tolley
At the beginning of lockdown I remember seeing so many posts on social media about couples and quarantine. Love in lockdown was trending, and quotes about ‘couples who survive lockdown together will survive anything together’, and ‘there’s no one I’d rather lockdown with’ flooded my Instagram. I felt overly smug as I tagged my partner of four years in these. We’d survived being a world apart (me in Oz, he in the UK). We survived my continuous battle with depression and anxiety. We survived all the unnecessary arguments, the late night tiffs and the lowest of lows. Lockdown would be an absolute breeze.
We broke up three months into lockdown. Four years together and we broke up over an argument about going to Lidl.
Lockdown, (or Lidl for that matter), wasn’t the reason why we broke up, but it definitely played a big part. When the UK first went into quarantine a new way life quickly formed. Schools and businesses closed down and many lives were put on hold, whilst others were forced into urgent and crucial activity. In a time of enormous anxiety and grief, also sparked moments of reflection and rediscovery, and as life started to slow down, people became more aware of what mattered most in life. For me and my ex, that was our individual happiness. Our relationship hadn’t been a happy one for a long time and lockdown gave us a platform to be selfish and put ourselves first. And that’s exactly what we did. Instead of exchanging vows we exchanged goodbyes. He packed up his four years worth of stuff in a matter of hours and left without looking back. We both knew it was for the best, but that didn’t stop me from feeling utterly distraught and broken hearted. Love in lockdown was out the window and lonely in lockdown took its place.
To begin with I stopped eating and sobbed for days. And I mean, full on heart-wrenching, dry-heaving, mind-numbing sobs that left me completely empty and exhausted. Curtains drawn, I wrapped myself up in his favourite jumper and slept. Sleeping was a quick and easy relief from the over-thinking and the over-feeling. A temporary fix but a perfect pause to feel nothing for a few hours. But I’m no sleeping beauty and sleep wasn’t constant. I was encouraged by family and friends to keep busy and not think about him, but without an outside world to escape to, home was just a constant reminder of the life we had shared together. Where before I’d always turn to books for comfort, now I couldn’t even focus on a single page. Netflix was just a big fat reminder of the series that we’d left unfinished or were eager to get started, so I deleted the app. Sleeping was the only thing I wanted, so in desperation I tried everything. Natural sleeping remedies, audio books, the Calm app, clock watching… I even went as far as phoning my doctor and begging for some sleeping pills. I was so delirious from the lack of food and water and care my body so desperately needed but which my mind was too weak to give, that I begged each of my family members in turn to take away the pain, begged them to do something to make it all better. But all my family could do was just hold me and tell me that everything was going to be okay.
I needed my family around me constantly, too terrified that if somebody stepped outside the room for even a second I’d fall further into that black pit of despair. Thanks to lockdown though all my family were working from home, and I was like their new annoying puppy, following them for room to room, begging for constant attention. Every night I’d have my mum walk me to my room to wish me sweet dreams and a full eight hour sleep. But I’d always wake up in the early hours of the morning, confused again at the empty space beside me. The first night I slept in my bed alone, I dreamt that I was holding his hand but when I woke, pillow soaked with tears, I was just holding tight on to the duvet. There were no bony limbs or legs digging into me. No gentle snores and no one to turn to and cuddle. Not even the mattress remembered his outline. And when the reality that he wasn’t here anymore would hit again I’d find myself escaping the bed and walking the cold, silent hallways of the house. Conscious of the creaky floorboards and my sleeping family, sometimes I’d just tiptoe from my bedroom to the living room to the kitchen in a continuous loop, waiting to see if my legs or mind would buckle first. Other times I’d sneak into my parent’s room and poke my mum awake. With crusted tears and snot running down my face, my mum would graciously walk me back to my room and stay with me until I finally fell asleep again. I didn’t think as a 25-year-old woman I’d still need my mum like I did when I was a child, but I clung to her like a lifeboat and she shared every inch of my heartbreak with me. She was there to envelope me in hugs whether it was at 2pm or 2am. She’d spend endless hours sat, bum numb and back aching, on my bed talking with me, listening, or just stroking my hair. She stayed strong for me when I couldn’t and reminded me every day that I was loved.
Despite her unconditional love and attention I still craved that love and attention from my ex. I’d spoken to this man every single day that we’d been together. He was the first person I’d say good morning to, and the only person I’d kiss goodnight. I loved him deeply and dearly and not having him with me felt like a continuous stab to the chest. Like brushing my teeth or eating breakfast, he had become a necessary and important part of my day and I couldn’t switch off the routine we had naturally adopted after four years together. So I did the things that everyone told me not to. I texted him. I called him. I told him I loved him. I continued to use his Spotify. Stalked him on Instagram. Stayed friends with him on Facebook. I was scared of a life without him so I did everything I could to feel as close to him as possible. When these attempts were met by an unforgivingly loud silence I’d always find myself back at step one, distraught that somebody who told me they loved me could so easily treat me like I suddenly didn’t exist.
Eight weeks in and I’d finally worked up the courage, and more importantly the appetite, to go into the kitchen and attempt to cook my first meal. I couldn’t continue to live life on a piece of bread and butter, orange Capri Sun’s, or an adventurous nibble of cheese, so after a quick Pinterest search I decided on making a veggie toad in the hole, with steamed veg and rich, thick gravy. I was inspired, I was hungry, and I was ready to cook. I ended up crying the whole way through prepping, and paced uncontrollably whilst it was in the oven. I cried because I was alone, making a meal for one. I cried because I didn’t think I was good enough. I cried because a part of me thought that maybe I was. For a first attempt my toad in the hole turned out pretty good. I cooked a meal and didn’t mess it up, and for the first time since he left, I smiled. With a full on toothy, beaming grin I grabbed my phone and started snapping photos of my masterpiece, seeking out the best lighting to capture that delicious crispy edge. I wanted to share this moment, shout out that I’d actually done it, show all the foodies on Insta that they had nothing on me (NB: unsurprisingly, they do). I wanted to tell the one person who after all his failed and angry attempts to get me into the kitchen and learn how to cook, that it wasn’t as scary as what I thought it would be and that I was actually a Nigella Lawson in disguise. I wanted nothing more than to share this moment with him and without even realising it my mind had drifted off into dreamland and played out the scenario of this happening. In my head I heard his praises, and in my heart I felt his love. I climbed back into bed defeated, and cried myself to sleep knowing that he wouldn’t be coming home for dinner. The toad in the hole was left cold and forgotten. Later that evening when I checked my emails, Amazon had recommended a book for me. ‘Solo: The Joy of Cooking for One’. I cried into my duvet again and clicked buy.
Whilst lockdown kept my family close to me, it prevented my friends from coming to my rescue and seeing me. But despite the loss of having my friends physically present with me, I’d never felt closer to them. When the silence from my ex grew louder, I stopped texting my friends and started calling, reassured that they would pick up no matter what time of day. My best friend Sara listened patiently to all my tears and fears. She stayed on the phone with me as I cried myself to sleep or counted myself out of an anxiety attack. Whenever I started to doubt myself or felt myself drifting back to him, she was the first one there to remind me that I was strong and beautiful and deserved to be with somebody who treated me right. She was also the first one to make me laugh – a loud, unapologetic laugh that felt so alien compared to all the sobs. Like that moment in Sex and the City when Charlotte shits her pants in Mexico, and Carries laughs for the first time since Big ditched her at the altar. Well, Sara was my Charlotte. A pure ray of glorious sunshine that brought glimmers of joy and hope back into my life.
When I started to feel a little less like a zombie, I scoured the internet in search for break up advice that wasn’t just ‘time heals all wounds’ (reality check, it really does), or ‘find a new hobby’, or ‘show yourself care and kindness’. I didn’t care about all that stuff. I wanted to know what came next, what that next magic step was that would heal my heart and have me a) skipping off into the sunset, or b) falling into the arms of a very hot man. I needed something concrete, something instant. So I googled, ‘how to erase memories’. When, no surprise, that didn’t give me the answers I needed, I decided to consult an online magic 8 ball and let fate decide my next step. Should I quit my job and travel the world? Should I just quit my job period? Should I text my ex and tell him I miss him? Should I text my ex and tell him I hate him? It seemed though that the magic 8 ball was as confused and indecisive as me and only ever told me to ask again later. I wanted desperately and frustratingly for someone to give me the answers of what to do. I wanted to peep into the future and see if all this pain was worth it. I wanted to see a happy future with my ex so I could tell him that this had all been a silly mistake and that we were in fact meant to be. Deep down though I knew that wasn’t what fate had in store for me. Fate doesn’t control our happiness, that’s completely down to us and as hard as it was to see it I just wasn’t happy in that relationship. I wasn’t happy with the person I had become in that relationship either – lost, abused and scared of living. A quick Google check later though did confirm that looking into the future was not possible, but it did send me a down a rabbit hole of fortune telling and tarot reading…
The day I logged off his Spotify I cried for hours. I should’ve done this ages ago but I’d found comfort in seeing his recently played, knowing that if he was still listening to music he must be doing okay. But keeping hold of this attachment was preventing me from moving on, so I deleted my playlists and hit sign out. I cried because it was another part of him I had lost. I cried because it was another part of me that got a little stronger. I also gave a little cry because now I’d have to go back to listening to ads on my free Spotify account again.
Twelve weeks in and I still cry a lot. My family and I are so used to my spontaneous break downs that life has just started to evolve around them. When the memories, emotions, or heartache surface, I never hide or rush them. I sit with them and I feel everything. Even if that’s sobbing into a bowl of pesto pasta during dinner. Or at 2am deflated against the fridge with my cat sat begging me for a midnight snack. Or even during a trip to Home Sense when I had overwhelming panic attack in the aisle of fragrant candles and bewildered shoppers. I felt fiercely, just like I loved fiercely.
Like love and relationships, no two breaks up are the same. I would’ve refused to accept that statement at the beginning of my break up, too desperate for a step by step endorsed manual on how to navigate this stage of life. But I’ve learnt now that there is no step by step guide. There is a general societal norm that seems to follow a path of do not contact your ex ever again, cry into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s (or bottle of gin/vodka/wine, any will do), and then tomorrow get your into ass in gear, get into Harvard to study law or do some other extraordinary thing to show off just what your ex has lost out on. Sadly, Hollywood misses out the raw and honest moments in between. And whilst I did stock my freezer full of ice cream, get a haircut and post a few selfies on Insta in the hope that he’ll see them, I’m actually really glad that my break up was colourfully chaotic and achingly wholesome. In essentially losing a half of myself, I learnt that the other half of me was strong, and patient, and resilient. It’s far from easy trying to rebuild yourself after a break up, and I’m totally with you when you want to punch anyone who tells you that time will heal your heart. But if there’s one piece of advice I could go back to tell the twelve week past me curled up in bed hours after my ex leaving, I’d tell me to hold onto the hope of tomorrow. And yeah I know, hope seems like a much more elusive thing than time, and I’m pretty sure the battle between ‘time is the healer’ vs. ‘have hope’ would have hope smacked out in the first round. But hope is a powerful thing, and it’s not something I’d given much thought about until now. We always know that tomorrow is coming but we never know for certain what exactly it will bring, and that in itself is an exciting yet scary thought. Having the hope that tomorrow might be a good day can inspire. It can transform and it can uplift. I have hope that the bad days will make for a better future. I have hope that that future is full of the love and adventure and happiness that I fought for during lockdown. I also hope that there’s a future where my ex and I are still friends. The love I have for this man will always be there. It will change and morph as time goes on, but it will always exist, quiet and at peace.
Fern Tolley is a kids book reviewer and blogger, has a degree in English Literature and Language from the University of Southampton, and a background in bookselling and publishing.
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