CAN YOU HEAL A BROKEN HEART?
Discover life after love
‘Claiming ownership of the narrative gave me clarity’ By Rosie Green
This time two years ago was hands down the worst time of my life. The man I had been in love with for 26 years had become a stranger to me. I was in pieces and had no idea what the future held. I was devastated, and I don’t say those words flippantly; you can be ‘devastated’ when that flattering maxi skirt has sold out in your size, but what I mean is that my entire being was decimated, my self-esteem shot. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t fathom just how I was going to crawl out of this well of despair. My clothes hung off me, my running leggings flapped around my thighs and my knickers fell down. I looked gaunt. Haunted. Because I was.
In that dark, dark period, some life force propelled me to get up. (That, and my two kids demanding to know where the Rice Krispies were, and then, on finding them, that the dust be sieved.) I sleep-walked through the days, washing, cooking, going to assemblies and making polite conversation at the school gates.
The turning point was writing my story for this magazine. As I typed the words, I felt something stir inside of me. Something of the old me. Claiming ownership of the narrative gave me clarity, and the chance to see the events as a reader would. It went some way to assuage the self-doubt that had taken up squatting rights in my brain. For the first time, I considered how I would like this story to end; how I would like outsiders to view me. I wanted to emerge more self-aware, stronger, more independent. I wanted to handle this situation with grace and dignity. (The latter was not always achieved. I’m thinking of the time I inhaled a bottle of rosé, with only a handful of salted nuts for ‘dinner’. I can only apologise to the other passengers on the 20:21 Great Western.)
It also gave me purpose. Because after the feature was published, a tsunami of women wrote, emailed and Dm-ed. I was helping other women who felt as desperate and bereft as me. They identified with my story; they told me my words made them feel less alone, that in telling my story with rawness and authenticity, and by refusing to sugarcoat it for my ego’s sake, I was helping them through their own pain.
Not everyone’s heartbreak was the same. Some women were making the agonising decision to leave their husbands, some were the victim of gaslighters and cheats, some were the cheats. Some were dying inside. All were suffering.
Slowly, slowly, I repaired. By reading, by talking, by talking care of myself, and hugging my children. I ran with two friends, I took an SSRI antidepressant. I went on dates, and kissed, and realised there were men who were better suited to me. The crappy days, the days when I felt overwhelmed, under-resourced, sad and hurt, became less frequent. In the Venn diagram of contentment, there are three main factors: relationship, family and friends, and work. In my life, the former had spectacularly blown apart. Family and friends? Well, they showed up for me in a way that floored me (in a good way).
I felt held by their love and support. Their phone calls
and visits and thoughtfulness filling the gaping hole left by my husband’s departure.
So out of this shitty crisis came some good. And in my work, too, the split became a turning point. I felt my career and my writing had been on a slow downward slide for a decade. I’d had the most amazing, rewarding work life pre-kids. Writing for Vogue and Elle, winning prizes and praise, styling celebrities for front covers, travelling to exotic locations – living a life my 15-year-old self could never have imagined.
But when I had my children, I found it was hard to do both. So I turned down the more exciting jobs, I started to take on work that was less rewarding, but was easier to fit in around them.
Post-split, I was writing from the heart again and my words, as well as touching all these women, were in demand from commissioning editors. I was on the front pages of the newspapers. My mother’s clippings book (yes, really) was overflowing.
And then I wrote a book. Which I had always wanted to do, but this crisis gave me the kick up the arse I needed. In it I talked to experts about why the pain of heartbreak is like no other. I came to understand how the brain can sabotage recovery, and that although everyone’s situation is unique, the journey through the stages (think shock, anger, denial, acceptance) isn’t. That it takes time for new realities to normalise, and that what is painful and torturous in the beginning (three signatures rather than four in cards, for example) becomes less so over time. Now I realise that my marriage split, hideously painful as it has been, has totally turned my life around. When I interviewed the TV presenter Amanda Byram recently, she said to me at the end,
‘Rosie, he did you a big fucking favour.’
And you know what? I really think he did.
‘My Happily Ever After has been detonated’ By Stacey Duguid
The marriage was over before it began. We both knew it. We both felt it. Our wedding day was lovely, but something wasn’t quite right. Just over a year later, after 10 years together, two kids, one moody cat, plus a rescue dog, our relationship had so many cracks in it, there was nothing left to repair. Who left who? I’m not sure. It had been a slow drift post-children. In November 2019, I moved into our spare room and in February 2020 we told the kids we were separating – ‘Mum is moving to a house around the corner’ – my therapist helping me work out what to say so the children didn’t feel I was abandoning ship, or rather, abandoning them. Then, in March 2020, the world went into lockdown, I lost the rental I was supposed to move into and stayed in the spare room. But living with my ex like a flatmate wasn’t sustainable and a few months later, I finally moved out. That’s when things really went to shit. Website pictures and the estate agent’s video not quite matching the reality, the rental was a disaster. I should have handed back the keys and said, ‘Not today, Satan.’ Like walking into a bonfire with no clothes on, my body felt as though it was on fire. The physical pain of leaving my ‘safe’ life, my cosy family home and only seeing my kids for half the week was like nothing I’ve experienced before.
Grief stabbed my chest so hard, there were days I felt I might die. My head was a jumble of thoughts, my mind so tangled, I couldn’t focus for more than a nanosecond. With a heavy heart, a stomach empty of food, a body exhausted from lack of sleep, my life was spinning out of control, and any strength
I had was reserved solely for the children. ‘Will this ever end?’ I asked Rosie Green, a long-lost ex-colleague, via Instagram one day. Rosie and I met when I was 31, back when life was wild and carefree. I worked at Elle magazine where I wrote the column Mademoiselle, Confessions Of An Elle Girl. Mademoiselle was my fictitious alter ego (she partied, she dated, she bought a lot of clothes).
Work was exciting, if not terribly well paid, but I didn’t mind. I genuinely didn’t need much. Except a baby, that is. As I headed towards 35, late nights were replaced by a gnawing yearning deep within, increasing in intensity as each month passed. Meeting my husband, a kind, loyal, ‘normal’ guy (as in, he wasn’t an alcoholic, nor did he sprinkle cocaine on his morning muesli), I was pregnant with our first child within months. Looking back, I now realise we built the foundation of our relationship too quickly. A small boat, not an ocean liner, maybe it was always destined to sink. Still, I loved him deeply, he was the safe harbour I’d been sailing (doggy-paddling) towards. Finally, I could put down my anchor; finally, I was home. In my shabby rental, the 1am thoughts whirred. Could I go back? Should I go back? No, he wouldn’t want that – neither of us needed to revisit this level of pain
again in a year or so. Instead of looking back, I tried to look forward, asking myself, ‘What would my 60-year-old self say to me right now?’ I knew she’d tell me, ‘It’s a long life – too long to be unhappy in marriage,’ so my ex and I agreed 50/50 custody on Whatsapp. We agreed drop-off and pick-up times on Whatsapp. We organised school uniforms to be in the right house (school shoes are never, ever in the right friggin’ house) on Whatsapp. And on Whatsapp, I spoke to women in similar boats to mine. On one particularly hard day, when the anxiety was so bad, I could feel it in my fingertips, I met Rosie in a coffee shop near my office. It was then, looking into her eyes, that I knew I’d survive this. She had lived to tell the tale (and write the book) and that helped steady me.
The Big Plan, aka fall in love, get married, have kids, live happily ever after, has been detonated, yes. ‘But that’s okay,’ I tell myself, eyeing up the lines that appear overnight as though elves are doing roadworks on my face. ‘You are on the right path, just keep going. One painful step at a time.’
WHAT HELPED US... Rosie
Hypnotherapist Malminder Gill gave me a technique to take the potency out of my feelings post-split. She told me to take myself back to my darkest moments, to get out my iphone and press record and voice my pain and feelings for 10 minutes. Then to do it again for around five minutes, then again for a few minutes. This really worked. Just by expressing my fears, I felt I was bringing them out of the shadows and could work through them.
The ‘showreel’ trick is one Amanda Byram told me about. Before a big meeting, she will boost her self-confidence by watching her show reel – her career highs condensed into three minutes. Most of us don’t have a show reel, but you can get the same effect by writing down your achievements (career, family) and your qualities in the notes section of your phone. Look at them when you feel mad, sad or bad and it will really help you get back on track.
Exercise as a helpful tool in recovery might not be new or novel, but it honestly kept me sane. Running side by side, season after season, with my two friends, Gemma and JJ, got me through. The very act of putting one foot in front of the other felt symbolic. The talking, the feeling of the sun on my face, the aching legs afterwards. Each time I ran, I felt a little bit better. I felt like I was taking time out for me and investing time in my own health and happiness.
Eat when you can and eat what comforts you. In my case, this means any food group that happens to be beige. Bread, hummus, Parmesan, oat cakes. I eat when I feel a pang of hunger. Forget broccoli for now. There’s plenty of time for veggie stir-fries and green smoothies. Don’t beat yourself up for having a less-than-perfect diet.
Take a bath during the day. I hate baths almost as much as I hate swimming pools, but one day last month, during a particularly low moment, I stepped into a hot bath at 2pm and phoned a friend. I felt so much better afterwards. And, no, I don’t posses a bathroom filled with expensive aromatherapy oils, so I know it must have been the feeling of being surrounded by warmth that brought me comfort. But try not to drop your phone in the bath if you call a friend.
Don’t cut off your hair. Yup. I did this. Wait until you feel less crazed before you do anything radical to your appearance. I thought a short bob would make me seem like one of those impossibly together-looking French women (you know the type – white shirt, black jeans, cool boots, swishy hair). But I felt even more alien when I looked in the mirror.
Don’t beat yourself up over wine consumption, lack of exercise, the fact you haven’t read a 600-page tome on the life and times of Napoleon and French history. Just getting through the next 60 seconds is a massive achievement.
You will find comfort from people in similar situations. Head towards them, seek them out, and/or read Rosie’s book.
Don’t be afraid to tell your boss or your colleagues what’s going on. You are not a failure, so cut yourself some slack. You need to feel supported. I poured my heart out on Instagram, as I felt writing a day-to-day diary might help others. Writing down how you feel, even if you don’t show anyone, will help you heal. You could start by writing short bullet points. Accept that people will judge. If you left, if they left, if you cheated, if no one cheated, everyone will have an opinion. Rise above it, eat beige food and know that one day you will be okay again. It will be okay. (You may need to write this down on a Post-it note and slap it on your bathroom mirror.)