A relationship can be a living, breathing entity that you and your partner co-create. A relationship can also be a literal chemical addiction. So, a breakup joins two of life’s most challenging experiences: paralyzing grief and the overwhelming physical and emotional withdrawal from an addiction.
When a breakup happens, it can feel like an opaque curtain has descended around you, separating you from the rest of the world. You move around as if in a bubble. Even the most familiar things—scenery near where you live, the voices of people you know—seem alien and far away. Even the brains of people grieving the end of a relationship look like the brains of people experiencing a death.
Outside your bubble, the world continues without you, while everything inside feels deadened, empty, even hopeless. You feel isolated, alone. You may feel directionless, as if you can’t see your way through this darkness to any possibilities beyond this bubble that now separates you from the world.
However, unlike an actual death, a respite from your grief may be only a phone call away. After a breakup, your ex is still walking around in the world. You want to stop the pain, it may even feel like you have to, and all the reasons you know you’re better off without your ex take a back seat to the need to stop these symptoms of withdrawal even if only for a little while. You can sit on your hands to keep yourself from calling or texting, but your withdrawal symptoms can feel so relentless that you just have to give in.
Maybe you believe you’ll stop after just one more time. You know you should and you know you’re supposed to. But while in a moment of clarity you recognize this loss may be the best thing for you, it’s making your life miserable. But still it’s a loss and you feel scared, overwhelmed, and alone in your grief.
One call, text, or glimpse can give you that fix you’re jonesing for, but when the high of that brief, real or imagined re-connection wears off, the curtain drops again and your isolation can be even darker this time. Giving in to the compulsion to feed your addiction can initiate a cycle of shame—a hole into which it’s much easier to fall back than it is to climb out.
To break this cycle, first and foremost work on forgiving yourself for what feels like weakness! The physical and emotional symptoms of grief after a breakup can be so extreme that your body and psyche overpower your rational brain to create a way of functioning that feels necessary for survival, even though it might be self-destructive. And piling on more shame because you have given in to your addiction only makes a complicated situation even more challenging to get through.
When I work with people who are surviving a breakup, I encourage them to feel and appreciate the magnitude of the loss, to mourn it, but also to remember what unfolded to get them into to this painful place of paralyzing loss. The goal is to combat the paralysis brought on by the breakup by learning to power through the acute symptoms of withdrawal: cold sweats, emotional and even physical pain, obsessive thoughts, or a full-fledged depressive episode that may accompany the loss, and the resulting compulsive desire to see, hear, talk to, know what your ex is doing. Giving in to these desires does temporarily alleviate the symptoms, but in turn, it perpetuates the addiction and sets you back. Whether you can resist temptation or not, let yourself tolerate and breathe through the paralyzing fear that this relationship has ruined you, you will be alone forever and/or you won’t ever love or be loved again.
Take it one minute or even one second at a time. It’s okay to stay in bed and eat a lot of ice cream. If you are able to eat, eat food that comforts you. It’s okay to cry while watching movies about other people’s near-perfect but fictitious relationships. It’s okay to have your friends and family babysit you. It’s okay to feel utterly incapacitated. It’s okay to take a few days off from work (if you can). It’s ok to lie there and stare at the ceiling while time ticks by painfully slowly. It’s a colossal loss and must be understood as such. Your whole life has just changed.
Maybe you can’t imagine the possibility of ever being ready to reenter the world, ex-free. But trust that the possibility is within you. Instead of searching for answers to why or how this happened (your need to have your questions answered by your ex can be far more insatiable that the information that is actually available to you), and therefore, work on letting go of understanding “why.” Instead, work on feeling your way through your pain, one breath at a time, one second at a time during this period of directionless withdrawal.
When the fog starts to clear—and it will if you allow yourself to fully experience it—you can begin the work of understanding your experience from a healthier perspective. Sometimes I remind my patients of that old cliché that “The only things in life that are inevitable are death and taxes,” but, um, these days taxes aren’t even inevitable. So that means the only inevitability is death. As much as it feels like it, a breakup isn’t death. Rather, anything besides actual death is a kind of continuation—as long as you’re breathing, you can’t help but be a perpetual work in progress. You’re still here in the world. You’re still breathing, thinking, contemplating, and grieving. Therefore you are still moving.
Working through the reality of this loss means entering into the deeply uncomfortable experience of withdrawal. Mourning the loss of this entity that you helped to create is also the beginning of letting go, not because you want to, but because you have to. It will start to feel lighter, less scary, and the withdrawal ultimately subsides.
Eventually, by allowing yourself to be in this difficult process rather than postpone it, you will begin to see the difference between a breakup and a death. Death is final. After a breakup, if you can stumble through withdrawal with one foot in front of the other, understanding that you are still in the world, and allowing yourself to mourn through the loss, you can eventually return to yourself without addiction—maybe even a wiser, deeper, stronger and more resilient version of yourself. If you choose, this process will allow you to make room to co-create a fulfilling, reciprocal relationship in the future, even if you can’t believe that just yet. And most importantly, by allowing yourself to truly mourn the end of a relationship, you can move forward into what could be much less encumbered by what has been.