One survival guide did the trick.
I definitely didn’t think of myself as a self-help person until one Friday night this February, when my boyfriend of nearly eight years broke up with me over text. It was a long time coming. And deep down I knew it had to happen. Nonetheless, I was devastated. I learned I had a special gift for crying on cue. I forgot to wash my hair for a week and cancelled all of my plans to lie in bed and stare at my ceiling—you know, the usual things you do when you’re heartbroken and want to feel better.
A week later, I still wasn’t feeling better. I know what you’re thinking: “You expected to get over your high school sweetheart in only a week?!” No, I would say to you—but I definitely had hit a point where the pain was unmanageable, and I wanted to feel a smidgen better. Besides, I was tired of the questions that followed when I would inevitably leave my desk to take a walk because the tears wouldn’t stop. My friends suggested therapy, but I politely put that option aside because therapy is expensive here in New York City—even with insurance.
But then one night, around 1 a.m. as I lay in my bed, crying, staring at the ceiling, a Joan Didion quote came to me. In The Year of Magical Thinking—a book in which the legendary essayist details her year grieving after her husband suddenly dies of a stroke—Didion writes, “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood: read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.”
“A book!” I thought. “A book would finally make me feel at least a tinge of relief! At least maybe." It was worth a shot, so I desperately Googled “books about breaking up with your high school boyfriend.” Nada. I lowered my expectations and started looking for a book that would help me through a break-up, any break-up, just something to help, please!
I eventually came across The Break-Up Bible: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce by Rachel A. Sussman, LCSW. I downloaded it to my Kindle, and read until I couldn’t read any longer, which was actually only a handful of pages since I was emotionally exhausted. Over the next week or so, whenever I felt lonely, or was bored, or was compelled to text him, I picked up my book and swiped through the pages. Sussman urges her readers to read it slowly and use it as a workbook for the (maybe) months-long healing process. She offers many exercises for the broken-hearted to undertake. She tells the reader at points not to read any further until you feel like you’ve made some progress. Reader, I am ashamed to admit it, but I did not listen to Sussman. At no point did I journal, draw a love map, or stop reading. I just kept going and going.
Even without the exercises, I started to feel better. I learned that even though we were together since I was 16, the problems that plagued our seven-year relationship were not unique to us. We broke up for reasons that cause many people to break up. Our arguments and dynamics weren’t anything new. I stopped crying at my desk. I started to feel less lonely, less confused. I even rekindled my romance with Broadway musical soundtracks, something I liked as a teenager but veered away from once we started dating. But above all, I started to feel empowered—even excited—to start my new life without him.
So here’s the thing: No one thinks of himself or herself as a self-help person. The self-help section of the library or the bookstore or Kindle store is not a pleasurable, casual browse. A trip is usually a painful task devoid of any good feelings. It is a desperate cry for help—“Could the words on these pages actually make me feel better?” you plead to each book. And, surprisingly, sometimes they really can.