The night I knew my six-year relationship had fallen apart, I didn’t talk to anyone for almost 24 hours. I didn’t know how. I sat in my flat, surrounded by the wreckage of a life, and did nothing; sat stock still on the edge of the bed that had been ours, and didn’t speak.
The next evening I texted my best friend: “I think we just broke up?” And then, two minutes later: “He says he wants to be a priest???”
And she called me a taxi to her house, and I went. I still didn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say, and I suppose in some ways I don’t writing this right now. I can tell you that I sat and did a jigsaw of Henry VIII in her house and drank orange squash, a thousand little pieces of black brocade and pig-pink skin slipping through my clumsy fingers. I couldn’t bear to go home that night or the night after; I stayed on her sofa watching Cartoon Network and eating toast.
I don’t know, really, how to tell you about what it’s like when something so important ends – but, the thing is, you probably already know it for yourself.
You know what it’s like to have something – anything – end. You know what it’s like to come out of the other side of something; you know what it’s like to be left reeling and staggered and baffled by a turn in your life you never saw coming.
Your thing – the thing that happened to you – probably didn’t involve cancer. It probably didn’t involve three years of caring, or a traumatic brain injury, or being (technically, at least) “dumped for Jesus”. It definitely didn’t involve all of those things (and if it did, let’s get lunch). I’m prepared to admit that the specifics of my situation are particularly stupid and unlikely – but whatever happened to you probably hurt, all the same.
I have had friends hesitate to tell me about their problems, because they worry that their problems can’t compare to this astounding chaos; I’ve hesitated to talk to other friends about this because, you know, I’ve still (sort of) got my health and I’m still (sort of) surviving.
The next evening I texted my best friend: 'I think we just broke up?' And then, two minutes later: 'He says he wants to be a priest???'
But the one thing I’ve learned, in three years of being That Tragedy Girl, is that you can’t rank pain – not really. Your pain hurts and my pain hurts and the only way to get through it is to find some kind of solidarity in that; to find some kind of solidarity in the fact that absolutely everybody on earth is going to hurt at some point, and we might as well learn how to live with that.
You thought your life was going one way, and then it didn’t. You thought you knew where the play was going, and then a third-act twist left you on the edge of your seat. You thought you knew what was going to happen to you – the shape your world would be – and then something happened, and after that nothing was the same. And this happens to all of us, at some time or another.
I was unlucky – it happened to me at 22, when my boyfriend was diagnosed with a rare cancer. It happened to me at 24, when a complication meant that the treatment for the cancer caused a traumatic brain injury. It happened to me at 25, when simultaneously I decided I could no longer be a full-time carer and my boyfriend decided he wanted to become a priest. I had thought that I would marry that boyfriend. I loved (and still love) him very much.
But things don’t always work out the way you want them to – or the way you think they will.
Not for me, and not for you, not in big ways, not in small ways and not all the ways in between. There are so many ways for a life to be turned upside down, and so many ways you can be left bewildered in the aftermath. What are you supposed to do, after? How are you supposed to keep going? How are you supposed to even explain what’s happened to anyone, and how can you find the words?
And somehow – you’ve got to. You’ve got to find a way, and that’s what this column is about: life, after. It’s about having to tell estate agents that you can’t give an employment history because you’ve been a carer, and then bursting into tears. It’s about trying to explain a three-year gap on your CV without having to tell a total stranger about the worst thing that ever happened to you. It’s about trying to sort the council tax when he always did the council tax; and about trying to move house by yourself when every object seems charged with grief and guilt; and about walking around a city where every street is full of memories. It’s about unexpected flashbacks and trauma and the bewildering world of trying to find a therapist. It’s about trying to make new friends – and explain what happened to you, before. It’s about wondering whether you’ll ever love anyone again. It’s about wondering whether you can ever live again like you used to, before; it’s about the practical realities of life when your life escapes you.
Next week: Ella has to divide up half a decade of belongings. Where do you get packing boxes, again? And do we know anyone with a van?