One of the hardest parts of a break up are the memories. You can block, mute, unfollow a person, you can throw away the paraphernalia that sanctified their existence and swap old photos for new but you cannot quite wipe away the echo of their presence. As convenient as it would be, we cannot forget them.
Every time we think – and know! – we are over ‘them’, a certain street, particular corner pub, or elusive shape of cloud triggers a potent memory, dragging us back to heartache’s imaginary starting line as we re-join the queue to the slip’n’slide spiral of mourning, hurt, pain. I say ‘we’. Of course, as ever, I mean me.
For me, learning to live without him was the easy part. Learning to live with our memories, on the other hand, has proved near impossible. How to live with holding my breath and pinching myself to a point of pain every time I walk into our favourite pub. How to walk down the street without the terror of bumping into him. How to deal with the subsequent disappointment when that meeting I thought I dreaded never happens. How to learn first to pass the apartment that housed the beginnings of us and then to pass it without crying. How to disentangle place from person and finally leave the memories and sadness behind.
While still learning, here is my how-to. Here is how I am reclaiming my city, commute, café nook from his shadow. This is what I’ve learned from trudging up and down streets lined with the ghosts of my ex…and the things I wish I could have learned sooner.
Leave the brave face at home
Why are we so obsessed with appearing to be strong? While there is a time and a place for a brave face, I don’t believe wading through the quicksand of difficult memories is it. Nothing is more exhausting than pretending to be fine when you’re not. Nothing is so taxing as remaining in a constant state of self-conscious anticipation, of resolutely preening yourself to be spotted by ‘them’ at any moment determined that, if you are going to be seen, you are going to be seen having FUN.
Instead of pretending you’ve suddenly developed IBS and hayfever simultaneously to explain why you need to run to the bathroom every five minutes to sob, instead of ‘sucking it up’ and spending an evening with a smile more manic than authentic glued to your face, instead of smothering agony in optimistic spoof or a brave face, I suggest just being sad. The act of being sad is not a weak surrendering but rather a courageous undertaking. Strength lies in embracing vulnerability, not smothering it with a plastic smile and too many glasses of wine. The bravest face is the one that reflects how its owner really feels, no matter how difficult that may be. Contrary to the advice of every beauty magazine, it is ok – therapeutic, even! – to frown.
Talk about it
Dear Lord, communicate the siege of grief you are experiencing and let those demons out! Rather than walking through those streets with a mind and heart full with the weight of the unsaid, walk with the crutch of a sympathetic ear or supportive shoulder. Share your pain because every time you speak about it is one less time you will need to. The places that conjure up such visceral pain do so because they are symbolic. Internalising their importance, allowing the emotion they incite to fester without the rationality of words only adds to their perceived significance, amplifying their romance and consolidating the nostalgia. The result is a cocktail of potent grief, idealisation, and misappropriated longing as we become too swept up in the inaccessible beauty of what was to remember the far less appealing practicality of what is. As humans, we are notorious advocates for a past looked at through rose-tinted glasses – hindsight breeds selective memory and romanticised reality. Talking through our pain cuts through this tendency to only remember the idyllic and instead reminds us that whatever object is occasioning this pain is just that – an object.
Make new memories
Sand the rough and sharp edges of the old with the salve of new joy. Reinvent your recollections of a place with old friends and new experiences until he is but one in a plethora of happy memories – until you can’t remember who it was who first introduced you to that special drink or hidden restaurant and he is just one in a line-up of good times. Be determined in this: try and try again. Much like a bikini wax, the more frequently you do it, the easier it gets.
Handling memories as heirlooms
Finally, when enough time has passed, when the pangs have all but dissipated and the pricks of pain rubbed to smooth acceptance, go back to that place that once was the the site of so much happiness and then so much latent pain. Go alone. Return to the corner where you once sat together, limbs entwined into one deformed being, shaking with the nerves of an early date. Order the old usual – always shared, never evenly; break bread with the ghosts.
This time, instead of shunning the memories, instead of pasting over them with the pastiche of new people and loud intrusion of others, instead even of wallowing in their sadness, toast them. Smile at them. Dig into their cavernous bellies and pull up gratitude. Gratitude they happened, gratitude you got to experience what it was to feel that way.
Pick them up as we would a precious family heirloom. Handle them with the love and care that once created them, wonder at the uniqueness of them and yet their transience. Heirlooms never last forever in the hands of the owner – they are temporary and ethereal moments to be passed on and handed down to a more hopeful keeper. Remember that they are fleeting possessions, to be appreciated and minded for however long we get to call them ours.
And then, as you take your final sip of the drink you swore you’d never touch again, the final bite of the food you protested could only ever make you nauseous or listen to the song that seemed permanently relegated to the ‘DO NOT PLAY’ list, gently put the memories away. Wrap them in protective gauze, cover them in cotton wool and place them in a precious place to be kept safely and disturbed rarely. Take pleasure in the fact you know they are never going anywhere. That, as long as you continue to polish and safeguard them, they are, and will always be, yours. Never to be tarnished, never to be taken away, never to be forgotten. But also, never to cause you pain again. And then walk away.