Monday was my birthday. I turned 28. That would have sounded old to me when I was in college or even as recently as when I was 26. Today, it sounds perfect—young, in fact, and exactly where I want to be. During lunch on my birthday, I took a walk near Central Park and got to thinking about how much my outlook has changed and the route that got me here.
Two years ago this June, my whole world turned upside down. During the course of a few weeks, my boyfriend of over three years broke up with me, I had to find a new apartment (a result of the breakup), and I started my first full-time job in New York City. Since I’d allowed my world to revolve around him, I had very few friends in the city. The friends I did have were so amazing that it still makes me cry in gratitude; nonetheless, this was a breakup of ugly proportions—one that involved a lease, money, each other’s families and the kind of shattered expectations that led to deep bouts of pessimism, sadness, fear and nostalgia.
I spent the first two days after he left unshowered and unable to eat. I felt embarrassed, unstable and alone. Not sure where he was, I must have paced among our pictures, books and shared condiments for hours on end. Then, finally, I made up my mind to take a shower. Maybe it sounds silly that a shower was my big accomplishment for the evening, but it was, and letting myself be OK with that was the first step to progress.
The next step was eating. Egg salad was my cuisine of choice. I don’t even like egg salad, but for some reason (a need for protein and fat?) that’s all my body craved. So, egg salad it was for lunch and dinner almost every day. (On a positive note, I am now an expert on where to find the best egg salad sandwiches in Midtown Manhattan, if anyone needs a recommendation.) Nourished, I was able to work—and do a good job at that. When I felt like sobbing, I let myself go outside and cry. When I was done, I put on my professional face and went back to my desk. I started crashing at my friends’ apartments and tried to stop thinking of our Manhattan apartment as home. When my ex finally contacted me, I told him I refused to live there any longer among our ghosts. He’d figured (without asking me, which enraged me) that he would be the one to move out and I would stay. I told him no. It was one of the best and most important decisions I’ve ever made. In the end, we both left. I went to Brooklyn, and I’m not sure where he went.
Before the move, I took a trip home to Ohio. My flight was early, so when I slithered into a cab to LaGuardia, it was still dark. I was contemplative and exhausted from all the crying. Then, almost as if on cue, the cab driver—without a “hello” or even looking at me in the mirror—said in a thick accent, “Life is full of challenges.” The timing and way he said it were so absurdly dead-on that I felt like I was in a David Lynch movie. I was also remarkably touched. He was silent the rest of the trip; I left him a massive tip.
From then on, things started falling into place.
I forgave myself when I repeated old mistakes. I had flings—some awkward, some sexy. My friend base grew exponentially. I drank too much. I went out dancing at least once a weekend. I started doing yoga three times a week. I joined a volleyball team. I burned bridges with people who didn’t belong in my life anymore and fortified the relationships that mattered. I went back to Europe to visit old friends. I cleaned out my closet and filled it strictly with things that I loved. People started smiling at me for no reason. I was a bit reckless for a few months, but in general, life was becoming amazing.
This story is the long way of getting to the original idea for this essay, which was to dissect whether my increased self-assurance led to my new relationship or if the new relationship is the reason I feel so self-assured. A chicken-egg scenario, if you will: Would I feel as good as I feel now if I were still single? Maybe not. My boyfriend and I have a stellar relationship, the kind you can only have after having learned from prior relationship mistakes. We’re a team; we’re in love. But still, I felt great before I met him. I feel independent and confident in myself in this relationship, whereas I felt stifled and unsure of myself with my ex. That attitude change reflects a change in me, and not my relationship status.
In the end, the breakup—something that made me feel so small—was the biggest confidence booster of my life. I’m not saying that in a snarky way as a blow to my ex. I returned to a state of infancy that re-taught me how to take care of myself and figure out what was right and wrong for me. And despite how it all went down, I’m actually really thankful that he had the guts to cut it off, because even though I knew deep down that we weren’t right for each other, I didn’t have the courage to let go.
These last two years in NYC (my boyfriend and I have been together for a year) have been the happiest and most exhilarating of my life—and I’d done some pretty rad things all over the globe before I moved here. So, turning 28? Pssh. If 28’s this good, I can’t wait for 30.
What about you—how have you rebuilt your self-esteem after a big breakup?