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Two years ago, I got out of a long-distance relationship that I’d been in for nearly four years. Five months prior to the actual breakup, my then-boyfriend hinted at wanting to get engaged. As an abstract concept, getting married someday was nice, but when confronted with the reality of it, the very idea terrified me. I was only 23, and our relationship wasn’t exactly healthy. Despite the front I’d always put on for our families, friends and even for him, I spent most of our time together feeling hurt and stuck in my situation. He was often inconsiderate of my feelings and we fought constantly, so my anxiety was at an all-time high, and I knew I couldn’t spend forever feeling that way. So, I tried to shut down the marriage talk quickly.
“We’re too young, we don’t even live in the same state, we’re still figuring out our careers,” I told him. “Not now.” But what I really meant was, “Not ever.” A month later, at Christmas, he excitedly handed me a little black velvet jewelry box in front of my parents, and I felt panic envelop me. I opened it to find two earrings staring back at me. I expected to feel a wave of relief rush through my body, but the anxiety remained. I spent the following four months in inner turmoil, unhappy and wanting to leave but too afraid to talk about it, pretending everything was fine. And finally, one day, I just snapped and asked him for a break to figure things out. Two weeks later, we finally called it quits.
I’ve been over this breakup since it happened. My ex didn’t leave me unexpectedly; I initiated it, I wanted it, and I made it happen. We made the decision to part ways after I raised my concerns, and I’ve never regretted it or missed him. But in the aftermath, I beat myself up over letting our relationship get to that point in the first place. I regretted settling for unhappiness and staying with someone so wrong for me for so long. I regretted wasting my time and letting someone treat me with less respect and love than I deserved in a partner. I felt like all of the hurt I experienced while I was in our relationship was my fault because I didn’t leave sooner, even though I could feel the toll it was taking on my mental health — even the slightest sting in an argument would leave me having panic attacks on the bathroom floor. I regretted that I felt so insecure, that I hated myself so much that I thought I should stay in an unhealthy relationship because it was better than starting over. And most of all, I hated that I put on the façade that everything was fine and didn’t tell anyone what I was going through.
A few days ago, I was searching for a misplaced file on my computer and stumbled upon a folder of archived text messages with my ex. I didn’t even realize my computer had been automatically backing up my chats for years, so finding these little traces of my past was a strange experience. I thought about just deleting everything without even taking a peek, but my curiosity got the best of me, and I wound up re-reading our texts from the week of our breakup.
At first, it was funny to me — he was being disrespectful and I was being brutally honest in response, with my usual touch of sass. But the more I read, the more I noticed how fragile I was at that time in my life. At one point, we’d be arguing over something huge, and I’d be talking about how hurt and disrespected I felt, and then an hour later I’d ask him if he’d seen the trailer for a new movie coming out, clearly desperately trying to change the subject and pretend nothing bad had ever happened. I could see the way my mood changed during a 10-minute conversation, even if seemingly nothing triggered it. And for a second, I thought it was embarrassing that I was so erratic. I felt like I’d done something wrong. But then I thought about how amazing it is that I’m at a point in my life where I don’t act like that anymore because I’m actually happy.
I knew I’d changed a lot in the two years since we broke up, but those texts put all of the growth I’d experienced into perspective, and I finally stopped blaming myself. Despite all the bad, our breakup was the catalyst for several big changes in my life.
I used to spend a lot of time censoring myself, and while that wasn’t an exact result of dating my ex, it was something that my relationship perpetuated for a lot longer than I wanted it to. We met in college, and at the time, I was mostly pretending to be someone I wasn’t — I grew up without a lot of friends, so I saw college as my fresh start and acted like a different person so I wouldn’t be alone. I made friends, but I wasn’t truly happy. After a while, I decided I didn’t want to be that fake person anymore, but neither my ex nor our mutual friends understood. It wasn’t until our relationship was over that I was fully able to be myself and love it. I started taking better care of my health, started to appreciate my body and take style risks I was too afraid to be judged for before. I allowed myself to fully embrace my interests, even if I thought other people would think I was weird. And I started putting myself out there online and in real life, which led me to making some truly amazing friends who actually appreciate me for me.
My life used to be all about the “what ifs?” without enough focus on what was happening day-to-day. Being in an unhealthy, long-distance relationship, my belief was that, “Next time we visit each other, things will be better,” and, “Maybe someday, when we live together, everything will be OK.” It took me so long to realize things would never get better in our situation. Now, I live in the present — my future is important to me and I still have big life plans to fulfill, but I’m so much more focused on enjoying what I have while I have it. I don’t wait for things to get better, I make decisions and I live a lot more spontaneously than I ever did before.
I’ve also learned to handle my anxiety in better ways than I used to. The reality is, I’ll always have my triggers and it will always be a challenge. But, I’ve learned that managing my mental health is about taking things one day at a time, figuring out what makes me feel better and what doesn’t help, finding people who bring out the light inside of me, and cutting out people who don’t. And because I’m also feeling a lot more confident in myself these days, I no longer feel like I need to keep people around who hurt me just because it might be better than being alone.
Most important, now I know what I want. I know the kind of relationships I want to have and the kind of emotional support I need from friends, and I have a better grasp on what I want to do with my life. I used to make decisions based on more than just my own needs, and while sometimes compromise is necessary, I put myself last so often that I forgot to ask myself what mattered to me entirely. I know now that I have to come first, because if I’m not doing what’s right for me, I can’t do the right thing for anyone else.
When I was younger and people hurt me, my mother used to tell me, “People come in and out of your life for a reason. When they leave you, it’s because they’ve served their purpose.” For the longest time, I didn’t believe her. When you’re a kid, it’s hard to wrap your head around the reasons people treat you badly. But I’ve finally realized my mother was right — no one you involve yourself with is a waste of time, because even the people who hurt you the most are there for a reason, even if you can’t see it yet.