At the ripe and all-knowing age of 19, I thought I knew everything about love.
I took notes from popular love ballads by anguished singers. I watched romantic movies like I was studying for an exam. I consoled my heartbroken friends who cried over a broken heart. It didn’t long before I came to the obvious realisation that love always resulted in heartbreak.
Even though I knew this, a big part of me still wanted to fall in love. I wanted to feel that elation and passion I’d seen in the movies. I just didn’t want to deal with all the depressing, dramatic, heartbroken stuff. I figured if I was smart about it I could get the falling in love part without all the heartbreak nonsense. All I had to do was learn as much as I could from other people’s mistakes. If I played my cards right, I’d come out the other side clean and unscathed.
I entered the first year of college ready to take on dating like a soldier ready for war. In one of my classes, I became friends with a playful extravert who was goofy, hilarious and sweet. Over time, our friendship began to grow into a relationship. The moment I realised where it was going, I took a deep breath and examined the situation. I dipped my toes in, pausing to re-assess. While I sat on the shore, concentrated and serious, I looked over at him to see how he was handling this situation. I watched in disbelief as he bolted across me and cannonballed in. He laughed and beckoned that I join him. He was looking at me like, ‘what’s the hold up? Get in here!’ To me, this was the most serious thing in the whole world. I could not believe he would dive in without even taking a moment to assess or analyse! It was the most foreign and bizarre concept to me.
We ended up dating for a year or so. He was spontaneous and fun and knew how to make me laugh so hard I’d fall to the floor in tears. He was friends with everybody and loved being the centre of attention. But over time, I felt plagued in fear that I was settling too early. I started becoming curious about what else was out there. I saw my love life like a voyage across the seas, setting sail to explore different places and ideas. I could not possibly set up permanent base on the first place I stumbled upon. I wanted my heart to be set free and experience what else was out there.
On a cold winter night in Ottawa, I drove to his place. While we sat on his couch, I told him I couldn’t do it anymore, I wanted to break up. He snapped angrily at me and demanded answers. Why? What have I done? I felt horrible to cause him pain. I didn’t want to hurt him, I just wanted us to break up but still be best friends. With tears streaming down his face he told me to leave. I remember driving home that night feeling terrible but free; free to untether my heart from this and set sail on another expedition.
But it didn’t happen that fast. I felt surprised by the experience of a break-up. I wasn’t prepared for how many threads connected you to another person. I came to realise that a break up is a process, not a single event in time. It involves untangling yourself from a place that feels warm and comfortable and protected. It’s through this process that you realise you are cutting out parts of your own identity; a part of who you are gets removed throughout.
This was my first experience in heartbreak. It was the tiniest fraction, the slightest chip on my porcelain heart. I was not destroyed by it but it did startle me that despite my armour and shield, I still managed to get hurt.
Soon enough my heart stumbled upon a new harbour. It felt like addiction swarmed me the moment we met. He wasn’t ready for a relationship though, he’d only just left from one. He needed time on his own. But patience is not exactly one of my virtues. Before I knew it, it felt like I tripped and fell into love, grabbing frantically at anything to break my fall on the way. Although our time together started off rocky, our relationship did develop into something quite special. We cared deeply for each other and he helped me through one of the darkest periods of my life. I’ll be forever grateful to him for this. But ultimately, we parted ways when I decided to move to Beijing.
By the time I arrived in Beijing, I felt healed and confident. I had been through heartbreak and thought I really understood what it all meant. I learned some powerful lessons and felt matured and wiser from them. But I was still bent-set determined to outsmart love. I figured I’d made a few slip ups but next time I’d get it right. But just around the corner awaited a heartbreak that would go beyond anything I could have ever planned for. It would be so severe it would change the very core of who I was.
It was on a cold autumn morning on October 13, 2013. My Dad was on a call that seemed to last forever. By the time he came out of his room the color in his face was gone. He told me gently that he needed me to sit down, he had something important to say. Just like the tides of a beach before a tsunami hits, I knew whatever he was about to say would destroy me. His voice cracked as he pushed out the words, “Elizabeth died.” The words hit me like a gun shot. It felt like the floor had fallen from underneath me. Everything went quiet in my head and for a second it felt like time froze. In that very moment, I could feel the past wedged so closely between us. I felt like if I held my breath and moved ever so quietly, I could reach into the past and pull it into this moment. I felt like I could fix this mess, like I could go back in time and save my sister.
The pain of this was beyond anything I’d ever known or could’ve prepared for. It felt like my fragile heart had been dropped on a marble floor; shattering and splintering into a million little pieces. The pain of my sister’s death crashed through the steel walls I’d proudly built around my heart with malicious ease. I constantly thought about my own mortality. I’d think to myself, if my life were to end right now, would I be happy? Would I be okay to leave this all behind? The answer was always no. It made me want to experience every single thing this life had to offer before it ended. I wanted my heart to absorb as much love and pain and beauty and sadness and joy it possibly could. So, I finally decided to allow myself the freedom to fall in love without protecting myself and without overthinking it. It was clear to me that there was no point in playing it safe anymore. If life was already going to destroy me, I wanted to experience the highest level of human emotion. I wanted to pull the lever all the way.
That summer I met a guy who seemed like the right choice. If my inner world was a tsunami, his was a tiny, laid-back Caribbean island in the sun with party music and pina coladas. I wanted some of that too, in fact I wanted to set up permanent base there. So, I gave myself permission to fall in love. I jumped in like a cannonball, I gave every single part of me to him. I held nothing back. I thought, ‘take it, it’s yours, there’s nothing else to lose.’
The moment after I jumped, falling in midair, he nonchalantly told me he wasn’t so interested anymore. I was completely taken off guard. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a Plan B, I had no safety nets. Instead, I had to brace for impact.
The explosion of sadness that is released when the heart is broken can be harnessed into the most incredible form of creative expression. These are the times in our lives when our biggest masterpieces are born; these are the times when our souls burn at the highest frequency. I really believe that if we allow it to, severe emotional pain creates maximum room for positive growth. If we can find an outlet, we can let that rush of pain burst through our hearts and harness it into courage and strength. A broken heart is not to be wasted by numbing ourselves with drugs or alcohol or any other vice. It’s to be transformed and fueled into something bigger than ourselves.
The pain from this experience gave me the courage I needed to move to a country I’ve always wanted to live in. Like the wind under my sail, it pulled me away from the ruins of my life and brought me to shores of Sydney, Australia. It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. It took me a year to mend my broken heart and since then, it has found its way in the hands of the most amazing man. With him, my heart feels safe, protected and supported. It’s the healthiest and most encouraging relationship I’ve ever known.
I will never forget that moment when the both us stood on the verge of love. I touched my scarred and tender heart and looked in his beautiful hazel eyes. They glowed back at me like warm honey and without words the two of us jumped in, like a cannonball.