Healing while self-isolating can be extremely difficult. Here's how to start.
Breakups, generally speaking, are shit. Not simply painful on their own, they can often make everything else hurt, too. From random triggers like finding a piece of popcorn in your teeth (true story) to being brought to tears by the physical experience of laughing again (also, sadly, true), breaking up can make every day feel like a minefield of emotional tender spots. Tending to this tenderness takes time and persistence. It can prove difficult — even when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic. Typical suggestions for coping include getting out there again, meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends. But typical solutions don’t apply so well to atypical situations like our present moment. Throw in the anxieties caused by the loss of life, livelihood, and lifestyle due to the coronavirus, and you’ve got yourself the fixings for an overwhelming emotional situation.
How could one possibly handle a breakup while so much else is going on? While still perhaps living with one’s former partner? While unable to feel your friends’ embrace, or just look your sibling in the eye and tell them this is so hard? These are good questions, ones best addressed by professionals. In the following interviews with queer therapists Laura A. Jacobs, Rebecca Shubert, Anisah Miley, and Oumou Sylla, we sought strategies for how to grow while contained, and how to endure despite the absurdity of compounding traumas. As you read, remember that you may not find the key that unlocks that version of yourself unburdened by pain. That’s okay. For what it’s worth, that magical key may not even exist. What does is your own willingness to let yourself grieve and begin to heal — no matter how slowly. Here’s how to start.
In addition to the tragic health and economic consequences the coronavirus has caused, how has this pandemic made handling a breakup more difficult?
Laura A. Jacobs:
One thing we are all so desperate for right now is touch. I find myself missing bumping into people on the subway, let alone wanting a hug or anything sexual. Even at the end of a relationship, you may have been very physically intimate, sexually or otherwise. You hold hands, you cuddle on the couch, you look directly into somebody's eyes, not through a camera. All of that, which we might take for granted most of the time, isn't there anymore. It would be nice to be able to get that from a friend, but many of us can’t. And that can be a real dramatic shift, a major loss that's compounded by COVID-19.
Additionally, it's hard to think about the future when you're newly in a breakup. You don't think you're ever going to find another partner. You think nobody is ever going to live up to what you had with the previous person. All of that thinking is heightened since we can't really date right now. I guess you can meet people and start talking online, but nobody knows when the current crisis and need for social distancing is going to end. So, people will understandably worry when they are going to be able to get some of that touch again, that interpersonal validation.
Lastly, everybody is feeling just a huge increase in anxiety right now. Our worries around the political ramifications of COVID-19 are increasing, but so are more personal fears: Are any of our loved ones going to get ill? Are we going to get ill? Are our loved ones going to live through this? Are we going to live through this? Am I going to have a job after this? We have this overwhelming sense of anxiety because of the current moment and the current climate. And so, these worries act synergistically, tipping off our background stressors. Feelings of depression and hopelessness are all going to be much more pronounced than they might be otherwise.
What strategies would you recommend for beginning to heal from a breakup while in isolation?
The first step to managing all grief is to acknowledge it, name it, and validate it. While the urge to stay positive may be strong and is a healthy way to cope, acknowledging that you’re grieving is essential. The next step is finding ways to increase oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” depleted by the breakup.
While COVID-19 makes it challenging to replenish oxytocin through touch, laughter, and connection, it is not impossible. Connecting through video chat apps with friends and family and through dating apps with potential new partners is a great way to remind yourself that love is still out there. Getting together for a video brunch or happy hour is an excellent way to connect when you cannot see your favourite people in person. Touch is also not impossible during COVID-19; self-massage is a great way to increase oxytocin and reduce cortisol, a stress hormone. So, get out your favourite scented lotion and treat yourself to a hand massage or a foot massage.
Self-care is of the utmost importance during this time. Whatever you normally do to care for yourself physically (like going for a walk or practising yoga at home), emotionally (like journaling or talking with someone you trust), and spiritually (like attending virtual religious services or 12 step meetings) should be given extra emphasis.
If you are living with your ex, negotiate agreed boundaries regarding how you will temporarily continue to share the space, and to what extent you will communicate outside of what is logistically necessary. Also, be careful not to over-process the breakup; talking in circles for hours can be exhausting and counterproductive to your healing.
If you are struggling and need extra support, seeking professional mental health help is a good idea. Find a therapist that specializes in working with queer and TGNC clients and offers teletherapy during the COVID-19 crisis. Additionally, if you are in crisis or feeling unsafe with your partner, RAINN and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are resources available to you, as well as the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
One piece of advice that feels doable during this moment is to insulate yourself from potential triggers. But what if what’s triggering for you isn’t a blanket, for instance, or a song, or a TV show, but rather something more totalizing? What if you associate gender euphoria with your partner? Or just the experience of joy?
Sometimes you can't avoid triggers. Sometimes you are so consumed you can't just turn off your feelings like a light switch. If this person has been the centre of your existence, then it can take time to unravel that. For a start, you might want to do things that build an independent existence. Find things you like that weren't part of your relationship. Try to remember that you probably had sexual gratification one way or another before that partner, and you will afterwards. Acknowledge that you are who you are, and you don't lose that overnight because you break up with somebody.
How might you counsel someone who feels self-conscious or even guilty about being heartbroken right now — those who are thinking things like: folks are dying out there and losing their jobs and I can’t get out of bed because of this breakup?
I can certainly understand the feeling. I would say just to understand that it's normal to build fear upon fear upon fear. But in the midst of that kind of piling, it’s important to try to focus on the primary feeling of loss. The idea isn't necessarily to avoid pain; pain is part of life. I tell clients: You are suffering. Okay, let’s feel that. If you're in pain, you're in pain. It’s not helpful to build layers of judgement around it.
Lastly, for folks out there agonizing over whether to reach out to a former partner or partners, what would you want people to consider when deciding if it makes sense to try patching things up during these unprecedented times?
I would encourage people to either think/journal, or have conversations with trusted loved ones regarding these questions: How did I feel in relation to this person, or these people? What did I learn about what was important to me in this relationship? Are the individuals involved in the rekindling of this relationship willing to commit to the work of addressing previous wounds or conflicts, if they haven't done so already? Do I feel good, safe, and/or neutral in my body when I'm with them and/or as I think about them now? Am I choosing to reconnect out of guilt, shame, or outside pressure? What option is most in alignment with my values and desires?
The ability to identify either through conversation or writing creates space for you to observe the named thoughts and feelings for what they are. The answers to these questions will hopefully help you make a more informed and mindful decision about whether or not it makes sense to reconnect or decide to take space from that/those relationship(s).
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on them.