By Jessamyn Rains
Step One: Go to Texas
This is not optional. You must go to Texas.
I recommend driving an old car with bad shocks and no air conditioning and Abbey Road blaring on your CD player. The Greyhound bus is also acceptable, especially if you share your pillow with a strange man and you stop and wander around Oklahoma City on a Sunday afternoon when it’s dead and quiet. Flying is not recommended because it gives the wrong impression, makes you feel like you can just get from here to there in a few hours and they give you peanuts or maybe a little Sprite or a cocktail, and that just isn’t the way it is with a broken heart.
You may think that if you pay your dues — shell out some cash or frequent flyer miles and put up with a little layover in Chicago — that you can bypass all the necessary states on the way to Texas — Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, preferably in that order — and get on with it, on with the recovery already, but you can’t do that. You’ll go there and have your air-conditioned flight, maybe read a book, maybe sit a little too close to the middle-aged man in a suit and pink tie with a briefcase lodged awkwardly beneath the seat in front of him, and you will just have to backtrack. You’ll just have to do it all over one day, and it’ll be harder and more expensive, kind of like when you bypass a bunch of toll roads and the government sends you a bill seven months later.
You cannot bypass the toll roads.
You cannot get on a plane and fly over the grief states.
You have to go through Missouri down winding roads and look at ramshackle barns and pass through these little towns, their fireworks, and their big billboard signs. The more pickup trucks you see, the better. The more truck stops you see, the better. It’s better if the sky is blue and the clouds are puffy because everything is sad in a sweet way when the sky is blue and the clouds are puffy.
When you go to Arkansas, all you really have to do is look at a few cows. It’s better when they’re lying on hills because they look happy, and you know that most of the cows in this country are not happy at all. Horses standing still and then running for no reason — that’s the best — if you can see this in Arkansas where the trees above you are a canopy over a red gravel road — and there happens to be a cow or two nearby with a tag in his ear staring at you — this is all very helpful.
Oklahoma is the best because you have all kinds of casinos: I’m talking casinos in gas stations. You just go and get some gas and maybe a bottle of water, and when you go to pay, you look through the dark glass and see all the slot machines. Even if you don’t gamble, knowing that you are among casinos is comforting because you are surrounded by all this human misery and degradation, and there is some kind of solidarity in all that because right now you are human wreckage. You feel like the old drunk man with his long stringy gray hair and broken-down front teeth and withered skin sitting on the bench outside the casino. People look at him, and you know what they are thinking. Well, that’s what you look like on the inside, my friend, and though it sounds bad, it’s really not that bad. It’s the human condition, and you’re a step ahead of everyone else because at least you are looking at it. At least you are there in Oklahoma staring at the human condition.
You will know you are in Texas when you see your first Whataburger.
I don’t have to explain why you’ve come to Texas. It’s self-evident. Wherever you go, you’re gonna dry out. You, my broken-hearted friend, are rain-soaked, and can’t you hear your bones: they’re all hollow, and the wind blows over them, plays them like a reed instrument, and I can see you standing there with the chills; well, the Texas sun is gonna blast that out of you.
The three most helpful people you will meet in Texas: a Spanish-speaking hairstylist who does your hair like an old lady and calls you “mija”; a Brazilian–Vietnamese waiter who invites you to go clubbing; and an Israeli salesman in the San Antonio mall who proposes marriage and sells you overpriced products from the Dead Sea.
Step Two: Reinvent Yourself
As a general rule, in self-reinvention you go toward light or darkness. You go to church, or you go to a biker bar. It depends on who hurt you, and how, and why, or what, and whether you blame God or the devil. If you blame God for your heartbreak, you go to the biker bar, or you wander the alleys at night, or you blast punk music on your iPod at lunch in the cafeteria, and you don’t even listen to it through headphones because everyone needs to know that you are listening to punk music because you are tougher and somehow more abrasive than everyone else, which makes you less vulnerable than if you were listening to, say, Josh Groban.
Or you sit in a place like Starbucks and listen to Black Sabbath, letting it leak out just enough to slightly annoy the yuppie sitting next to you. (Incongruity helps with self-reinvention.) There are all kinds of ways you can reinvent yourself, but the key is, it’s gotta be something you never did pre-heartbreak because you gotta create new neural pathways (the benefit of loud music is that it also destroys a few old ones), new roads in your brain that are unreachable, untouchable by the person/place/thing/event that broke your heart, and you’re trying to get it all tied up together again.
Alternatively, you could join a cult. One that helps you make sense of the injustices of the universe. One that promises you everlasting life in distant space with aliens. One that gives you the community, the relationships you lack. One that gives you a convenient end-of-the-world scenario to freak out about and thereby helps to take your mind off your heartache. It’s particularly helpful if there’s an element of morbidity; I recommend the snake-handlers of Appalachia, because in addition to snake-handling, there is poison-drinking, both of which are perfect metaphors for what you’re going through.
Step Three: Remember Unconditional Love
This is what we are all reaching for. This is what all the songs are about. This is the reason people listen to country music, the reason you just ate an entire pizza and a chocolate cake by yourself. Maybe it’s the reason for all kinds of things — like Las Vegas and Twilight and Justin Bieber — but I wouldn’t know about those things from experience. All I know is that many of us are looking for a kind of love that is bigger than our self-hatred, bigger than the contempt we harbor for whatever it is that disqualifies us from Unconditional Love.
Did you catch that? “Whatever it is that disqualifies you from unconditional love…”
(Yeah, it’s an oxymoron.)
But when you remember that it exists, you can move toward it. You can quit trying to earn someone’s love by being [whatever] enough. The idea that you can earn someone’s love is a fallacy. A person loves you, or they don't.
Well, I don’t have much to say about this right now, because I’m at home alone on a Friday night, drinking cheap wine. (Also, I’m chewing Trident teeth-whitening gum, and it’s not the best-tasting combination.) But I keep opening my King James New Testament Gideon’s Bible and reading it in random places: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” God is the source and origin of unconditional love, and all our human imitations of it are subject to our human limits. But somehow, you have to get the unconditional love of God inside of you and give it to your fellow human beings, especially the ones who hurt you, because they are leaky vessels, all problematic and broken-hearted just like you. You will be happy to the degree that you can do this. (Not that I am an authority on happiness.)
Step Four: Pull Out the Old Sports Analogy
There’s a football game at my old high school tonight, just down the street, and I can hear the announcer’s booming voice. And, while I am not an athlete myself, I know that all the dramas of the human race are being acted out on that field and in the stands tonight, all the triumphs and failures, the battles, the losses, the romantic loves, the friendships and betrayals. Every once in a while someone has an injury — a concussion, a broken bone, a torn ligament — and he or she is forced to get off the field and go to the worst place anyone has ever gone — the hospital — and then to lie around at home for weeks while the world goes on without him or her, for better or worse, and then to go to physical therapy, which can be excruciatingly painful, with no guarantee that the affected body part will be restored, enabling them to be what they once were.
If you want to heal a broken heart, it helps to know which phase of the healing process you’re in, because if you’re supposed to be on the couch and you’re trying to put yourself back into the drama of the game, you’re likely to hurt yourself again, maybe worse this time. (This is analogous to flying to Texas instead of driving.) But if you’re supposed to be at physical therapy, and you are just lying around on the couch feeling sorry for yourself, you’re not likely ever to get off that couch.
And then, of course, there’s a time to get back into the game.
I don’t know where I am in this process because I don’t understand football. So I’m going to ditch the sports analogy and use a religious metaphor: purgatory. I do know that I am in a psychological purgatory, between heaven and earth, neither here nor there. Suspended from the human drama — pulled out of the action and interaction — there is nothing but suffering, and I wonder if this is all there is, if the rest of my life will be purgatory. But the good thing about purgatory is that it’s not hell. Also, there is heaven waiting.
And if you have some nice friends, they can pray for you and get you outta there faster.
Please pray for me.
Jessamyn Rains is a mother of four young children who writes and makes music. Her writings have been included in various publications, including Bearings Online (forthcoming), Heart of Flesh Literary Journal and Amethyst Review.