Words by Lisa Kwon. Art by Sam Liacos.
My heart broke twice on March 28, 2019.
The first time was during a morning meeting at work. I started experiencing shortness of breath, and then a sharp pain shot up my left arm. Not another one, I thought to myself. With stony reserve, I texted one of my best friends despite knowing she wouldn’t be able to help me at that moment.
“I think I’m having a heart attack, but I am in a meeting right now and don’t want to make a scene,” I texted her. With booming caps lock, she replied, “WTF. LEAVE.”
I called my parents from the bathroom. They’ve received these type of calls a handful of times before. They reminded me to take deep breaths and count upward until the sense of dread subsided.
I returned to the conference room after I counted to 88 and the tension in my chest eased. Like with most other panic attacks or heartaches I’ve experienced, I resumed working and hoped another one wouldn’t happen. Calling 911 or asking for an ambulance felt too critical for something that always went away.
My second “heartbreak” occurred later that evening. The guy I had been seeing suggested we break up. We entered our situationship several months ago with neither one of us knowing what we wanted. Since day one, we’ve been careening into a wall.
There were so many jolts throughout our situationship that I’d been quietly absorbing. This was the end of what felt like a significant period of unacknowledged torment. Still, I was struck by the abruptness of the crash. The breakup wrung me of my tears.
March 28 was one of the most exhausting days I endured all year. Afterward, I wanted to process how my physical pain could be linked to the ups and downs of my dating life. The heartache of both instances felt too closely related.
Somatic symptoms manifest in women in a multitude of ways. Syreeta Butler, a marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles, regularly sees patients who come in with complaints of constipation, lower back pains, migraines, numbness, panic attacks, or even exacerbated heart conditions.
Internalizing turns us inside out and shunts our feelings to the negligible crawl spaces of our mind.Lisa Kwon
“When we cannot verbalize our stresses or troubles, the energy has to go somewhere,” says Butler. For example, a woman isn’t comfortable feeling anger, for whatever reason, may feel pins and needles in her arms when she becomes so angry that she wants to throw something.
Butler practices integral counseling with a focus on the connection of mind, body, and spirit. She believes that the correlation between emotional and physical aches is commonly seen in women. Internalizing turns us inside out and shunts our feelings to the negligible crawl spaces of our mind.
“If we are not expelling that energy in productive ways, then we let it grow inside of us, which manifests as somatic reactions and even disorders,” she says.
If this resonates with you, start your healing process.
Understand your triggers. Triggers are difficult to prepare for because they have cable-thick roots and flare up in unpredictable ways. A loud honking car could trigger somebody who’s been in a car accident. Being told “no” could trigger somebody whose ever had to ask a family member for acceptance.
Butler suggests an honest inventory and scan of the moments that trigger us. Observe them without judgment. “One thing that creates stress or anxiety is the shame surrounding whatever our triggers are and how we respond to them,” she says.
Over the past months, I realized that I’m triggered by being touched by somebody unfamiliar due to an incident from when I was a teenager. Without exploring its history, I threw my trigger carelessly into the world of dating immediately after I left a serious three-year relationship; it had been lying dormant for a while. On my very first date post-relationship, I hooked up with a man right away because I thought things were going well. That was in January 2014, yet it set the precedent for how I would approach dating for the next five years. I sought first-date sex as a way to affirm that someone was into me.
I knew that I was in pain, but nobody could put a name to it.Lisa Kwon
Not only was I walking straight into my trigger, but I let the incongruence grow over time. Sex became administrative, which was stressing me out on a corporeal level. I began having more frequent, intense panic attacks. I made regular doctor appointments only to be told that I couldn’t be formally diagnosed with a medical condition. These were frustrating visits because I knew that I was in pain, but nobody could put a name to it.
In order to figure out how to tell anyone what you bring to the table, practice doing that for yourself.Syreeta Butler
After identifying triggers, ask yourself for acceptance. Butler recommends talking to the mirror, journaling, or recording voice notes of yourself. “In order to figure out how to tell anyone what you bring to the table, practice doing that for yourself. Literally practice having that conversation with yourself,” she says. This goes in hand with lifting the shame around your triggers and stressors. Accept what you come with.
It is only then that we ought to extend invitations into our space. This is difficult because we are impatient; society has made many of us feel as if life is better in pairs. “In our society, we’re so hard-pressed to connect to someone else that we first don’t recognize what it means to connect with ourselves. So we try to work through our traumas, our triggers, our anxieties, our depressions, our sadness, our things with someone else,” explains Butler.
In our society, we’re so hard-pressed to connect to someone else that we first don’t recognize what it means to connect with ourselves.Syreeta Butler
While dating, I started expecting so much from partners when I myself had no idea what I wanted. I let myself off the hook by telling them this, all while continuing to sleep with them. I have also been on the receiving end of those words — falling for people who let me expand in their lives. Both are like providing budding relationships with brackish water.
To say “I don’t know what I want” feels like a cop out. Yet there are partnerships where “I don’t know what I want” feels like a valid response. Those are the ones where it’s important that each person hold themselves accountable. Acknowledge the different ways that we fall for one another: hanging out, sharing secrets, having sex, collaborating on projects, etc. If things do end, the hurt is easier to manage because it is a shared responsibility. It doesn’t leave one person holding portions of a weight that they are not responsible for.
If all of this sounds exhausting or confusing, that’s because it is. Life doesn’t flow like a self-improvement checklist. It also isn’t a singular experience; our timelines cross with others every single day. Many of us catch ourselves holding another person’s emotional weight when we don’t even mean to.
Fortunately, life is also gracious and finds ways to remind you that you come first. “The universe gives us these experiences over and over and over again until we figure it out,” affirms Butler.
I cannot believe that dating contributed to my years of panic attacks and heart problems. But without judgment, I admit that I’ve long exhibited signs of physical wear and tear while seeing my partners. As was the case with how I managed my most recent relationship, dating was literally causing my heart to hurt because I was walking into it unprotected and with nowhere to expel negative energy.
Dating was literally causing my heart to hurt because I was walking into it unprotected and with nowhere to expel negative energy.Lisa Kwon
Since March 28, I’ve journaled, recorded voice notes, and talked to my best friends every day. It’s been an unceremonious yet rewarding process. I have all this new room to accommodate my experiences and lessons, and as a result I am learning what I bring to the table when I get the chance to fall for somebody again.
I love the idea of sharing my life with somebody else, and that is why I had to retreat into myself. My heartbreaks are not nothing. For so long, my physical pain wanted my attention as I gave myself emotionally to the people I date. Finally, I’m listening and connecting the dots.