Getting Over Heartbreak with Florence Williams

Getting over heartbreak isn’t easy. Recently finding myself wrecked on its shores, I turned to the only forms of solace I’ve known to heal a broken heart: writing, time with family and friends, time in nature, books, and time itself. In the past few weeks, as far as writing goes, I’ve written quite a bit of bad poetry. I’ve spent time with family and friends: my dad flew in and helped me clean up my wrecked home, and a day after he left, my best friend flew in from New York. We lounged on the beach, surfed, ate delicious food, and got pedicures and massages. When I looked for books that would bring me solace, I found it especially fortuitous that literally within weeks of my breakup, Florence Williams’ excellent new book, Heartbreak came out. If love is the product of good timing, then Heartbreak was my match made in heaven. 

Getting over heartbreak is a highly personal process. It can take months or years. My therapist tells me that it’s impossible to tell when I’ll feel better, just that I will eventually feel better. Some days I feel great, and others I just want to lie in bed and watch Euphoria

It’s one thing to know intellectually that the pain will pass and another thing entirely to sit with the pain when it hasn’t yet passed. I’ve spent more nights crying myself to sleep than I want to count.

Williams admits that until she had experienced heartbreak herself, she “tended to dismiss portrayals of it in popular culture or literature.” She can be forgiven for not “getting it.” Williams had never experienced heartbreak before.

As one who feels more like an expert in the field, having gone through a divorce, followed by a series of relationships that wrecked me in different ways, I wondered what this relative novice would have to offer. Yet, Elizabeth Bishop once wisely wrote “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” and indeed, when it comes to breaking up, quality can be as significant as quantity. As one who has been divorced and has suffered one breakup every three years for the last decade of my life, I’m starting to become all too acquainted with its horrible rhythms. 

Heartbreak is a braided tale, part memoir interwoven with current scientific research on the nature of surviving a broken heart. Williams’ goal is to learn more about getting over heartbreak, but the process is not linear, nor are there clear steps toward healing.

Like anyone learning a new skill, Williams throws herself into the topic completely: “I’d never been that interested in other people’s heartbreaks. But after it happened to me, I couldn’t get enough. I turned to literature, to science, to good music, to bad music, and to a wide circle of acquaintances, and then to a wider one. I wanted company.” 

For anyone who has turned to both good and bad art after a heartbreak, Williams offers something new. Misery may love company, but it’s also fun to read about the science of what happens inside the brain when the heart breaks. 

For example, “If you place someone who has recently suffered heartbreak in a scanner, parts of the brain light up that are very closely related to the parts that fire after receiving a burn or electrical shock.” And indeed, when I went through my divorce after a decade together with my husband, I remember being stunned about how literally painful the whole thing was. I’d expected emotional pain, but the way the emotional pain manifested physically was new to me.

Williams’ Heartbreak offers many other surprising insights. Studies indicate that people who are cold feel lonelier. 

Perhaps this is why, in the weeks after my most recent breakup, I became obsessed with upgrading my condo’s water heater to electric. The small one I had didn’t give me long enough baths. 

Williams also explained why my brain was so fuzzy. In the weeks after the breakup, my brain didn’t work properly. I’d promise to send emails, but the emails never got sent. I’d go to events and meet people only to forget their names right after meeting them. I knew that heartbreak could affect the brain, but this was a whole new level of cognitive decline.

Heartbreak may also come in degrees. Divorcing my husband took me to whole new continents of grief and pain. I felt like parts of my viscera had been removed. My stomach hurt for days on end. I couldn’t breathe at times. I got one urinary tract infection after another. 

There was one moment while driving where I literally didn’t see the red light right in front of me. Reality itself didn’t feel real anymore. Symbols stopped meaning anything. I had slammed the brakes in the middle of an intersection, pedestrians staring at me like I was crazy, and in a way, I was a little crazy. What did a red light mean without my husband?

Does one great loss prepare you for the others? I’ll say this. A few weeks ago, while driving in the early morning, I failed to see another red light. This time, I was not surprised. I had called my most recent boyfriend my soul mate. He had brought back to me what I thought I had lost forever when my marriage ended. Once again, symbols had lost all meaning. 

Failing to comprehend basic symbols may sound extreme, but Williams writes about more extreme side effects of heartbreak. For example, it is possible to have a heart attack as a result of heartbreak, a condition known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome.” With this kind of heart attack, the victims’ arteries aren’t blocked, and the victims are otherwise perfectly healthy. The heart just stops working as it should and it balloons up, followed by chest pain, fluid in the lungs, cellular death, and rarely, but sometimes, death. Williams tells the story of one of its victims that is so compelling and well-told, I won’t spoil it here. 

Sometimes at night since my breakup, I’d wake unable to breathe.  

A broken heart literally stresses the cardiovascular system. 

Coronary. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.
Coronary. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

While the stress can devastate the body, it can reconfigure the mind. Every breakup offers a lesson. Breakups teach us who we are and what we want. If you had asked me what I wanted after I got divorced, I would have told you I wanted sex and a boyfriend who rock climbed. After having gone through several breakups, I know myself better. Where I once wanted excitement, I now look for peace and security. Where I longed for chaos and adventure, I now long for someone connected to something greater than himself, a purpose. While I’d love to meet someone who shares my hobbies, I now see that authenticity, respect, and loving kindness are more important.

A breakup can be a gift. 

Williams writes that people who can tell themselves a good story about what happened are better able to see their grief, more able to see themselves as interconnected to a larger purpose. Like Williams, I am still struggling to find “narrative coherence” after my heartbreak, but I know there can be great awe in passing through pain, and it is quite possible that pain is the best path toward achieving awe. 

In the early days of my heartbreak, I turned repeatedly to the ocean, paddling out and just letting myself become flotsam and jetsam for a while. When a big wave crashes down on your head, there’s no doubt at all about who’s in charge. I loved that about the ocean. 

The ocean felt like a healthy escape, but Williams also writes about how the brain reeling from heartbreak can gravitate toward making poor decisions: “Heartbreak is a beast wagging a long tail. It can make you more insecure, more likely to make poor decisions, and more prone to behaviors that are bad for you… turpitude, stupidity, poor judgement, it’s all right there, documented and quantified in the brains and behaviors of people who have experienced abandonment, loss, and the natural consequence of those conditions: loneliness.” 

Dating right after a heartbreak may not be the best idea, but this is easier said than done.

Williams writes about how her and her therapist “discussed the wisdom of … taking a break from dating…You have a recovery to go through, and you can’t really recover until you feel confident and independent. It takes months. It’s hard to do if you’re infatuated with someone. It just postpones it.”

I see the wisdom, but the desire to escape pain with lust is powerful. 

The neuroscientist John Caccioppo explained to the New York Times: “One of the secrets to a good relationship is being attracted to someone out of choice rather than out of need… We were moving toward something that was really unique.”

I thought about Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape. I needed some of that wisdom. Williams soon learns that turning to the next available warm body isn’t going to save her from grief. She breaks up with one guy and then another, and then writes: “Expect to suffer. You can’t run away from pain for long. You must feel it and then you must wait.”

Breakups have a way of cracking open your life to its seams, but in that process, you learn what seems and what is. I realized who my true friends were, and I also realized that so many people in my community were looking out for me. In the weeks after my breakup, friends invited me to go surfing, my community of sober women held me, and I found solace in books and writing. In the aftermath of my breakup, I turned back to the things that worked, to the things that had always worked: sobriety, writing, reading, friendship, surfing. I thought about my deeper purpose and intention for my writing: to help others; to crack open the silence; to change the narrative.

All these practices helped me to calm down. Williams writes: “When we calm down, the real healing can happen: the emotional growth, cognitive insights, planning for the future, and ability to connect with other people in reciprocal, meaningful ways.” 

Ultimately, I wanted to find ways to feel good as myself, by myself. I knew that only time would help me get there. Williams ultimately comes to similar conclusions.

The thing the heartbroken need most of all is connection. The best part about reading Heartbreak was the feeling of reading the words of a good friend going through a similar thing. It made me feel less lonely. And that’s what we all hope and want in the end.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is a writer, surfer, and poet. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.