While I have been happy for the latter third of my existence, the prior two thirds were a might miserable. The recipe for my unhappiness combined a half cup each of fear and low self-esteem and began with a heaping helping of heartache. Heartache is one of those words we feel certain we must surely know the definition of without benefit of a dictionary. However, all heartaches are defined by the individual’s experiences. Each of us closely carries our personal tales of woe. Some have made us and some have broken us.
My thought is that happiness and heartache are extreme emotional responses to the outcome of our expectations. Happiness is a fulfilled hope, like Santa stuffs your stocking with a ticket to Disneyworld and a couple thousand bucks spending cash. Heartbreak is the unmet expectation of a heart’s hope, such as your failure to make the basketball team because you’re not tall, fast, or popular enough. I got over it. Where heartbreak is the initial response to the incident, heartache is the emotional result. And like a personal tsunami, the loss of one’s heart’s desire can so devastate someone as to stunt life’s progress ever after. Although my heartaches took me down, eventually one was responsible for my comeback.
Topping my list of heartaches are my painful relationship breakups. These are followed by numerous shrunken sweaters and shirts, several car-flattened cats, and the self-portrait in charcoal of my twelve-year-old self destroyed in my flooded basement. But it was those pesky breakups that caused the constant cloud over my existence for a very long time. I know our parental relationships set the stage for our intimate relationships to follow. I used to read Cosmo magazine in the ’90s.
My story tells of a couple who took Vegas vows and ventured across country with a six-month-old and a six-year-old and their own parental heartaches in tow. They were the children of alcoholics. In their families, anger, fear, and betrayal were relationship building blocks. Nothing was ever good or good enough. I was the baby raised in their familiar vacuum of shame and blame. Misery was inevitable for all of us.
No surprise that my primary heartbreak was my dad’s departure and my parents’ divorce. My mom was in mourning as she hung the Pooh party decorations from the chandelier for my fifth birthday party. He’d been emotionally missing for a while and it was time his body moved out as well. His second wife has enjoyed his company since. It was now just Mom, me, and my sister and our abandonment felt like a perpetual hangover. We each coped with the loss in our own ways. My sister withdrew and eventually escaped by going away to college. My mom took a hiatus in a “facility” during which, she entrusted our care to her mother, a controlling anxiety-riddled Baptist. My mom then distracted herself with a bachelor’s degree in acting as well as a revolving cast of friends, young lovers, and jobs in which she would often recast herself as a victim. Although she’s tried, she’s never recovered from the divorce.
I too had expected my love affair with my father to continue for the rest of my life. As a daughter, my birthright was to have my father’s respect teach me self-respect. However, my father was too busy becoming rich and renowned, trying to gain custody of me, and being angry with my mom, to be able focus on the love and respect between us. Eventually he gave up and so did I.
The truest tragedy of my father’s departure was my realization that I wasn’t entitled to my expectations of him and the devastating ramifications of this on my personal worth. If I had been “good enough,” he would have stayed. And the inevitable loss of self-esteem and the rise of self-hatred became my foremost heartache. The greatest misfortune of our childhoods is how we misunderstand our miseries. As children, we are the victims of our caretakers’ bad choices and chance. They screw up and we become screwed up. But as children, we are egotists. We think everything results from our wants, needs, and sheer importance. And events and people stop because either we cease to need them, or we are deficient. The sun sets because I go to sleep. And Daddy left because I was unworthy of his love.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say my sister and mother felt this way too. Mom could not save me from my low self-worth because she was drowning in it too. I would then repeatedly recreate my perceived unworthiness as well. Like many “fatherless” teen girls, I used my sexual power to get attention and assembled my own parade of emotionally unavailable boys with addiction problems. When they inevitably left, or I left them, I had successfully recreated my abandonment. I was the perpetual victim. I was defective, unworthy, and lost. I was living a self-inflicted life sentence of emotional abandonment.
Fast forward to age twenty-three and I marry the sad clown. We were a match, both casualties of our childhoods making us equally witty and jaded. I was determined to squeeze love from that stone and thus prove my lovability by fixing him. I took care of his misery for over eight years. Even after I’d become a statistic in domestic violence and mental abuse, I was still there experiencing the perpetual heartache of, “If he loved me, he would change.” Eight years later, as I searched my soul for a way out, I caught sight of the final and biggest heartbreak to come: I had chosen my torture. I had chosen this man to hurt myself as I accused him of my persecution. I could have chosen to leave all along but didn’t think myself worthy of anything more and I chose to stay. And I had disguised these un-decisions with a litany of lame excuses. The concepts of divorce, moving, and change had smacked of so much effort. But it had still been my decision. My heart ripped open and I began to wail.
I grieved the loss of my innocence and my wasted twenties. I grieved the self-inflicted pain and the abusive relationships I’d chosen to endure. I grieved the abandonment of my towheaded little girl inside that furthered my feelings of unworthiness. I grieved my chosen punishment as an abused wife. And I grieved for anyone who has thought their power was not theirs. My ultimate heartache was that I gave away my choice of happiness because that was something other people enjoyed. My heartaches had been self-inflicted. The heartache that began with my parents’ choices had become a life sentence of misery issued by the world. In the end, however, I had discovered I was the Great and Powerful Oz; the one behind the curtain manipulating the ropes to deliver my miserable outcome.
As I worked through my grieving process, I chose to return my heart to my child within. I vowed to trust myself to care take of her as a loving and protective parent would. Then I endeavored to re-earn my trust. I started with the reclamation of my power to choose. I could choose to be the damage or I could choose to be the change. And no one would “make me” do anything ever again. Nor would I be “done to.” By taking my power back, I released my martyr and promoted the heroine within. I found the strength and self-pride to give up on my marriage and walk away. Two months later, I met my baby’s daddy and said hello to happiness.
We have been together for twelve years, married for ten. I truly do believe “everything happens for a reason” even, and especially, when events aren’t expected. I am just where I am supposed to be. We’ve had heartbreaks of lesser degrees during these past dozen years yet I have always felt unconditionally loved by my husband. And mostly, my trust in myself and my decisions has taken care of me and mine since.
It would seem heartache is often a noble and admirable byproduct of being human. As the fountainhead for incredible art, literature, and music, heartache inspires people to create masterpieces as monuments to their pain. We appreciate and can acknowledge our own heartaches through their works. Art teachers have shown me there are no actual lines in nature, only contrasting areas of light and dark. In the same way, happiness defines heartache.
If life is a piece of artwork in progress, then change is just a chosen key or brushstroke away. Intentional and deliberate, we can edit what doesn’t feel right until we are left with our truth, be it pleasant or abrupt. We tell our stories and if the voice and words feels right and truthful to us, than they are. Our opinion of ourselves is the one that creates all others, not the other way around. And we can proudly give of our hearts because they are works of art created by life and edited by us.