Tormented? Driven witless? 99 problems but therapy bills ain't one? Welcome to "Save Your Life, Cheap!" in which we write about the dumb things that get America's uninsured through hard times. AA meetings, James Joyce, Ani di Franco, suicide hotlines…anything nonalcoholic can apply, the more embarrassing the better. Which brings me to: self-help. In our first installment, Sephora Spy's Loren Hunt reviews the $1 book that got her through the worst breakup ever.
So, it's probably safe to make the baseline assumption that self-help books are not the kind of thing that anyone reads because they think it's cool. For some reason, self-loathing became more inherently cool than trying to fix problems, which would explain the aura of lameness surrounding self-help books: the corny covers, the corny catchphrases, the corny jacket photos, and the corny titles, which are invariably presented in a corny (and really large, readable) font. There are no cool self-help books. Cool people do not write self-help books. Happy people write them. And they could give a fuck who thinks they're cool. And you know who else doesn't give a fuck who thinks they're cool? A 23-year-old stripper who just used up every last shred of self-regard finally "breaking up" with the three-timing strip club DJ she had been fucking for the past year. And that, friends, is how I came to appreciate It's Called A Breakup Because It's Broken, the second offering from Greg Berendt of He's Just Not That Into You fame.
Have you ever played yourself so badly in a relationship that even years after the fact the salient details are still enough to embarrass you? The kind of situation so inherently unfortunate that, upon its demise, you don't even want to tell your friends it has ended because they'll just snort, "good," and assume that it is so obvious that you are better off without it that there is nothing left to say on the topic? I met him because we worked together. At the strip club. He was living with his girlfriend when we first started hooking up, while sorting out the details of a divorce to a third woman. Our "relationship" only ever seemed to happen on the weekends, after work, where sometimes we engaged in what he liked to call "non-sex." Non-sex was when we did it, but then he denied doing it. I felt sleazy and dissolute, which, at the time, was novel and exciting. He was so nice when it was just us. And passionate. And caring. And secretly really awesome! I encouraged him to get secretly awesome all over me on and off and on and off for almost a year before I was ready to cut off my drama supply at the source and move on to something possibly healthier. But by then, I'd become attenuated to the bombast and obvious chord progressions of his Bon Jovi song style of lovin' and everything else just seemed... too quiet. Or subtle. Or something. Which was finally enough to scare me... strip clubs and nocturnal relationships with strip club DJs were supposed to be more of an interesting digression for me than a permanent lifestyle plan, and I felt in danger of falling through one of my own cracks. So I cut him off and stopped going to work lest he use his DJ microphone to manipulate me back into his good graces (this is the beauty of strip club jobs. You can take a week or a month or a year off and no one even notices). It was around then that I found a typo-ridden galley copy of something called It's Called a Breakup Because it's Broken: The Smart Girl's Breakup Buddy. This would have been almost five years ago. It was only a dollar and I thought maybe it would at least entertain me while I prostrated my unwashed body in front of my window unit air conditioner and flipped wildly back and forth between hating him and hating myself, murderous rage and spontaneous crying jags, fantasies in which his head exploded a la Scanners and tender reconciliation scenes that featured me in a trashy white bridal bikini.
It's Called a Breakup Because it's Broken brings the added component of Berendt's wife, Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt, to the wisdom offered up in He's Just Not That Into You, which is the guide to figuring out what's really going on with all that non-sex. (Namely, break up. Or, more commonly, wait for him to break up with you, which leads to that kind of horrible soul-crushing life-wrecking freshly-dumped angst most of us are relatively familiar with.) (I was proud not to have figured out the He's Just Not That Into You part on my own over the course of a year.) Anyway, the basic premise of this book is that the Behrendts were able to fall in love and build a happy relationship purely because both parties lived through a lot of bullshit before they met each other, namely of the breakup variety. Their co-authorship serves as sort of a built-in source of hope to people who are presumably reading the book because they have just had their heart masticated, digested, and flushed down someone else's toilet. They are, thankfully, not particularly obnoxious about this, choosing instead to stick to practical coping methods that you can use to put your breakup in the past and get on with your life.
Part 1: The Breakup
The first thing I couldn't figure out about my breakup was why it hurt so much. I mean, it had been a bad time for which I had for whatever reason repeatedly shown up of my own volition. I should have known better than to get involved in the first place, I knew the whole time nothing good would come of it, and it seemed to me that ending it would be a relief, like walking away from a car crash with only a few scrapes. And sometimes it did feel like that. But more often, it was the usual, "Whyyyy don't youuuu LOVE meee?" shit. Which would in turn make me really angry with myself, like I was so dumb that I had deserved the whole thing. The first section of this book does a good job of talking you down from taking full responsibility for anything other than making sure the broken relationship stays over and consequently taking care of yourself. They're always asking you what you'd want with a broken relationship. Which is the kind of simple logic I needed after spending the past year twisted into a veritable pretzel of denial and convoluted thinking. Then, just to make sure, after asking, the book repeatedly tells you that you don't want a broken relationship so many times that by the second section, it starts to stick.
Part 2: The "Breakover"
Commandment 1 - Don't See Him or Talk to Him for Sixty Days: Actually, it is that simple, it's just not that easy. If you were quitting smoking, you wouldn't buy cigarettes, hang out with people who smoked cigarettes, go to places where people were smoking cigarettes, or get drunk and call cigarettes at 4 A.M. begging them to come over for one last smoke.
I was all set to argue with this like, "this is exactly what I would do if I were quitting smoking!" Then I remembered that I was still a smoker! They, um, refer to this as "he-tox." I picked up a few phone calls I shouldn't have during this period of time, but for the most part, I stayed away. The thing about my ex was that he was super-charming and looked like an underwear model. I did not stand a chance in the same room as him and I knew it; hence the entire non-relationship. I stayed away like my life depended on it, which, looking back, it kind of did. Not that he was ever abusive or dangerous. It had more to do with the kind of life I wanted to live, a life in which my boyfriend would publicly admit he was my boyfriend and hang out with me during daylight hours. Bare minimum.
Commandment 2 - Get Yourself A Breakup Buddy 'But he was my best friend.' So was that girl who smelled like egg salad in the third grade, but you don't still need her around, do you?
The breakup buddy is like the Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor of broken hearts, dedicated to raising your morale and being on call for commiseration, all the while keeping you committed to your sixty day he-tox. Personally, I was so embarrassed by the fact that I'd allowed myself to be in a relationship so royally screwed up that my non-boyfriend habitually disappeared when the sun came up that I didn't really want to talk about it anymore by the time the breakup happened. A big part of making the break, for me, was to finally admit that the relationship had even happened, since he'd been extremely adamant about keeping it hidden at work. I cried on my friend Tiffany, a fellow stripper who knew him, a few times, and that was pretty much that.
Commandment 3 - Get Rid of His Stuff and the Things That Remind You of Him Be strict about it, but reasonable as well. Let's not pack up all the glasses because he loved orange juice, but the framed pictures of the two of you, his toothbrush and toiletries, and his CDs have to go.
The Behrendts also recommend recruiting your breakup buddy to deliver your stuff back to your ex so that you don't have to break your he-tox period and risk backsliding by doing it yourself. This was probably the most effective chapter for me, because it required absolutely no hard labor: I didn't have any of his stuff. Even after a year. This spoke volumes I was finally ready to listen to.
Commandment 4 - Get Your Ass in Motion Every Day Besides, you've got to have a life, because when you do meet the next guy and he asks you what you're into, you don't want to say, 'My ex-boyfriend.'
That is some real talk. The book predictably advocates exercise as a good way to fill your newly empty days, but it takes into account the fact that when you're truly devastated, getting out of bed counts as an achievement. Then it discusses hobbies, as well as making a list of all the things you didn't do because you were with whoever and doing them all by yourself. When I was ready to get off the couch, I walked into another, better strip club and got another job. It was so easy I suddenly understood why he'd been so clingy even while totally unwilling to behave the way a real boyfriend should: he'd known that this day would come. He'd been wondering what was taking me so long. And the bonus of working at a club that he did not also work at was turned out to be that he wasn't there to distract me. I rearranged my whole work strategy and finally started making the kind of money they tell you strippers make.
Commandment 5-Don't Wear Your Breakup Out Into the World Indulging in messy public breakup behavior only makes those around you uncomfortable and makes you seem unstable. So keep it to yourself and your dearest friends after business hours, and make a pact with yourself to try to live the vision of what you want your life to look like. Every time you step outside, you should make an effort to reflect the person you are on your way to becoming, not the shell of the shattered woman he dumped. Turn that husk into a tamale!
Tamale status begins with dressing cute at all times and refraining from crying at work. Earlier in the book, they reference the Lili Taylor character from Say Anything, the one accompanying herself on guitar to a song called "Joe Lies" in the middle of a party. And here is the thing about that character: what is awesome and hilarious at a party in a a romantic comedy is pathetic and uncomfortable at an actual party, for everyone, except at the time perhaps the one too grief-stricken and wounded to care much about superficial shit like "pride" and "dignity" in the moment, but oh my god that will change. The book recommends that you abstain from this kind of behavior, and I was good at this. Few people who knew both of us even really knew we were dating, and would have been surprised at the level of involvement and how hard I was taking it if they did know. I kept doing like I'd been doing and eventually started believing that it hadn't been such a big deal. In a lot of ways, it began to seem mutually convenient that we hadn't had a "real" relationship. I realized this a few months later when I attempted to be a breakup buddy to Moe and had the distinct pleasure of watching her send a text to her ex that read "I want to shit in your eye." I laughed hysterically. I probably wasn't cut out to be a breakup buddy.
Commandment 6 - No Backsliding! Once you give in to it, you find yourself caught in the worst kind of relationship purgatory-the demotion-because you are in effect telling your ex that he can still have access to you WITHOUT the emotional responsibilities. Backsliding doesn't mean you're getting back together, it just means you've lowered your standards and accepted a demotion from ex-girlfriend with self-esteem to ex-girlfriend whom he can still get busy with if he wants to.
Ouch. The fact that my entire non-relationship was a demotion out of the gate was ample reason for me to avoid backsliding. That didn't mean I didn't want to hear his voice or turn the lights on to inspect his perfect hip ridges up close one more time. But I didn't. Okay, I did, but years later, and when I was totally over him. They really are perfect! But by then, I felt like Jennifer Connelly at the end of Labyrinth, surprising herself by realizing that it's actually true when she says to David Bowie, "you have no power over me." This day will come. You know it will come. So think of it this way; the faster you stop having unsatisfying, emotionally fraught post-breakup sex with your ex, the quicker you'll be able to have hot unattached meaningless sex with him!
Commandment 7 - It Won't Work Unless You Are Number One! You are the prize, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Not him or anyone else. You can love your friends, you can love your family, and you can love every stray dog or stray drummer that crosses your path. HOWEVER, you have to learn how to love yourself, like yourself, and put yourself first before you will ever find the healthy, loving, and lasting relationship you're looking for.
Yeah, this is the hard one. Do I love myself yet? I'm getting closer all the time! I haven't begged anyone to use me as a convenient repository for all of their bullshit quite as flagrantly as I did while dating the DJ, and my boyfriends have become increasingly realer and realer as time has passed, with none of them counting as completely brutally gnarly Bad Ideas. I'd call it progress. While I have not yet found the healthy, loving, and lasting relationship I'd like to have yet, it is also true that I've gotten infinitely better at coping with the resultant breakups and in the process, wasted a lot less of my own time. I'm still not sure that rules are necessarily as ruthlessly applicable to the human heart in the way that the Behrendts suggest they might be, but I do have faith that I will now be able to recognize which rules are made to be broken in a way that I didn't before.