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A few months after Peter and I broke up, I reached into my guitar case to grab a pick. I shifted blindly through dozens of them and pulled out a flexible orange one with a turtle on it. The sight of it made me cry.
I had tried to throw it away after Pete and I broke up, along with a couple happy pictures of us, and the leather bracelets we bought together, but my sappy 17-year-old self simply couldn’t part with that pick. It brought back memories of Pete and I playing guitar together, fingers cramping, hearts pounding, smiling at each other. But it wasn’t all sentimental -- apart from Pete, I really loved that stupid pick. It sounded so silky smooth going over my guitar strings and molded perfectly to my fingers when I played.
13 years later, I still have that pick.
Pete cheated on me, and I was so mad after we broke up that I demanded he give back the Pearl Jam T-shirt I had left at his house.
“Uh, I thought you gave that to me,” he said, bewildered that I was asking for it.
“Just leave it outside your house for me, or I’ll talk to your mom,” was my very mature 17-year-old response.
That breakup was bad enough without the knowledge that he had my favorite T-shirt.
I was sort of doing Pete a favor. In essence, I was making him purge, and ridding him of a reminder, a rather nice reminder, of my existence, and my impact on his life.
While I’m sure we’ve all longed for memory removal a la "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" after breakups, there’s also a wretched joy in being reminded of our exes, and remembering the people we were when we were with them. Purging is important, but some things you simply can’t part with.
I have a very hard time getting over people I once loved. I’ve gotten better with age, but I used to attach immense emotional value to inanimate objects. Was I really still connected to the guy because I was wearing the tinny-smelling bird necklace he bought me? Probably not, but somehow it made the transition from couple to single a little bit easier.
Rituals are an interesting part of my post breakup game. They can help cleanse you of the past and allow you to put forward a fresh new foot in your brand new single life. It’s oddly centering to sit down, put on some James Taylor, and go through images of the two of you together to decide which pictures you want to keep or get rid of. I also like to drive really fast while singing along with “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” but that’s only for the direst of breakups.
One of my favorite episodes of “Friends” is the one where Monica, Phoebe and Rachel start a garbage can fire in their living room to burn mementos from relationships gone by.
When it’s a no-good, very bad, horrible romantic situation you’re getting out of, the urge to purge is strong, and quite necessary.
My worst break up came after a long, rough go with a man I’m now pretty sure had narcissistic personality disorder. We broke up, I went to stay at my sister’s house for the night, and when I returned to our condo the next day to walk our dog, a brand new lock that didn’t fit my key greeted me. I stood there in my sad green rain boots and a hoodie, and nearly passed out from the grief of seeing my dog happily bopping up and down in the window at the sight of me.
Within 12 hours, my ex had the locks changed, emptied our joint bank accounts, tried to remove my name from our mortgage and land title, and refused to let me see my beloved dog.
I let this happen because I was petrified of him and what he might do if I reacted like a not-traumatized person would in that situation, which is: ‘WHAT THE F, MAN?!”
It was heartbreak that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but I got through it, eventually collected my things, and spent the next month or so couch surfing. I couldn't afford to haul and store all of my things, so I got rid of a lot.
It was a forced purge, but a necessary one.
Our relationship had been largely materialistic. He’d treat me poorly, and instead of apologizing, or trying to make a positive change, he’d buy me things to quell the tension. A dress here, a pair of shoes there. I knew it was wrong to live that way, but that was his way, and it had become my normal.
I sold and gave away a lot of the things he had bought for me, but one weekend, as I readied myself to sell a cute, blue knit Betsey Johnson dress that I loved, because it reminded me of him, my mom sat me down. "I think it's time you reclaim some of these items as your own,” she said. “You don't have to throw everything away. If you like the dress, keep it."
I did. In essence, I had paid for it anyway, or would have to. He paid with the credit card we shared, and since I was primary account holder, I inherited and was responsible to pay off that, and a ton of other debt. (My next article should be about what not to do financially in relationships.)
My mom’s comment made me reflect on the meanings we assign to material things, and how that meaning is intensified after a break up. Not everything has to be ruined by the person who gave it to you, even if he was an asshole. I still think of him when I put that blue dress on, but now it’s my own resilience I’m reminded of.
In my experience, a lot of the crap I have collected during relationships, due to sappiness and my hoarder tendencies, must be thrown out when things end.
Throughout my dating career, I’ve kept movie tickets, napkins from nice restaurants, dried flowers that used to be alive, love notes, newspaper clippings, rocks, seashells, and other inanimate objects that are excellent fodder for a post-breakup good-riddance.
Whether you’re sentimental or not, it’s important to let go of the negative stuff that comes with a breakup, even a relatively healthy one. This doesn’t always have to be physical. Sometimes letting go can be as simple as talking it over with friends or a therapist, meditating, running, taking a trip, doing kick boxing, listening to music, or achieving that elusive but needed closure in some other emotionally productive way.
For the maudlin among us, a big part of letting go of emotional baggage is letting go of the things that carry with them the weight of a relationship you need to move on from.
The catharsis you can experience when you really surrender yourself to what happened and give yourself permission to become the person you know you can be, is incredibly freeing and beautiful.
Sometimes this release comes from tearing up old pictures, and other times, you gotta burn a goddamn wedding dress to rid yourself of the past.
Tell me about your breakup purges! Any rituals?