Two months ago a relationship ended that absolutely broke my heart. Mostly no one knows about this.
I loved this man. He’s a good a person. I believe he truly cared about me. We had three months of intense phone conversations that lasted for hours. We had private jokes. We had shared dreams. It was long distance, but he came out twice and spent the better part of a week or more with me both times. We cooked. We flew hawks. We schemed. He quickly became my best friend. Then he had a family tragedy.
A few months ago he drove away from my house to deal with this family tragedy after an incredibly awesome week together that included some big plans for the future. When he left he promised he would be back and that everything was going to be okay.
And then he stopped communicating with me. He ghosted. I imagine he was doing the best he could with his horrible situation, but after being mostly incommunicado for weeks, it was obvious that what we had was over.
He broke my heart in a way I didn’t know it could be broken.
He broke my heart with silence.
This brought me to my knees, but I kept flying hawks and doing my work when I could manage, and just tried to be present with the heartbreak. Then one afternoon, while I was at lunch with “the girls” they asked me about my love life. So I gave them the cliff notes on the breakup.
One of my single friends looked up at me from her salad and asked with awe, “How are you even getting out of bed?”
I said, “If I was in bed right now, I wouldn’t be enjoying this insanely delicious salmon and brie sandwich. I wouldn’t be laughing with you. I’m just trying to be present.”
And I felt like shit for saying this.
A few days ago I finished Brené Brown’s amazing new book, Rising Strong. At the heart of this book is a clarion call for failure stories. Not just for the thrill of the train wreck or the inspiring bit where we rise up and conquer, but for the part of the story we gloss over, the part where we’re on the mat and watching the ref count us out.
When I was 23, I was a kickboxer. I don’t mean I went to aerobics classes. (Which is honestly probably about all I could manage to do these days.) What I mean is that I trained several hours a day for five days a week, had an amateur license, and fought in real matches.
I trained hard. I ate tuna most meals because I had to lose 5 pounds to get into a better weight class. I dehydrated myself before weigh-ins. I once went a few rounds with Tommy “The Hit Man” Hearns’ sparring partner in training. (He totally schooled me, but that’s another story.) I was very serious about it all. Unfortunately, being serious didn’t make me a particularly talented fighter.
I’ve been thinking about kickboxing a lot lately because I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to fail and how to get back up. In kickboxing getting back up isn’t just a metaphor. It’s something you physically do or do not. There are no points for “try” when you’re on the mat. (Hat Tip to Yoda)
And it’s not just you who hits the mat sometimes. You watch friends, foes, and training partners get knocked down or out. You watch how some people get back up humble and determined, while others get up with a fierce anger that eventually burns them up and how some people simply quit. You watch people manage their fall in a dozen different ways. You have a front row seat to the mysteries of getting back up.
I have a vivid memory of the first time I fell, at my first real match at a casino in Los Angeles. The place was packed with people and my trainer kept suspiciously eying my pallid face and shaking hands. I’ve always had stage fright, but going five rounds in front of a crowd of screaming people? Holy Bread and Circuses. What was I thinking?!
In the end I was simply thinking too much. The girl I fought was much better than me and I couldn’t get out of my head and into the fight. In the corner of the ring, my trainer Lorenzo rinsed the blood out of my mouthpiece and said, “Mija, get your hands up and get in this fight. Don’t make me throw in the towel, not when I know you can do this.”
And I could do it. I stayed in the fight, but I certainly didn’t win. I was relieved when it was over though and more relieved that no one had to throw in the towel. I had lost, but it could have been worse. I consoled myself with the thought that I had done the best I could. Thank God I hadn’t hit the mat.
After the fight, my boyfriend, who also trained with me, found me in the green room. I smiled openly at him expecting encouragement, but he shook his head.
He said, “That was embarrassing. You can fight so much better than that. I’m so disappointed in you.” And then it was if I WAS on the mat with the ref standing over me. This wasn’t the fight I had prepared for, but it didn’t make a difference, I had failed. All of the bruises and blisters, all the watching my boyfriend eat guacamole and chips while I stabbed at a can of tuna, all of that determination had gotten me nowhere but straight to failure and disappointment.
What the hell was the point of anything anyway? Why did I even try?
Our best friend Dave found me later. I was out of my ring clothes and now swaddled in sweats, but with my hands still wrapped from the fight, and quietly crying in a corner. He consoled me, saying that hey, it was your first real fight in front of a big audience.
And I told him what my boyfriend had said. Dave’s face twisted into a look of distain and dismissal that even after twenty years I’ve never seen anyone do so effectively.
“Yeah. But YOU were the one who actually got up in the ring. Fuck him.”
This was my best first lesson about failure and getting back up. I was never a great kickboxer, but I came to understand that failure was inevitable. That anyone who retires undefeated has most definitely quit too soon. That what matters is that you were in the ring. (Hat Tip to Teddy Roosevelt and Brené Brown)
All the same, I’ve never quite mastered the art of getting back up. This, my friends, is a lifetime affair. We should all be talking about the view from the mat.
At lunch with my girlfriends, talking about my breakup, I sounded like a champion.
My single friend sighed and said, “I wish I could be like you. I wish I could just put the hurt away and be so strong.”
I winced. And then I opened my mouth to tell the truth. I wanted to say:
“Oh, but I hurt. I hurt so bad I have to remind myself to breathe. The first thing I do after I wake up is cry every morning. Sometimes in these moments I text and beg him to talk to me. And then when he doesn’t, late at night, after a few shots of tequila, I text something bitter and angry. Then I delete the messages out of my phone because I’m embarrassed of both. I suck at this. I’m terrified it will never end. I wonder what is wrong with me – if I’m irrevocably broken. I’m a hot mess. Don’t take any advice from me. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I’ve hit the mat and I can’t get back up!!”
Instead I serenely said, “I had three amazing months. A couple weeks of heartbreak seems like a fair trade off.”
I did a huge disservice to my friends by not being honest about how hard it was to be flat on my face on the floor. Yes, I was back on my feet, but it would have been more helpful to honest about how my legs were so wobbly that I’d be back down shortly and that the battle was still being waged. I should have told them I was fragile and human and asked for a hug. I should have given them a front row seat to the ring and let them see the struggle, help if they could, and more importantly see that it wasn’t just them. It’s all of us.
So to make amends, I’m telling you.
It sucks on the mat, my dear friends. And the ref may very well count you out. And the worst part is that you’re going to have to decide whether or not you’re in for the next fight. But just so you know, it’s not just you. It sucks on the mat. It hurts. It’s disorienting. It’s humiliating. And most people don’t just bounce right back up. If they say they did – well, they are lying.
All the same every time you hit the mat, you learn something new about yourself while you’re sprawled there. And I believe that as ugly and distasteful as the struggle to get back up is, it is truly one of the most beautiful things that humans are capable of doing.
And it DOES get easier. If you tend your wounds, grieve your loss, reflect on your weaknesses, strengths and strategy, then you are going to get to your feet faster every time. If you do this, then it is SO worth scheduling the rematch. It is SO worth being in the ring. It actually IS worth the broken heart.