Moving On: The Post-Breakup Apartment

Moving On: The Post-Breakup Apartment
Heartbreak

"It's a little strange here," I wrote in my journal on the first night alone in my new apartment. It was a small concession, wedged between a list of to-do's ("paint my walls," "need lamps…better linen…a new comforter") and things done ("unpacked," "straightened up my files"). The overall sentiment about my new world order? "It is a fairly good feeling."

After the past six months, you'd think my newly acquired independence would kick open a door that led toward more triumphant living. Living with my ex-boyfriend during that time, I yearned for my own space. I would meditate on a vision of myself in the near future: Sitting in a living room, alone, quiet, content. I got the living room, I had the silence, there was no one to interrupt. The "content" part was hard to come by. I didn't feel so much free as I did hemmed in by the small quarters. Instead of feeling satisfied I could only ask: Had I simply switched cages?

"For many, many people, a tested or failed relationship is the gateway into their most formative Phoenix Process," writes Elizabeth Lesser, author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. Lesser describes that process as the path to inner peace; to willingly undergo it is to be changed by "the shattered pieces of a difficult time" and come out for the better. "Our illusions, our rigidity, our fear, our blame, our lack of faith, and our sense of separation: All of these—in varying strengths and combinations—are what must die in order for a more true self to arise."

The size of my apartment seemed to anchor my perceived inadequacies. By the time I found it, I was so desperate I would've agreed to pretty much anything within my price range. So when I walked into the 300 square foot "starter apartment" for less than $1,300 a month, my absolute ceiling on what I could afford, I felt the urge to snap it up. Especially since there was another man who saw it immediately after I did and wanted it as well. Never mind that the bathroom was tiled a Pepto-Bismol pink or that the place had only one window or that the foyer wood floor was anything but level.

When I moved in, all of my furniture—one half of a green sectional sofa, a queen-size bed, a bureau dresser, and a small ladder desk and accompanying bookshelf—barely fit into the main space. It was all I could do to shove everything against the wall, creating a narrow pathway to the window. Because the place was small, things got cluttered quickly and overall, the apartment felt cramped. I was embarrassed to have people over because of the unfortunate layout of my furniture. The only seating available on the sofa pretty much limited conversation since no one could really speak face-to-face. After a while, even I didn't want to be in the apartment. I grew resentful that I was stuck with furniture fit for a master bedroom, all cramped together in my tiny studio. I cultivated a limitless reserve of small-apartment jokes.

It wasn't until the lightbulb went out in my study/bedroom/living room that I confronted my darkest thoughts. It was late, and I didn't have any lamps to compensate. The super wasn't calling back. There was no ladder. I had to change it myself, which culminated in my stacking my thickest books—a dictionary and a compendium of essays on living in New York among them—onto my dresser and then standing on that in three-inch heels, to achieve the height necessary to reach the bulb on the ceiling. The ruse was a success, but back on safe ground, I considered the ridiculousness of the gambit. If I fell, I could have broken my neck and then what? How long would it be before anyone knew I was gone?

The thought of dying alone suddenly put loneliness in perspective. I avoided the apartment because being alone there was too depressing. Staying in was usually a one-woman pity party, a cascade of negative thoughts triggering second guesses about the decision I had made to leave a comfortable nest with my ex. What if I made a terrible mistake and what lay in store was nothing but misery? Julie, a twenty-something recruiter based in Dallas, can relate. When she finally broke up with Peter, her boyfriend of four years, and moved into her own apartment, she recalls being constantly afraid. "I cried a lot," she says. "I didn't eat very much. I stared at the wall and didn't want to talk to anyone."

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Apparently Julie and I went through a particular stage in my Phoenix Process, one that Lesser referred to as "the great loneliness." "It seems we too must go through a time when life as we know it is over," she writes, "when being a caterpillar feels somehow false and yet we don't know who we are supposed to become…. And though we must make the journey alone and even if suffering is our only companion, soon enough we will become a butterfly, soon enough we will taste the rapture of being alive." Lesser acknowledges that the Phoenix Process is different experience for everyone and there is no set timetable for how long it will last. The trick is to embrace the difficulty and trust that it will somehow rejuvenate you in unexpected ways.

For the most part, I got over the fear and loneliness by creating small rituals involving friends and family. My best friend and I began a Sunday walking tradition, to try to discover as much of the city as possible. It was a way for me to walk off my angst. I wrote my parents a letter each week to let them know what was going on in my life. I kept a journal, reminding myself of my master plan and why leaving Nathan, my ex, was necessary. I read as much as I could, an activity whose first lesson, as author Jonathan Franzen put it, teaches one how to be alone.

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But it wasn't until I redecorated my apartment that things changed for the better. I had struggled to keep the space tidy, so not as to be bombarded with clutter. But even in its most immaculate space, my apartment still depressed me and left me foggy-headed about me, my future, and my place in the world. What I needed was wholesale change and lots more space. But my plan was put off for some time because I simply couldn't afford to get a new, downsized bed, a smaller sofa, perhaps a coffee table. I settled on getting nice curtains and new bedding instead. My most dramatic decision? To paint the walls a bright cranberry color.

I spent months deciding the new color, and on the day I was to go to Home Depot to purchase the paint, I balked. If I were to bring a guy home with me, wouldn't the cumulative effect of red walls in a small cave of a place be similar to announcing "Welcome to my vagina"? I nixed the color and decided to just move the furniture around. In doing so, I opened up the room and created a faux living area, with the sofa and my reading chair set across from the other. There was even room for a small coffee table when the time comes to buy one, no hurry. I put up pictures I wanted, and stowed the ones I never cared for. When I was done, I sat in my room awestruck at the overall effect—a difference that was made simply by moving things around. I no longer felt cramped. I was alone, yes, but not lonely. I felt comfortable and happy to be exactly where I was.

That night, January 21, 2008, I was much more specific when it came to capturing my feelings on the new change. "I've arrived," I wrote. "Didn't feel it six months ago when I first moved in but now, at this moment, my heart is full, my head is clear, and I can't wait to see what happens next."

This is the final essay in Pilar Anderson's three-part breaking up series.

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