Going Through a Breakup

How work and friends helped me (somewhat) regain my inner balance
JUN 2019
Anna
I.
Brain and Cognitive Sciences

I came back to Boston after a month of traveling to find out that my boyfriend and I had fallen out of love. After an ever-difficult conversation during a rainy September night, I was faced with the necessity to adjust to my “single” relationship status while staying on top of my responsibilities as a graduate student.

My previous strategies for dealing with personal issues included:

a. Spending a lot of time alone.
b. Netflix.

Both of them allowed me to avoid talking/thinking about the breakup, which seemed to be a good idea at the time. It really wasn’t.

Luckily, this time I realized that the fastest path to recovery would have to incorporate two highly valued aspects of my life – my work and my friends.

Work

The morning after the breakup I was supposed to go to Longwood to attend a one-day symposium on human brain evolution. After a mostly sleepless night, I had no particular desire to go anywhere at all. Nonetheless, I gathered my willpower and dragged myself to the event.

The auditorium was full of strangers, so I felt like nobody would notice if my eyes occasionally welled with tears. Twenty minutes in, however, I was surprised to find myself not only dry-eyed, but also deeply engaged with the talks. They had little to do with my research — in fact, my favorite section of the symposium was about ancient human genomes — but the speakers’ enthusiasm and the elegance of their ideas reminded me how much I love science and how lucky I am to spend my days seeking answers to exciting questions.

Later that day I had a meeting with an undergrad who wanted to work in my lab. Although I was a mess inside, our conversation went surprisingly smoothly. My advisor and I had just come up with a brand-new project idea: we wanted to study the neural basis of computer programming (cool topic, isn’t it?), and needed a student who could help us write snippets of Python code we could show to programmers while measuring their brain activity.

After I enthusiastically described the project to the undergrad, he seemed more than happy to contribute. He even asked whether he could work in the lab through the summer (reminder, this was back in September). We both left happy with the meeting’s results, and I thanked my science self for staying engaged and excited no matter what challenges my personal self had to deal with.

Friends

Research turned out to be a useful distraction, but I still needed to accept the fact that I was dealing with a breakup. Sadness and loneliness were starting to take their toll on me — and the best way to deal with those emotions was to connect with people who cared.

I am a fairly private person, so I wouldn’t normally talk about relationship stuff at work. However, when a friend came up to me saying “Hey, how is it going? What’s new?”, it just felt wrong to say “I’m good”. When I told him what happened, he gave me a warm hug (I still think about that hug every time I meet him in the hallway) and offered to hang out whenever I felt like it. Two days later, he and his girlfriend invited me to have dinner with them. As the evening went on, I felt the loneliness and sadness slowly loosen their grip — even though we mostly chatted about everyday topics. Later, my friend quietly sneaked out and intercepted the waiter in order to pay for our dinner. The support he provided that night made all the difference.

My roommate also went out to dinner with me a couple of times during that first post-breakup week. We had known each other for a year but had just started to live together. Her company was incredibly helpful, and the heart-to-heart conversations we had during those dinners made us bond even more.

The final important factor in my recovery were conversations with my friends from around the world. Having grown up in Russia, studied abroad in Singapore, and lived in a few different US cities, I have a network of friendships that spans multiple continents. It’s very cool, but as a result, I sometimes lose touch with close friends. That week, I used the free evenings I now had to reconnect. Sharing breakup news is never fun, but there were multiple people in my network who, I knew, would want to know. Some of them called back that same day, while others sent messages of support. My friends’ virtual presence helped me remember that I’m not alone, and, thanks to them, I could start to recover some of my self-worth.

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My ex-boyfriend and I ended up getting back together that November — only to break up again a few months later. This time, however, I was prepared. The day after the breakup I went to work as usual: I had data to analyze and a research talk to attend, and I knew I would enjoy doing both. In the middle of the talk, however, I took out my phone and texted a friend:

“Can we get drinks tonight?”