science of us

The Day I Discovered Heartbreak Adrenaline

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Last year I went through a breakup, and it sucked. He moved out of the apartment we’d been sharing — out of state, actually, sort of abruptly. It was good, though: It was for a good reason and a good opportunity. Blah, blah. It left me alone in the apartment, which was also good, in some ways, but which also sucked, in others. I could’ve stayed there — it was a nice place — but the lease was almost up, and I kind of wanted a clean start and a smaller home. So I got a new job and a new apartment with a new lease.

The old apartment was a two-bedroom on the ground floor, and I’d been the last in a long string of roommates, so there was a lot of furniture there that I didn’t know the origins of. The big couch in particular was a source of concern, because I wasn’t sure how something so big had gotten down the building’s narrow hallway in the first place, and so I put off figuring out its removal until almost last.

I put most of the furniture I didn’t need out on the sidewalk and posted notes about it on Craigslist. The big couch was stained and sagging, however, and I figured its time had come, so I wanted to put it in the actual trash. A friend had tipped me off to New York’s wonderful “Bulk Item Disposal” service, which comes by and picks up pretty much anything you want if you schedule an appointment ahead of time. I figured I’d need another person to help me bring the couch out when the day came, though, since it was so big. Planning this made me a little sad, and a little excited. Do I ask my friend Sara who lives in the neighborhood? Do I meet a cute guy and ask him to help me? Do I ask a guy friend, or one of my brothers, to take the train all the way down just to help me move one dumb piece of furniture? I didn’t know, and I dragged my feet, imagining a future self who would want to go on dates and talk to people. And meanwhile the couch kind of weighed on me. It was like I could feel it weighing on my heart, which sounds melodramatic, but I couldn’t really envision my exciting new future because my thoughts kept drifting to this couch at the center of it all. Maybe the couch represented my ex-boyfriend, or the whole relationship, or my own failures.

In any case, I thought you could make an online appointment with the oversize-trash truck any old day, and that they’d come pick your stuff up the next morning, so I put off doing it until what I thought was a day that gave me a lot of leeway, but in reality the truck comes only once a week, and by the time I was making the appointment, it turned out that if I didn’t get the couch out before dawn the next day — and, ideally, within the actual hour that I’d made the appointment — I’d miss my only opportunity to get this dang couch picked up. I emailed Sara to see if she could come help me, but she was out of town. Damn, I thought. God damn it. I felt so stupid: I can’t even get this dumb couch out, I can’t manage a home, I can’t earn money, I’m an idiot, no wonder he, etc.

But then I was like, you know what? What if I just TRIED. What if I just tried to get the couch out on my own. And so I went over and tried to pick it up, and the couch turned out to be manageably light. I almost laughed. It was still like six feet long, and unwieldy, but it was relatively easy to pivot around and slide on its upholstery.

I tried to take it out the front door, but it got stuck in the hallway. I tried to scoot it through the front window, but it was too small. How did this stupid couch get into this stupid apartment, I thought, and why am I too stupid to figure it out? After my initial rush at realizing the couch’s lightness, as the minutes wore on, the couch still inside, I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about crying. I thought about getting in touch with my newly-ex-boyfriend to ask him what the deal was, but that felt too pathetic, plus it’s not like there was some kind of secret option (“press a hidden button and it will collapse”), and there was a good chance that the couch had predated him, anyway.

I’m going to get this done, I thought, or something like that, and the next few minutes were a blur. I tried the front hallway again, thinking I might somehow boost the couch up over the stairs on my back. By sheer luck, this time I scooted it out facing the opposite direction, which bought me a couple more inches, and it just! Barely! Fit! OUT OF THE BUILDING.

Oh, my God. It felt so good. It also felt a little surreal. Maybe the lesson is that furniture is not actually always that heavy or awkward, but it also felt as if something special had happened — at some point in there when I was about to give up, it felt like I reached down and gripped my own sadness, squeezing it into another shape that was something like power: I keep visualizing it as the glowing green nugget in the Simpsons intro, but long and purple — my hand gripping a glowing purple rod, my sadness turned radioactive — and that I used it to power myself.

Standing on the sidewalk, I was sweaty and dirty and felt kind of like She-Ra. I mentioned the experience to a friend (actually, I mentioned it in great detail to anyone who would listen). My friend, the cartoonist Jessica Olien, said she’d experienced something similar. “Heartbreak adrenaline,” she called it.

Oh, HELL YES, I thought. That’s exactly what is is. Hearing these words was its own kind of secondary rush. The idea of “heartbreak adrenaline” reminded me of the stories I’d heard about mothers who’d suddenly, miraculously, summoned the strength to free trapped children from under cars and trucks. It hadn’t been that, exactly, but it wasn’t nothing. It really had felt like a kind of sadness-driven turbo-boost, and identifying it so precisely was its own kind of pleasure, its own kind of release. It felt like creating a little bridge out of my own heart. If there’s a name for it, other people have felt it too. The idea was liberating.

Months later, I learned about a concept called “emotional granularity.” The Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett writes about it often, including in her (excellent) book How Emotions Are Made. I think my brush with “heartbreak adrenaline” qualifies. The idea is that identifying one’s own particular feeling with granular precision can be both relieving and comforting. It works even if you have to make a name up yourself — and maybe, especially if you make it up yourself. I loved the example she once gave of “chiplessness:” the particular brand of sadness that comes when you run out of chips. More serious examples include the feeling of schadenfreude — and how naming the churning, dark pleasure of watching other people fail can alleviate the guilt of it, for better or worse. Or hygge, even. (“Yes, that’s exactly how I feel and what I want to do, and now I feel better about doing exactly that.”) Coming up with a precise word for something can almost grant you a kind of permission to do it.

Giving these feelings names, like “heartbreak adrenaline,” also helps crystallize them — for me, I envisioned it as having pinned a feeling down so that I could better examine it, laugh about it, and talk about it with others. The experience was unexpectedly freeing, too. Ah, so that’s what it was. Naming it also released it. So, the idea of emotional granularity is something of a paradox — naming a particular feeling can both pin it down and provide a way for it to be released. Coming up with your own emotional granularity can feel like carving a Harold and the Purple Crayon–style door in the wall of your own emotions. “Yes, that’s the one,” I think, naming the feeling. “Now you can pass through and be on your way.” (That’s me talking to the emotion itself, as it walks off through the door I’ve created for it.)

I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t over it, I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t depressed, I wasn’t excited. I mean, I was all of those things, and other things, but for a little while I was high on what I truly believe to have been heartbreak adrenaline.

I should probably say that I know that adrenaline is an actual, chemical thing — not something I can just make up — but at the same time, I kind of think that is what happened: some sort of hormonal, emotional, physical stew, giving me a sort of power-sadness. I stand by it! Of course, another moral of this story is to always try turning a piece of furniture around if you’re having trouble moving it.

The Day I Discovered Heartbreak Adrenaline