book excerpt

My Heartbreak Workbook

Somewhere, between my troubles and attempts to fix them, I will find myself.

Illustration: by Agnes Ricart
Illustration: by Agnes Ricart

Understanding the nature of your wound is the key to your healing, for it has affected all your behavior, your decisions, and your life choices, especially in the arena of intimate relationships. It is the healing of our wounds that we seek, consciously or not, in committed relationships. —Harville Hendrix, PhD, Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide

The internet says nobody will love me until I learn to love myself, but the internet never gives instructions. I told myself, “I love you,” but I was thinking, You’re the worst. Nothing would change my mind. What a terrible impasse. The bookstore self-help section, though, said something different: nobody will love me until I engage in sequential self-exploration exercises. Harville Hendrix’s self-help book for wounded singles says there is a riddle wrapped around my heart. I have a highlighter, a composition book, and a pen. I have time. I do not have any better ideas.

🙃 🙃 🙃

The self-help book says the brain turns all that has happened to us into points. From the points, it makes patterns. The book says the collected memories are like pixels in a digital image we store of the only person we believe can close the wound.

The last few years have been like this: a cord of twined images of white boys with plastic glasses and plaid shirts and bad posture and two-thirds-full pints on outdoor bar tables. My finger presses into a flattened mouth to pull it left or right. I could build a man in my sleep. Look:

Whiskey and IPAs. Snowboarding is my life. Been single for a while now due to avoidance of drama but I’m ready to put myself back out there for the right girl. Nice guy, not a serial killer, lol. Looking for my partner in crime.

Bourbon and scotch. The kid is my niece. Just moved back to the northwest. Taking applications for a travel companion. Enjoy a healthy and active lifestyle. I have near perfect straight teeth for never having braces, and have no clue why I don’t smile with my teeth.

Craft beer enthusiast. Not here for hookups. Podcasts, adventures, movies, guitars, hiking, whiskey, dogs, Star Wars, sushi, snack plates, coffee, wine, motorcycles, dancing, drinks, travel, positive vibes, minimalism, bacon, passion. Looking for a discreet lover. Must be fit and in shape. I want us to be like an old Nintendo console: blow on it hard and shove it back in the slot.

School of Hard Knocks, University of Life. 6’1” if it matters. Poly dude with a big heart. I want to beat you at pool. Caring, compassionate, level-headed, drama-free, honest, loyal, humble, passionate, easygoing, funny, adventure-seeking, and so on. Looking for a wife to start a family colony.
420 friendly. I love the outdoors. I am that serial killer you have been looking for lol jk. I enjoy meeting people and going out and trying new things. I like to be active but also enjoy staying in. “Follow your passion, be prepared to work hard and sacrifice, and above all, don’t let anyone limit your dreams.” Must love dogs, be low maintenance and love hiking.

Living every day like it’s my last. I like beautiful smiles. I’m a good guy. Good job. Not an asshole. I love exotic women, and different cultures. What’s your fantasy?

Growing old, but never up. Dream big. Work hard. Die living.

It’s like a game, each match as dopamine-rich as a sunk Skee-Ball: Congratulations! You have a new match.

🔪 🔪 🔪

The self-help book says that when I read it, I’m like a mystery solver. The hurts I can’t get out of my head are clues. People, places, dates, and times: I fill my dossier. Somewhere in the sheaf, between my troubles and attempts to fix them, I will find myself.

When I was fourteen, riding the bus home from school, a boy asked me if he could cut open my chest, pry apart my rib cage with his hands, and rip out my heart.

“Sure,” I said, so he’d like me.

He looked so much like my celebrity crush that he could’ve been his doppelgänger. His name was Salvador, and he was one in a long line of the boys and men I called upon to save me. Not the first or the last, not the worst, not the source, just another crush.

He said he was going to wait to open my rib cage. He said it’s much easier to pry apart a rib cage than you’d think. I started thinking of him as the incubus, something I found on the internet. At night, I kept my bedroom window open and hoped he wouldn’t come in with the spring air, boy turned demon, broad shoulders as vessels for the unfurling of wings.

I stood at the door to the woodshop classroom and watched his hands. If he had opened my chest, he would have found the hole, bigger than a heart and a stomach. I thought it was an organ, maybe the soul I had learned about in Catholic school and imagined as a limp gray sac. The hole had always been there, and when I was little, I filled it with Cadbury Creme Eggs. In high school, I used it as a hiding place for the NyQuil I drank from the Gatorade bottle in my locker. Later, I would keep all sorts of things in the hole: whiskey, Vicodin, cheese, a butterfly knife, Nintendo games, teeth, boxed wine, antipsychotics, condoms. Salvador was expelled for knocking over a soda machine and threatening to kill us all.

🍆 😶 🍓

The self-help book says we face a paradox: relationships inflame the wound, but it’s only through relationships that we’ll heal it. It is not the relationship that fixes us, but the reclamation process we enact through it. We are carrying the picture of the person who can take us through the final movement in our failing search for wholeness. We keep falling for them. But as long as we face them with imperfect courage, “we are in a waking sleep, fated to repeat the same mistakes over and over.”

Tinder’s founders liked the idea of the spark that starts the fire. My phone is a portal to an otherworld of strangers stretched out next to zoo tigers or scaling mountains I’ll never visit. The book says I’m looking for someone whose fingers fit into my wounds. The author thinks this is a good thing, a way to heal. But I won’t know which wound opener I need by the species of fish he shows the camera. We have to meet.

The author tries to coax me toward the site of my original wounding, but I won’t go. A scene repeats in an infinite memory loop: In a bar with sticker-caked walls, a man sits down. He looks just like his pictures. I know he can see the hole. I try to fill it with whatever he wants to see. I can see his teeth when he speaks. He drinks whiskey. I drink soda. I look at his hands and imagine them inside my chest. I swear he’s looking at me like he’s going to be the one who saves me.

🔮 🕳️ 🔮

The self-help book says our reality is a fabrication of our own making, formed from our thoughts and actions. And yet—the book says thinking alone is no fix. Changing our beliefs isn’t as easy as wanting them changed. We’ll only let go when we can no longer stand the pain.

The day after Carl broke up with me, I saw a psychic in a blinds-down building between the Cash America Pawn and the discount gas station. She brought her brow toward mine and froze me. “You were a man in a past life, and you were a womanizer. That is why you are being punished. That is why they use you.”

I nodded.

“You are five years behind where you should be in love,” she said. “Did you know that?”

I nodded.

“You are empty inside,” she said. “Did you know that?”

I nodded.

At a meditation-based sobriety meeting, a woman talks about the hole. I didn’t know she could see it, but it turns out she has one too. She tells me she saw the hole once she stopped drinking. The only thing that can fill the hole, she says, is God. I don’t even know what that means. When I think of God, I think of Catholic grade school and the laminated cards of Jesus opening his robe to show his cloth-draped chest burning with a heart on fire, ringed with a thorn rope, staked down the middle with a cross.

I imagine the hole like a yellow plastic ring full of iridescent bubble solution catching light. I try to keep God in the hole but God is a bag of sand, and the hole gets empty before it can get half full. I fill the hole with crystals, candle wax, handwritten affirmations, auspiciously shaped stones, tarot cards, spent matches, shells, photos of ancestors, herbs, astrological charts, shiny pennies, essential oils. I wedge a cauldron into the hole.

The woman at the meeting says, “We all have a hole inside us, and we’re supposed to show it to others.”

Mary, like her son, showed her heart, radiating light, encircled by roses, lanced with a knife.

Every night, I draw the same tarot card, THREE OF SWORDS: a trio of blades through a red heart.

I touch my hands to my skull and ribs. I try to find the hole so I can show it to anyone who will look, but my hands grow hotter and hotter against my skin as they search. The current rips down my spine and I feel it: not a hole but a channel, a tube filling with light. In my mind, I line up all the holes I’ve ever reached into, holes cut into everyone I’ve ever tried to love, and I just look at them.


The self-help book asks itself what happens to the parts of ourselves we deny. The book answers right away: this self disappears underground. We recognize it in the partners we try to love. It looks like a fight.

To make a paper fortune-teller, you have to cut a piece of loose-leaf into a square, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, unfold, fold, unfold, put your fingers inside, push out, write your desires and fears all over it. That is how I love. I give a softboy the pen and tell him to write about his hole and how he thinks he can fill it. A paper fortune-teller gets old fast. You have to move on, play MASH, divine whom you’re going to marry and how cool your house will be and how many babies you’ll have. You have to keep playing until you get your perfect life.

Some people don’t identify abandonment as their deepest fear. I don’t understand. When I sit down at a small bar table and take in a date, before he even speaks, I can tell how deeply he could wound me—when he stays, when he leaves. This, the book says, is chemistry: knowing he’ll disappear and I’ll cling because pulling away would let his fishhooks tear my flesh. To survive, I fold myself into the small thing he couldn’t object to. I am the infant relying on her Kindchenschema, baby-cuteness, to evoke an adult’s caretaking impulse. I curl my spine forward around my heart, steering conversations away from my accomplishments, asking, “But how about you, how are things going for you?”

The thing a softboy does must be survival, too: as soon as I find his hole and insert all of me, he stops speaking, starts drinking, never leaves his phone faceup on the coffee table while my mouth latches onto his mouth and my eyes try to read his mind but his eyes shift to the side before his lids close me out.

Can I really say his way of tending the fear is worse? Is hurting the one you love a worse offense than gouging out your own soul so you can stuff your brittle husk full of whatever you think he wants to feel when he delves inside you?

🙏 🙏 🙏

In my notebook-made-workbook, jumbled memories refuse to connect like dots. The self-help book says the remembering of childhood hurts will get us to ourselves, but I get to a mess of ill-fitting labels. Childhood didn’t wound me and my parents didn’t fail: they made a house where I could hide out. The site of my wounding can’t be reached because it disappeared under the dammed river’s water clot long before I was born into the nightmare. I took it in before a breath. The self-help book says we seek relationships that recreate the theft of our joy. If I never find what was lost, what then?

💎 🕯️ 💎

The self-help book knows we don’t like the work of healing. We’d prefer an easier way. The book promises us that its worksheets are less painful than other people are. There is a self that just wants to find its way back to us. It fears death and wants to live. “Tell me where to go and I will,” I hear it asking me, but from where?

I calcify into my mattress’s divot. I believe the pain really will kill me. The hole offers to hold the pain. This, it tells me, is what it lives for.

I keep pulling the DEATH card, a skeleton on a white horse, armor-clad like a conquistador, stepping over fallen and swooning bodies, headed for sunrise. DEATH: sudden change, the old self’s death, transformation, loss, failure, debacle, disaster, ruin, end, beginning.

The only way out is through the land of the dead, opposite land; the author says I must break patterns. So I take up my fencing weapon, open my third eye, cast releasing spells, summon friends with my mind while walking around the city, dress like the Virgin Mary in vintage robes, speak with the dead, pray over candles, get a second opinion from a psychic who tells me, “He is weak, Elissa, and you are strong with the power in your blood.” I heal myself with my own hands. I have no other choice. I was gaping in that bed. I could fill the hole only with work and energy.

And even full, the hole remains, but now, with him dislodged, I can see it isn’t a void—it’s a portal through which things can enter to make me strong.

🔥 🔥 🔥

The self-help book says, “You will know you are almost to the gates of paradise when you feel like you are falling into the pits of hell.” The structure of your entire self shifts and falls to pieces. Love turns to chaos. The paradise ahead goes dark, and you can try to push on toward it, but its gates are locked. The book has a promise: in this wreck, your lost self can find you.

I’m told to list the qualities of my ideal partner. No. First, I have something I need to say. Fuckboys, you are not special. This is worse for me than it is for you, because I’m the one stuck in a GIF in which I sit at a bar and smile while you tell me about this one time you were drinking with your buddies and this one thing happened. I want you—I want to listen to your collarbones and lick the skin over your ribs and slide my fingers along your iliac crests—but I don’t need you the way the women of my great-great-grandmother’s generation needed the men who slid in and out of their lives after the whites hustled the Cascade people onto reservations, hanged their leaders, and upended the ways of living that had been shaped over ten thousand years. One hundred and fifty years ago, the women in my maternal line learned to complete themselves because white men had broken the world in which men and women fed each other what they needed to become whole.

Softboys of Tinder, hear me: I have my own car my own cash my own large exotic zoo animals with which to recline. I cook my own meals catch my own fish write my own inspirational quotes. I am the substance I use to intoxicate myself, moving my bones for the mirror, over and over making and unmaking a cup of my collarbone and trapezius. I come from women whose dresses drip with the dentalium shells that were pulled from deep water and used like cash. I come from high-status women with cradleboard-flattened heads. From women with their own canoes, their own land in the place where they’d lived for ten thousand years.

Men of my history, hear me: When you talk down to me, fuck around on me, disappear from me, lie to me, that’s an interesting perspective but actually me, you disrespect a woman made of women knotted in a long string stretching back before massacre. The egg that would become my mother was in my grandmother’s ovary when her mother severed the cord. The first of us came from eggs the Thunderbird laid near the mouth of the river. I have my own blade my own wings my own lanced heart that might never heal but will never need your salve. I do not want you badly enough to let you grip the rim of the hole, climb in, and leave it full of emojis and cum. The hole is perfect and you cannot touch it. I delete the app.

Hendrix, Harville. Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide. New York: Atria, 1992.

From the book WHITE MAGIC by Elissa Washuta, copyright © 2021. Reprinted by permission of Tin House. All rights reserved.

“My Heartbreak Workbook” contains Twemoji graphics made by Twitter and other contributors, licensed under CC-BY 4.0. It also contains derivatives of Twemoji graphics and an original graphic by Jakob Vala.

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My Heartbreak Workbook