first person

It Wasn’t Just a Breakup

How the catastrophic end of my relationship led to a diagnosis that changed my life.

Illustration: by Hokyoung Kim
Illustration: by Hokyoung Kim
Illustration: by Hokyoung Kim

This essay contains descriptions of self-harm.

I can feel the difference between being in and out of the know like an itch on my arm. Where before, we’d traveled through the darkness of Brooklyn like wayward twins, weaved and wedded in need, now we were like two wives, one left at home until dawn while the other went out to explore the dirty trails of their own worlds alone.

He was walking into our apartment at 4:00 a.m., wasted, his shadow trembling from twelve hours of drinking. Terrified (of the obvious — the police; the subway tracks; his drunk temper and the street), I would wake up at 3:00 a.m. searching for him, and he would walk in just as I was about to doze off again, whispering to me that he’d come from an after-party (on a Tuesday, my G?) and needed to shower. Then he’d crawl into bed for the ten minutes between his bedtime and my rising, clutching at my body like it was a secret. Something wasn’t right but at the same time, not a lot was wrong.

After all, this is what I wanted for him, the kind of freedom that would make him the main character in his own life so that I could live a kind of freedom where my desires were most important. This is why I asked for an open relationship, why I was hungry for him to build new relationships. But I had an inkling that he was lying and there was something about it that had sparked a brush in the corner of the barn.

Six months into my first real political job, I fell into the worst cycle I’d had since X and I had gotten together, my irritability like the landing bed of a match. I had developed rosacea all over my body from the stress of the job, the stress of full-time grad school, the stress of my illness, and the stress of hiding it — even if I didn’t know then what it was.

And then it was the third month in a row where X couldn’t pay his half of the rent, and this month, even though I knew it was relatively out of his control, it felt like a violence, like something he had done to punish me for choosing him.

Every day I grew more skeptical and every day I grew more desperate, his texts becoming more sparse, our date nights like funerals. And what the fuck was he so sad about? I thought it was his other shit, his own shit, but his resentment seemed so acute, orchestrated, earmarked for me. Where, just months before, he’d texted me at two in the morning about how badly he wanted to be home with me, inside of me, “instead of at this bar,” with “these people,” we were going whole days with no exchange, with no “home soon,” with no “wait up for me.” There was something going on and I could see it bulging out of his pockets when he walked through the door.

I’m buying lingerie and finding them one size too small. I’m planning dinners he’s not showing up for. When he is home, he’s telling me short stories about his time at these after-parties, the parties themselves deceptively uneventful, the narrative gaps gaping, the names literally unbelievable. How do you know when the love of your life is lying to you? Every smile is forlorn. He’s so sorry for something he can’t ever articulate. You watch a romcom, and he’s nostalgic. When he has so little to say. When nothing he says satisfies. When the inch-sized silence becomes a delta.

But he’s adding pins to the wedding Pinterest … he’s signing spontaneous Instagram posts about me with “until the end of time” … his friends and family are heart-hearthearting in the comments …

It was when the girl he was messing with said, “It’s just a breakup — you’ll both get over this,” that I started to get a little pissed off.

But since she was so interested in my anguish, I was happy to share with her our secrets of callous betrayal, to let her in on our toxic matrix. No, YOU don’t get it, I tell her over Facebook Messenger, the new interface perfectly blinding and white, I just had an abortion four months ago. He doesn’t really love you, he’s just really fucking angry at me. 

I’ll never forget what it felt like to be pregnant. To feel like a host body. To feel something needful flourish inside of you, feeding on the little you have to give. To feel what it’s like to be divided in real time. Separating what you’ve sewn up. I’ll never forget how I felt that one morning when I knew, not sick but full, too full though I had not eaten, how I would touch my lower belly and feel steel. I will never forget the urgency of the question, how it tore up my day, how it was the only thing I could think about. I’ll never forget how I just knew, I knew it before confirmation, and how quickly I calculated the cost, the analysis speeding ahead of me. I’ll never forget my resolve, how patiently I waited for the nurse on the other end of the phone to confirm my appointment, how I said, Yes, I’ll find the money, though I had none and no clue where we would get it. I’ll never forget what it felt like to carry both our futures in the purse of my humanness, the difference only a twenty-minute procedure, how I thought he would be so proud of me for saving him from a lifetime of inevitable, insurmountable impossibilities.

It was when we were in the first throes of breaking up that he grieved it for the first time. “You took my chance,” he yelled, throwing a glass across the room, it shattering against the brick wall, “you took my chance at being a father and you didn’t even fucking ask me what I wanted. You didn’t even fucking ask.”

I didn’t know. I swear, I didn’t know. If I knew, I would have kept it, but you didn’t say anything. 

“You didn’t even fucking ask.”

Everything is starting to fall apart — I’m making stupid, irresponsible mistakes at work — my irritability is peaking at odd intervals — I’m fucking up formulas and misjudging outputs.

At the urgent care, while being treated for a severe kidney infection born from an untreated UTI I didn’t even know I’d had, the doctor asks, “Sweetheart, you didn’t feel any of the symptoms?”

No, I said. Not until today.

I leave our apartment for a few days, hoping that time apart will help him make better choices and help me feel less alone. During that three-day stay away, crashing at a friend’s Airbnb, I had convinced myself that this would be our redemption story, that we would come back from this like champions, phoenixes rising from the ashes of our own bitter bullshit. No one who loves me shared this optimism.

Collective concern grows, and after many unanswered door knocks and rejected phone calls, I crawl out of my grotto, follow my feet mindlessly, and I end up in BedStuy, on Grand, at M’s place, to drink wine, smoke weed, read tarot, and forget my own name.

After I’ve had a glass, the shell of my shield starts to crack and before I know it I’m crying in the cup of my hands, the water overflowing. I’m not okay, I don’t think, I say with emphasis on okay, just to make it clear, and M chuckles, “Uh, yeah girl, you’re definitely not okay.”

My friends could only offer their practiced condolences, “You were too good for him,” or “He didn’t deserve you.” No one let me say it, because everyone wanted me to be strong. No one let me say it — I let my walls down and I miscalculated my shot, misunderstood the assignment, and in the end I hurt myself. I really hurt myself, and I felt too guilty to ask permission for it to be my fault.

But when I was alone, I could say it to the bottom of the vodka bottle. I could get wasted and listen to music that made me cry and daydream about the different ways I wanted to be remembered.

“Have you looked into going to see someone?”

My last therapist quit, I whisper after a beat to my best friend, my head pounding against the cold wall of the bathroom stall after heaving my insides into the proverbial basin of significant regret.

“What? You didn’t tell me that. Why?”

Yeah, the second one this year. Said she wasn’t equipped to counsel me because of my history with suicide and self-harm and shit — 

“I’m sorry, isn’t that the job of a therapist?”

I don’t say anything because I’ve already traveled this thought pattern and had the same questions and had come to no resolve.

“We have to get you a new one, dude.”

It’s too stressful, I whisper. They gave me some referrals but I can’t keep telling people my life story over and over again for them to tell me it’s too complicated and that they can’t help me.

I just need to get over this, like anyone-fucking-else who goes through a breakup. 

“But you’re not just going through a breakup, C. You know that.”

Moving day felt nothing like the day I left my mother’s home, or any other day where I leave a thing behind that had inhabited me. But I had done well with what will I’d had. I’d woken up, and look, the sun even came out to show its diffident smile. I had packed my things efficiently, hummingly evading anything that would remind me of him, or me.

In my new bedroom, I order comfort food from Seamless, a good bottle of tequila on FreshDirect. My father stops by, and I say, Shit happens, it’ll be fine. I had not called X one time, I had gone through the entire day not needing him, not needing him to need me to need him, completely independent from the quiet nightmare nipping at my heels.

Late that same night, I’m nearly inside out with the blue light of grief. I feel like I’ve been blown through, some invisible glow casting my shadow on the wall. I can’t think, I can’t see, I can’t breathe. I press the blade to the innermost part of my thigh, where I know the blood will babble if released, and tug the thick blade across my thigh, the sharp stain of the knife on my nerves dissipating almost instantly. It’s not enough. I press the blade to a patch of skin just above it, and tug. I can breathe again, but it’s not enough. Finally, at the fifth tug, the crimson drops begin to gather into one big metadrop, the babble finding its stream. When I started to cut I learned that the first cut is never enough because your body forgets what it feels like and you need it to remember. I go and go and go until there’s no thigh left unmarked.

In the first days after we separate, it’s the sleeplessness that bonds us. Over the phone, we cling to the rhythms of each other’s breath to help calibrate our own. I’m falling asleep, but I want him to make it known: I’m not the only one limbless in the small sac of despair. He’ll never say it, though, and he’ll never let me go. He wants to know that I’ll be dedicated enough to await his permission or dismissal. His revenge happens in the thrill of knowing that I’m there. We are twins; his entire praxis is a wounded manhood. I treat his cut with my own murder. I swell it up to size.

Everyone goes through a breakup. Every one of us finds romance and loses it, sometimes in the same breath, sometimes in a lifetime, how come I was the one who couldn’t endure?

I kept saying — to my mom, to my friends, to anyone who would listen — I feel like I am going to die, and it was like no one heard what I said. I kept saying it, how my heart is on fire and I don’t think I can breathe.

My rage had taken over. My heart engulfed in the clay of heat, I was going to die. The only person I didn’t have to convince was M. I text a hurried warning, and she calls in an instant:

“Hold on. Just stay right there. Give me five minutes and I’ll be right there. Let’s distract you while you wait. Can you pack a bag? We gotta take you in.”

When I come home from the hospital after this attempt, it’s like it always is but it is also very different. My friends from grad school come to pick me up and going home is not like going home. No mother to prove wellness to, to try for, pirouetting to the tip-tap of my solitary weeping, just me and my strange need dancing in the mirror of my strange need.

I called out of work, told my boss that I was sick, achy, didn’t tell her with what — really, what was there to say? What I needed was sleep, not pity. When I got into the office the next day, I decided to be honest, tell her I was going through an earth-shattering transition and was not going to be well. With empathy as real as a Hallmark Basquiat, she encouraged me to throw myself into work as a distraction, reminding me that pain is tentative and will pass if you ignore it.

The late R train to Cortlandt Street becomes my safest haven. I’m crying into my coat on the way to work, reapplying concealer in the bathroom stall before walking into our morning meeting, where the rest of my team turns to me expectantly for updates, of which I have significantly fewer than I should. The next day, I send out a press release with four typos. Later in the week, I confuse one client’s crisis for another’s. The next week, I respond to an email marked urgent that I left unread for five days. On an unbearable random Thursday at lunchtime, I call it a day, take the gamble and leave early, buy a bottle of prosecco, and walk down to the South Street Seaport pier. The sun is out and I’m out of crosses.

The psychiatrist’s office is suffocatingly tight. Many of the patients treated here are suffering from addiction and are either fresh out of an incarceration facility or on the brink of being sent to one, this pit stop at the doc’s the only difference between being here or being there. You can feel the formal intensity of that constant truth buzzing with the lights, hanging at eye level in the room.

“So, I see here you have a history of self-harm,” he begins.

I nod yes.

“Is that still going on?” he asks.

Sometimes, but not as much as before. Like once every four or five months, maybe more. 

“And when does that happen?” he asks, which I’ve got to tell you, I’m sick of answering at this point in my life.

When I’m upset. If I feel overly frustrated, it kind of blurs my vision, makes things really crisp at the edges. I can’t see and I’m just really pissed off and out of it. That’s when. 

He wants to know about my ADHD diagnosis. If I’ve used any drugs and how they made me feel. What my mood swings are like. “There must be something else going on here. Just being honest,” he says, as if asking my permission to offend me. I answer more of his questions, and finally he asks, “Do you think there’s a possibility that you’re bipolar based on what I’ve told you and what you’ve told me?”

I think so? When I was younger I think I remember one doctor mentioning it, but then never again, so I thought it could just be regular depression, or an anger issue or — 

“You’re bipolar,” he says, interrupting me. “You have bipolar two. It often gets confused with ADHD because there are shared symptoms, but yours is marked by periods of high productivity and low lows. It’s part of why you’ve had so many suicide attempts but seem to bounce back,” he says with air quotes. “You’re high-performing but your shorter spurts of manic or depressive episodes are marked by extreme mood swings. It’s very dangerous. It’s quite lucky you’re alive.”

I mean, I think so, I say. 

“Yes,” he says. “You should.”

It’s bipolar, I tell my mom, yelling over sirens as I shift nervously from foot to foot while standing on the busy corner of Smith and Livingston, thirty-three flights below her office, where she shuffles legal-sized pages across her desk in the hurry of a busy workday.

I’m bipolar, I say, more quietly this time as the sirens pull away.

“That makes sense. They kind of told me that would happen,” she says, matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t something I might have wanted to know when I was cycling in and out of the psych ward as a teenager. I tell her that.

“It wasn’t. You had it bad enough, no need to tell you that you would essentially suffer forever.”

We’re silent for a beat.

I’m not going to suffer forever, I say quietly, like there’s an amplifier in my throat.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” she says. “I just didn’t want you to think of it that way then.” A pause.

“Well, anyway, now you know.”

Lying in the hospital bed after that last attempt, I suddenly felt the most me I’d felt since childhood, like the high had paused, a ponderous slowing down. It was the tragic familiarity — the smell, the isolation, the petting from sweet West Indian nurses who say I remind them of their daughters, who tell me it will be just fine, the waiting, the time dragging, the many clocks chippering at an invisible speed, the doctor’s hmm-hmmming, how the meds create a sound tunnel, the incessant beeping of machines that are supposed to numerate your guarantees, the irony of your heart beating in your ear after you had just tried to kill it, all of this was the tragic irony of everything. I’m ending a past life journey in a movie about ghosts.

It was the fresh beating of my heart I’d tried to kill, and in the process, the many versions of a person I could no longer pretend to be had gone ahead and died instead.

In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

From the book Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation, by Camonghne Felix, to be published on February 14, 2023, by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 Camonghne Felix.

It Wasn’t Just a Breakup