your past self
They say you never forget your first heartbreak. But what happens when your first heartbreak doesn’t involve a partner but rather the loss of your past self? How do you learn to cope with the fact that the person you thought you were no longer exists? How do you learn to navigate life from a new perspective?
These are all thoughts that I had the spring of my junior year. I had just come back from a semester away from school and was immediately thrown back into the tumultuous social scene at Duke. It felt like I was in a place where I no longer felt connected to anyone or anything, including the version of myself that had previously attended the university. I found myself looking to lean on memories that were no longer there.
I felt aimless. Mindlessly attending my classes and getting my work done while on the inside I was struggling to make it through the day to day necessities.
I didn’t know who I was without my past self. The girl who woke up excited each day to discover a new facet of her school and who felt like she belonged at her dream university was no longer there. I had replaced her with a figure who seemed the same to outsiders but was far more aware of who she truly was and what she wanted out of her surroundings. This new version of myself no longer fit into my old life but I found myself trying to recreate my happiest memories and hold onto the impression that Duke had made on me that first semester while slowly realizing that impression was fading away. I kept thinking of the what ifs. What if I hadn’t lost touch with who I was?
Step 1: Denial.
In the beginning, I tried to jam myself into the mold of my past self. I recounted my old routines from freshman year, the last normal semester I had, and it resulted in me awkwardly trying to emulate who I once was. I was denying the growth that had occurred over the past year by visiting my old favorite study spots and looking for friends who I was no longer as connected to as I once was. I longed for the three hour Marketplace dinners and attempted to fill this void with one hour WU lunches which, to my dissatisfaction, did not have the same comforting effect.
Step 2: Anger.
I was filled with a rage that I was no longer who I once was, nor surrounded by things that felt familiar. I didn’t know who to be angry with so most of the time it fell onto myself with some curt conversations with my peers as collateral. I pessimistically thought about the next year and a half that I would have to endure and convinced myself that it was impossible. I relied on alcohol and going out as a coping mechanism in an attempt to allow me to forget about my current situation. I felt like I had lost control regarding everything in my life and I was angry at Duke, my peers, and most of all myself.
Step 3: Bargaining.
I tried to offload the blame. I resented the people who had what I wanted and found myself running through a roster of people whose lives I wish I could have. I was always comparing myself to others and thinking that if I had just made a couple of different decisions, I would have been able to avoid my current situation altogether.
Step 4: Depression.
This step hit me, and it hit me hard. I was completely overwhelmed by a wave of sadness. Some days I was unable to function because I could not focus my attention on anything positive. I was unable to convince myself that my situation would ever change or that I would ever enjoy my time at Duke. It got so bad that I looked into withdrawing from classes – or even withdrawing altogether. Anything to temporarily stop the downward spiral I found myself experiencing.
Step 5: Acceptance.
After months on end of struggling to make it through the day I made it to the step of acceptance. I didn’t wake up one day with everything magically fixed, but all the work I had put into the past semester finally seemed to be producing positive results. I began to surround myself with people with whom I shared similar life experiences and people I felt understood me on a deeper level. The grieving didn’t go away, but I learned how to manage it and live with it in a sustainable way.
Although this heartbreak was one of the more transformative experiences that I’ve gone through, I am so grateful that it happened and for the lessons I learned from it. I learned to grieve the loss of the life that I expected to have coming into Duke my freshman year and no longer yearn for the girl exhausted herself trying to keep up with everyone else and fit in. Now that I have some distance, I am able to see that had everything gone the way I had hoped, I would not be satisfied with the life or person I would’ve been. And now, looking back at everything that happened, I finally feel satisfied that I broke up with my past self and learned to move on.