Warning: This article contains content relating to attempted suicide.
I can’t quite remember if it happened on a Monday or a Tuesday, but I do know that the night I tried to commit suicide felt like it went on forever. The house was empty, I was 16. After raiding the alcohol cabinet, I scoured the medicine cabinet for painkillers, then stuck a note to the TV for my mom. It read something along the lines of “I’ve gone to bed early, please don’t wake me up when you get home.” I started to swallow down the pills, because I’d hit rock bottom after a breakup.
The relationship with Jamie*, my first-ever boyfriend, had ended because he’d slept with multiple other people and I found out after a friend overheard him bragging. For three years, we’d been a highly volatile and terrible match. But at the same time, Jamie was charismatic, funny, and knew how to please a crowd—and at that point of my life, he was all I’d ever known in terms of romantic relationships. Because of his good qualities, he was popular, and we had a lot of mutual friends. Friends suddenly alienated me following the split, so the loss was a double whammy, and I felt totally alone.
After taking handfuls of pills and washing them down with alcohol, I called Jamie and scream-cried nonsense down the phone. He told me, hilariously (in retrospect), that he was about to take a shower and would “call me back.” Unsurprisingly, he didn’t. What follows is hazy. I was sick—constantly, throughout the course of the entire night. At one point, I even called myself an ambulance but canceled it because I was scared that the sirens would wake my mom and the neighbors. In the morning, I finally told her what I’d done.
This reaction to a breakup is sadly not uncommon either, says Professor Craig Jackson, a psychologist from the School of Social Sciences at Birmingham City University. “Breakups can have massive impact upon mortality levels and general morbidity, it’s a genuine public health problem that society faces. The cost of broken hearts in society are real and hugely impact on the health and social care systems.”
A few weeks later, at a house party, I heard a group of girls whispering about me being Jamie’s “psycho ex-girlfriend”—it was a comment that would swirl around my head for years to come, and while the suicide attempt was thankfully a one-off, it wasn’t the last breakup I struggled to cope with. I clawed at myself with embarrassment for the way I’d reacted and felt as though I had a big red arrow pointing at me as I walked down the hall. Things took a long time to get better.
“The term "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" (CEG) can be problematic,” says Professor Jackson. “It can be used as a label by some men towards women they’ve been in abusive or controlling relationships with—it removes any blame from their own actions, and thereby shifts it onto her, suggesting that she’s inherently unstable and defective.” Say it louder for the people at the back, Professor! “It insinuates that the problems in such a relationship may have been her fault. If the woman isn’t coping well with a breakup, it again implies she’s defective and possibly even dangerous.” When my mental health and happiness did start to improve, along came Liam*.
HOW YOU BREAK UP MATTERS
Liam and I were happily together for a year and a half, until we both headed off to different colleges. It wasn’t a clean break. Within weeks, he had a new girlfriend, but we continued to speak over email. I spent my life on edge, waiting for a message from him to appear in my inbox. I became nocturnal, I sat, drank wine, and smoked in my room for hours on end, rehashing every single detail of the split and the relationship. What could I have done differently? How had he so easily replaced me? What was wrong with me?
This continued for almost two years. Two long years. Sometimes I’d drunkenly message him, paragraphs (again, very in-keeping with the crazy ex stereotype). Sometimes he’d reply saying he still thought about me, that he missed me and was too afraid to break up with his new partner as he feared his friends would think badly of him. I clung to the breadcrumbs he threw. I tried dating other people and definitely hooked up with plenty, but still struggled to meet anybody I deemed to be on Liam’s level. Friends offered me incredible support but Christ, was I a broken record.
“The quality of social support, ability to let off steam when needed, keeping physically active, not relying on alcohol, drugs or food to get by, and having other meaningful relationships, will all have an impact in recovering from a relationship,” says Professor Jackson, confirming what I already knew (that wine can only help to an extent and definitely shouldn’t be drunk continuously and alone). “As does having hope and other things on the horizon to focus on. Individual differences in things like personality, coping skills, mental attitude and personal resilience that can determine how people will fare.”
Thinking of Liam was as regular as my own ever-increasing heartbeat; the baggage I carried was astronomical. Yet, I’d witness friends going through breakups with their long-term partners too, and although they’d be sad and they’d want to dissect it over coffee, sooner rather than later—crucially—they moved on. I simply couldn’t. But, says Professor Jackson, that’s actually a more common experience than I could have ever realized. Other key factors, he explains, is who instigated the breakup in the first place, as research shows the “dumpee” (moi, hi, hello) tends to take longer to process the former relationship, as well as the circumstances (infidelity, heartbreak, ties such as children being involved).
“It’s simplistic to think there’s a standard period of time in which to get over a breakup—like when we lose anything in life—from a loved one to a job, or a pet—there isn’t a set grieving period. Grief, sadness, or loss are subjective emotions and involve complex processes that we often have little insight into at the time, and depend on individual personal factors, plus the nature of the relationship with the ex,” he explains, easing some of my long-held fears that I’m actually a gigantic freak who needs to get a grip.
HEARTBREAK AFTER GHOSTING
I’ve also experienced serious mourning after less serious relationships too though, like after Max*, who I met a few years back after moving to London. We met approximately 10 times over the course of year, with huge swathes of time passing between. He occupied my thoughts constantly—I once remember looking at the clock in a spin class and congratulating myself because 10 minutes had passed without thinking about him. After we first slept together, he ghosted me. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back (I was already grappling with major health anxiety at the time) and I spiraled into a pit of depression—I called in sick repeatedly until the doctor offered to sign me off.
I became a paranoid wreck, all because a random guy from Bumble had tipped me over the edge. Whereas most other people would probably have walked away, dusted themselves off after being ghosted, I couldn’t—my brain slipped back into those ruminating thoughts, fine-tooth combing every text, interaction, outfit I’d worn to meet him. When he reappeared months later, I couldn't help but get pulled back in (tip: if this happens to you, try BLOCKING THEM ON EVERY PLATFORM INSTEAD).
“It’s actually a fallacy to use the phrase get over a relationship—it assumes that people always do get over break ups,” comments Professor Jackson. “Truthfully, this doesn’t always happen. There are some relationships we can’t ever fully move on from, and that actually may be quite normal.” Wait, hold up…never get over? Bleak. I also wondered whether my seeming inability to get over a splintered union was because I’m prone to anxiety and depression, but Professor Jackson says there are no clear links there. It seems to boil down to simply falling very, very hard and the nature of the relationship itself (all of which I’ve mentioned were pretty intense).
DITCHING THE LABEL
Since and in between these interactions, I’ve had various other relationships—ranging from one nighters to more serious—and emerged from them entirely unbothered and unscathed. But that stereotypical “crazy ex” label still bothers me. Looking back, at Jamie, Liam and Max, and trawling through old chats and inboxes to examine messages that went between us, it’s quite plain to see that there was also a lot of gaslighting involved. Which is why the “crazy ex” stereotype is such a difficult one to navigate—I don’t want to belittle anybody who is really suffering from harassment from a former partner, but the label isn’t always warranted or kind and it’s definitely used too often, usually at a woman's expense.
Now, I don’t think I was crazy; I think I’d been gas lit, taken advantage of, and am naturally prone to unhealthy thought patterns, which is a lethal combination. Closure is so key. Equally, as I’ve now discovered, is putting yourself in the center of your world. What I mean by that is if you put a relationship, or person, in the centre of your universe, when it falls apart or they fuck up, so will everything else. Work, maintaining friendships, self-care. But if you put yourself as the number one priority and things go wrong you’re less likely to lose your head, because you’ll still always be there, right in the center.
And as for those earlier exes: Jamie contacted me years later out of the blue to apologize for the way he treated me when we were together (and to thank me for stopping him from going off the rails), I don't blame him for our relationship being so messed up or his response to my suicide attempt phone call. We were both young and naive, but are better people now. Liam is getting married soon and I feel absolutely nothing about it. Max, I’ve now chalked up as a major learning curve—I’d never accepted that kind of behavior again. It’s terrifying to think that my overdose might have put a halt to my life at such a young age too, when it’s now better than it’s ever been, in so many ways. But I’m glad for all the lessons I’ve learned from it.
I’m now approaching the two-year anniversary of my healthiest relationship yet, it’s full of respect, honesty, and communication. If it ended, of course I’d be heartbroken, but I *hope* I wouldn’t let myself go back to those scarily dark days of endlessly ruminating on it and self-destruction—and that’s not because I love him less than previous partners, but because I’m starting to love myself a lot more, too.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.