After a Breakup, an App to Help Breathe, Then Run

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Modern Love

“When was the last time you breathed properly?” the therapist asked me.

His name was Allan. Thirty minutes into my first visit, I was still waiting for him to reach the part where he would help me get over the end of my relationship.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said.

“Easy, open breathing. Big lungfuls of air.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I breathe all the time.” I tried steering the conversation myself. “I just think I need to work out what happened —— ”

“I’m not interested in what happened,” he said. “I’m interested in the last time you breathed normally. You’re a young, healthy woman. But your paperwork tells me you’re struggling at work, haven’t eaten a full meal in weeks and can’t sleep. You need to fix that.”

I thought therapy would help convince me that the loss of the person I had been devoted to for years was a good thing. Instead, something in Allan’s blunt insistence on the symptoms and not the cause had put me on my heels.

He peered over his notepad. “You’re all hunched up,” he said. “You look miserable. Your homework for next week is to do the exercises I’ll email you. You’ve got six sessions, and I want you breathing and sleeping properly by the end of it.”

Cycling home afterward, I had already dismissed Allan’s words and returned to my regular programming: raking through the seven years since I had met my ex, mining memories for details of where it went wrong.

We had started with two years of silent longing (me) and dating other people (him) before finally feeling our way into a life and home together in London. Until one painful, protracted summer, he left.

I had always prided myself on being strong, on being able to bounce back, but here I was, months later, wrestling with questions without answers at night and awakening to a frightening bleakness.

Lying awake that evening, I wondered if I was making a mistake in outsourcing my problems. Allan’s focus on breathing sounded suspiciously like mindfulness to me.

I had another long night ahead, though, so I groped around the bedsheets for my phone, and that’s when I saw his promised email.

“Download the app in the link below,” it read. “When you use it, imagine a place you feel happy and safe. Hold that image in your mind. Then focus on your breathing. Use the app each night before you go to sleep. Exercise.”

My mind cast around for the prescribed happy place, settling on a pebble beach on the south coast of England where I had spent childhood summers. I tried to remember its hard, smooth stones, the sounds of my brother yelling from the sea.

The app, Positivity with Andrew Johnson, started. In a Scottish burr, a man counted down from 10.

With a twinge of curiosity, I tried breathing in. Allan had a point: My chest was tight with tension. I attempted to push the air down, and my tummy distended like a child’s. As I tried to synchronize my breathing, the vision of the beach kept escaping and then reappearing, interrupted by jags of thought.

Still, I kept trying every night. Learning how to breathe was at least something different, a quick break from analyzing my own well-worn love story with exhausting precision.

When I visited Allan a few weeks later, our conversation turned to intuition.

“What does your gut tell you about what you should be doing?” he asked.

“My gut?” I felt embarrassed. “I don’t feel anything in there.” I looked down hopefully at my stomach. Privately, I had always wondered what people meant by intuition.

“You mentioned that you were nervous, that you often experienced anxiety from the start of the year,” he said. “Why do you think that was?”

I have always relied on the flush of adrenaline to get stuff done. Yet a deeper, more frantic energy than usual had seeped in during the months before my boyfriend left.

This tension pushed the vacuum cleaner faster round the living room and infused the meals I had started to make from cookbooks. Our apartment had never looked so tidy. On rainy Sundays, I urged him to make plans for a trip to Paris, which he wasn’t keen on.

“I find it hard to believe that my body knew something was up before my brain did,” I said, petulance creeping into my voice.

“Intuition is a sense developed from your past experiences, books you’ve read, sounds on the street, conversations, facial expressions,” Allan said. “All valuable information. It can help you to distinguish between what is real and what is fake, to notice something dangerous. Perhaps you trust your thoughts more, though.”

“Thoughts are all I have, surely,” I said. “That’s where all that information ends up getting used.”

“There’s plenty of research that would disagree with you. Why not try listening to your body instead of your head? That’s where all your feelings have been coming from.”

Feelings. We hadn’t talked about feelings at all. But as the weeks passed, I found that painful emotions, long ossified and remote, began overtaking me in humiliating ways. Tears streamed down my face in supermarkets; my shoulders heaved silently on family car trips.

My feelings were like the drunk who shows up too late to the party, misjudging the mood. Yet it was a strange relief to find I was capable of them. The tears were new, and they felt animal. Salt burned a rash around my eyelids in a way that I suspected wasn’t entirely about the end of a relationship.

The breakup had done something else: It had caused a crack, and the breathing only seemed to be making it wider. Earlier, stuffed-down secrets and disasters found the fissure and out they came, noisily, messily. They had been quiet for years, but now they wanted water and air.

In Allan’s company, I seemed to spend increasing amounts of time feeling like an idiot. “I’m not trying to be difficult —— ”

He suddenly sounded kind. “I don’t think you are,” he said. “But deep down, people often know when something is coming. When something has to change.”

The last time I spoke to Allan was on the phone; I had work I couldn’t get out of. He was as unrepentantly to the point as ever. “It’s fine,” he said as I apologized. “You’ll be fine. But I wanted to say, if your ex-boyfriend comes back, think seriously. Good luck. And don’t forget to fill in the feedback form.”

Later that day, from across my office desk, my phone pinged. It was a message from my ex: “Do you want to meet up? I’d like to speak to you.”

How had Allan foreseen that? The old love drew me back in, even when reduced to digital form.

“When?” I replied. “Where do you want to meet up?”

A few days later, after an evening of stilted small talk in a pub, we stood together on a London street streaming with people. It was a sharp, clear November night. I felt blindsided. Ten minutes earlier he had stared cryptically into my face and said: “I think we should try again. I miss you.” Words I had been willing him to say.

“I understand this is a surprise,” he said. “I’ll wait for you to decide.”

“I don’t know what to say,” I mumbled.

But then there was the beach. I had found that the more time I spent imagining that beach, the better I felt, the more I noticed things. That afternoon, for example, I had enjoyed how the cold air smelled of bonfires.

Even now, flooded with fear, I had briefly thought how cheerful the city’s scarlet buses looked as they slid past in the dark.

I could see him waiting for a response, but I stood dumb. The traffic roared and I could feel my feet vibrating with the pavement. Cold wind brushed past, goading me. It was all in league with a new, internal voice, one that spoke quietly and unexpectedly.

“Leave him,” it said. “Take what you have and run.”

So with hardly a word, I turned and ran for the bus.

That was a couple of years ago. Allan gave me no cure for heartbreak, but he did teach me some things. To look after my body, to pay it respect. To question my mind, which doesn’t understand half as much as it thinks it does. To understand that the time spent in the gap between the endless stories we tell ourselves is the present.

These days, I care more about being peaceful and happy than about being in love. I’m not sure love is love if it consumes you, if it dominates your thoughts. Perhaps that’s something else: obsession, limerence.

While it’s a trip to get lost in a relationship, finding yourself again can prove time-consuming and costly. But breathing freely, feeling alert to the world and being in touch with your emotions? Just $2.99 at the app store. And a lot of work.

Next I’d like to try having love and happiness at the same time, though. I’ve heard it’s possible.