How unrequited love taught me to love myself

1 December 2022
Garima Behal Written by Garima Behal
Garima Behal

Garima Behal

Garima is a copywriter and content writer with a penchant for...

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‘Word by Word’ is a fortnightly column by Garima Behal on learning to ride the highs and lows of everyday life

Episode 3 – Hiraeth (noun, Welsh; homesickness tinged with grief and sadness over the lost or departed)

Once upon a time, I fell in love. It was about three years ago, give or take. To (mis)quote Will Smith, “this part of my life, this little part, was called happiness.” In hindsight, this is surprising to me. For during this time, I was just coming out of a five-year-long relationship, and the entire world was heading straight into the clutches of a permanent pandemic. It was a season of mourning. Though it was spring, the mood was autumnal all over. Except inside my head. At least in the beginning. 

I had just made the acquaintance of a boy on Instagram. Someone who, unbeknownst to me at the time, was going to cleave my life into two halves. The before and the after. Only, the after would become an aftermath—like the coast of sunshiny Florida ravaged by a furious hurricane, like a beautiful Ukrainian building charred by an unforgiving Russian missile, like a war within me that knows everything of casualties and nothing of a ceasefire. And the before? It would vanish as if it had never existed in the first place.

Just within a month of knowing each other, our occasional check-ins became incessant texting. Our awkward phone calls metamorphosed into uninterrupted late-night conversations. All of it reached a  point where he became the first person I wanted to celebrate every career milestone with and the first one I needed to call after a fight with my best friend. An optimist when I remarked how the glass always remained half empty, a rationalist when I refused to believe in nothing but the highest ideal. Yet, in his (virtual) arms, there was acceptance for my imperfections like none other, a comforting refuge from the loneliness of being myself. How could the hopeless romantic in me not fall?

The only problem? I knew he was worlds away and was always going to be. 

It was nearly three years ago that he asked me out. He booked a flight from 1500 miles away to come and see me. Right then, the cosmic powers that be engineered Covid, and all aircraft, including the one he was to fly in, were grounded. Ever since then, life has kept getting in our way, and I haven’t seen him in person to date, not once…let alone go out with him, touch him, hold him, be held by him. 

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I’ve upturned all pockets of the universe in my search for an answer as to why he had to be out on the cold streets of Bengaluru in January when I was ensconced in the warmth of my comforter in Delhi. Why he had to leave and burn the midnight oil alone in his room in Pittsburgh when I was surrounded by friends and colleagues on a workcation in Bengaluru. Why, just this month, he was waiting out a layover in Abu Dhabi when I planned to visit the emirate barely two weeks after. 

When the moments don’t align

Our timing sucked. Really, really sucked. 

We broke up over and over even though we never had a ‘relationship,’ not one by usual standards, anyway. The funniest part? He still owes me that first date. The saddest? He doesn’t feel like flying across miles for me anymore. I love him, nonetheless—as much as it is possible for someone to love another, knowing that they don’t reciprocate. 

Yet, when people ask me who he is, it takes me a moment to say, ‘the person I love.’ Because for a long while, he has also been the person I hated. The person who said he wanted to see other people before we saw each other. The person who dismissed conversations that felt like cosmic circumnavigations as ‘just flirting.’ The person whose response to all my “I miss you’s” was either “It is what it is” or a sharp, piercing silence.

A silence that has since quietened my impossible hope and whose strange alchemy has slowly transmuted my love into grief. A character from a book I read recently put it into words more suitably and succinctly than I can. 

“When you lose the one you love, when there is nobody to give love to, then love ripens into grief…Grief is not having the one you want to give love to. Not having the one who will accept your love.” 

Only, I didn’t lose him. Not entirely. But I did decide to walk away from him. When I did, my grief was brand new. It was mourning for someone who was still very much alive. It used to come in waves 100 feet high and leave me gasping for breath, yearning fervently for just a promise of the shore. At the time, I had neither the strength to swim nor the courage to let go. For months on end, I existed in that halfway space between floating and sinking, with my mouth barely open to let in the odd, necessary breath and my eyelids, that stray life-giving ray of sunshine. 

In hindsight, it’s clear that I broke my own heart. I am not proud of it. But I am proud of how hard I worked at repairing it.

Autumn must give way to spring

I tried everything. I first attempted to escape all my thoughts, pushing them away with the brute force of distracting, self-destructive actions. I wrote angry, spiteful poetry though I truly wished him nothing but love. I installed a dating app, hoping to find people who would nurse my broken self back to happiness. I buried myself in work, working 15-hour days and burning out. 

Slowly, however, the inevitable disappointments of these quick fixes wore me out and propelled me toward a more fulfilling path. I got sick of being sad as the world around me erupted in a joyous celebration of life every single day—the sun setting only to rise again in the morning, the coarse mustard-brown leaves of the pilkhan tree in my neighborhood making way for the tender, greenish-pink ones; buds blooming into iridescent flowers; and constellations trading spaces with each other as the night sky changed with seasons. 

I got tired of being hung up on one person in a world where I was yet to meet over 8 billion others. And with a little bit of work and a little bit of luck, I stumbled upon the highway of restorative friendships, understanding, healing, and greater purpose. Its exit roads led me to develop healthy coping mechanisms such as listening to psychology podcasts, taking therapy, practicing mindfulness meditation, and discovering spirituality and, with it, my true self.

Piece by shattered piece, I picked up the remnants of who I was and glued them up. I did it with intention, with the meticulous precision of a stained-glass artist who arranges chunks of colored glass together to craft a masterpiece befitting a place of worship. 

My poems from the time may speak of the tragedy and the trauma of unrequited love. But that’s only half the truth. The other half spells transcendence. And it lies in the liberating realization that love is never just a verb. As I sat with myself, letting my emotions wash over me, I came to the epiphany that love is also a noun. It is hard for us to love ourselves because we see ourselves more closely and clearly than others do. This means that our faults often get more spotlight than they deserve, and our redeeming qualities are consigned to the darkness backstage. Loving others may come easier to us, but it doesn’t restrict us from loving them alone. We are and continue to be loved, irrespective of whether we’re with them or without them.

It has been over two years since I experienced this revelation, understood it and began practicing it. I still think of him every time I am asked what’s the toughest thing I’ve ever survived. But now, I also think of myself, my grit, and my resilience every time I am asked what helped me survive it. 

So, while my grief hasn’t evaporated like magic upon discovering self-love and self-acceptance, the waves have ceased to be 100 feet high. They are about 80 feet tall on my worst days and can fall down to eight at my best. 

I guess what I am trying to say, more than anything else, is that I am finally okay with him not being able to love me back. Because he taught me how to do that myself. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of MyndStories.