Heartache is like gum in your hair

Marcilaughlin
5 min readNov 12, 2020

In my previous blog about my biological father, I talked about Heartache type 1 and Heartache type 2 — as if it was diabetes. And just maybe there are some similarities. It is said that there is no known cure for type 2 diabetes, but that it can be controlled. And in some cases, it goes into remission.

Maybe heartache is like that too. Maybe none of us ever really cure heartache — we just manage to control it. And if we’re lucky, it goes into remission.

But when it does, it does so of its own accord. I don’t know if this has been your experience, but the more I’ve tried to cure my heartache in the past, the stickier it gets — -like a wad of gum in your hair. And then, in spite of your protests that it was your sister’s fault for chewing on your hair with gum in her mouth, your dad still yells at you and cuts out the hunk of hair with his Swiss army knife.…

Oops. Wrong story. Well, there WAS heartache at age 5 or 6 about my hunk of hair being cut off and being wrongfully punished. But that’s a digression. The point is that heartache is a bit like that gum in your hair. The harder you try to get it out, the more hair you end up losing.

Few things bring us to our knees as easily as Heartache. Nothing highlights our mortality, our vulnerability faster. It has no regard for our armor, our pretense, bravado, or denial. It knocks the air out of us and forces us to feel our lack of control. It forces us to contend with the reality that we can’t control outcomes, that we aren’t ultimately in control of life. It brutally reminds us that life typically has a different agenda than our own.

I think of the Dali Lama’s famous quote that our enemies are often our greatest teachers. It makes me wonder if heartache can also be a great teacher. That is, after we’ve stopped trying to force it to retreat, to lay down it’s sword. After all, let’s admit it, unless you’re Rumi, heartache is normally NOT a guest that people easily welcome into their homes. For its arrival is typically more akin to a rape or a pillaging. At least that has often been the felt-sense for me.

The instances of heartache that come to mind in this moment are those that involve feeling betrayed by close girlfriends. I also think of having much heartache in my teen years and early 20s with my twin sister. I remember feeling not just hurt but perplexity. How could she behave so meanly? Didn’t she have the same playbook as me? Don’t you know that you’re not supposed to be so callous with your twin sister?

And that heartache replicated itself later in life with some close female friends. Who does that? Who behaves that way? is the refrain I hear in my mind. The voice of that dumbfounded little girl still actively resides in my head. And I’m so much more aware of her since my biological father entered my life. Within just weeks of knowing me, he noted that ‘Who does that? is one of my signature phrases.

It gave me some food for thought. I now reflect on how embedded in many of my heartaches is the underlying demand that people behave in a certain way. That life should unfold in a certain way. So now I wonder: what has heartache wanted to teach me?

I’m not sure I’ve ever really opened up before to the question of what gift heartache might offer me. And I mean REALLY open up to it…not in the spiritual bypass sort of way — i.e. employing it as a strategy to make it back down, or go away, so I don’t have to feel the ache. And not just standing in the question as part of the spiritual shoulding — i.e. I should welcome it, like I should ‘just let go’…or I should ‘just love my cancer’. You know all those cliché imperatives for those on a “spiritual path.”

If heartache could speak, what would it say to me?

As I listen in this moment, what comes is this: it’s not here to vanquish. Heartache, while not an invited guest, means no malice. It’s not here to chastise me for wrong decisions, or misguided actions. Or for being too blind, naïve, or not “woke” enough. And, it’s definitely not here to entice me to don more armor.

Just the opposite.

It is an invitation to disarm. In an instant it manages to undo all the fortifications we have spent years building. In a split second, we go from being a wise adult, to sobbing like a child. Our center of gravity moves instantly from our head to our heart. And suddenly that’s all we can feel. That big throbbing torrent in the center of our torso: that part of our being that modern life has taught us to move away from. After all, hearts and feelings just slow us down. Better to distract, numb, compartmentalize so we can be more efficient, more productive. For isn’t productivity where we find our value?

Yet in just a flash we are rudely awakened to the reality that we are not just minds. I don’t know about you, but in moments of acute heartache, all I can do is FEEL. ‘Mind over matter’ suddenly becomes an impossibility, a notion born of delusion. All notions of the ‘rational actor model’ that I learned decades ago in my political science classes fly out the window. As do any notions of being in the driver seat and being the controller of my destiny.

When heartache arrives again, as she most certainly will, I hope that there will be no duel. I hope I can wave the white flag and say, “Take me. I’m human through and through. The delusion is over.”

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Marcilaughlin

Globe-trotter, coach, master of deep conversation. Loves coffee & correctly using the subjunctive in Turkish & Italian. Happiest when opening minds & hearts.