Not so very long ago, I would have done almost any drug shoved in front of my face. I’ve never been into drugs before that phase, and I don’t do them now — it was just never my thing. Plus, I had the overwhelming fear my parents would find out about my indiscretions, which stopped me from doing a lot stuff I might have otherwise tried. But that fear aside, I felt so bad, so lonely, and so incredibly messed up that I just wanted the pain to stop. I wanted to forget, if only for a minute, the death of my marriage, and the all choices we’d made that led to the soul-crushing heartbreak I felt.
Love is a very powerful drug. And when it’s gone, our brains go through something similar to cocaine withdrawal. One scientific study found that love activates the same areas in the brain as cocaine addiction, and when that love is lost, we go kind of crazy. And I’ve got to say, I’m well on my way. Crazy is, by definition, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Heartbreak shows up physically as well. A recent story on NPR said couples in long-term relationships, like marriages, end up regulating their lover’s biological rhythms. When that relationship ends — and your sweetie moves out — your body goes haywire. It can upset your sleeping pattern, appetite, and even change your body temperature. Not surprisingly, the extreme stress of a divorce can weaken your immune system, too. I’ve been sick a lot this year. My heart hurt, but so did my chest when I got bronchitis.
The science of heartbreak explains a lot. For the past six months, I’ve felt like a wild, neurotic version of my former self, willing to take risks I would have never even considered two years ago (like writing a love column, for example). The only thing that’s kept me from making reckless and emotionally starved choices, like moving to Marfa and embracing my dream of being a possession-free hippie — has been my daughter. I can’t check out because I need to stay tuned in to her life and be the best parent possible. And I know there’s not enough drugs in the world to replicate my unconditional love for her.
So drugs are bad. M’kay? But don’t despair. There’s another completely legal way to help a broken heart and not hate yourself in the morning. It’s called exercise. Now, just a second. I know it’s not nearly as fun as illicit drugs might be, but a runner’s high is the real deal. The endorphins flood your brain during running or performing other strenuous aerobic activities are the same endorphins released in the brains of those lovey-dovey couples you see walking hand-in-hand through the freezer aisle at Kroger. It’s a vomit-inducing scene, sure. But who wouldn’t want to be in their shoes?
Of course, sex releases all kinds of feel-good hormones too, specifically oxytocin. The powerful little chemical creates intimacy and trust between partners. And just a hug will start it racing through your brain.
So let’s recap how all this works: Woman gets dumped. Heart gets hurt. Brain wants drugs to replace love potion lost from previous partner. But in a rare (and responsible) turn of events, woman opts for exercise to help heartbreak. Brain gets happier. Body gets stronger. And poof! The boy next door delivers oxytocin for dessert. Anything’s possible, right?
We’re all addicted to love. And even though it hurts to lose it, life wouldn’t be worth living without it. So it’s worth the risk of getting hurt again for the chance of getting a lover’s high that might last a lifetime.
Next week: The rules for dating in your thirties (from people much smarter than me).
And please, write to me with your questions on love, relationships, and life at: firstname.lastname@example.org