BY REECE SISTO
“I’m sorry, Reece. I love you.”
I was sobbing so loudly I didn’t even hear the click of my (now ex-) boyfriend hanging up the phone. I curled up in my desk chair as hot tears streamed down my face. I don’t remember how long I spent in that chair, not that it mattered. Over a year of love and memories had just come to an end. Any point forward ceased to exist. I’d fallen into an emotional maelstrom—one so large the only thing that seemed to encompass it was the universe itself.
Mental health had never been a real issue for me. I was a strong, tenacious young man. I was always stable, the friend in the comfy lounge chair playing therapist, never the one sprawled on the couch with their hands over their eyes. But my break up with my first true love shattered all of that. I stumbled around trying to pick up the pieces, when in actuality I had to be building something new. Mental instability was something I’d never learned about, much less fought.
Our relationship began as a sort of retrograde teen-LGBT-drama alternative to Her. I met him at a concert in California while visiting family. He was cunning, asking me to send him a photo I’d taken at the show (only so that he had my phone number). He texted me later that night. Seeing as I was leaving the next day to go home, we had no opportunity for anything face-to-face.
Yet, a relationship precipitated over the next six months held together by lengthy text messages and midnight phone calls. It started in December, and come June, I was on a plane back to where it all began.
He and I had a clandestine, whirlwind week of passion. I was staying with my aunt and uncle, constantly sneaking away to go hang out with “friends.” We fabricated outlandish stories so we could spend nights together and fought the inevitability of my departure with crazy adventures and long cuddles in the back of his Chevy Tahoe. Lying under him, staring into his eyes as Ben Howard blasted from his shoddy car speakers, he told me he loved me. He began to cry.
It’s always scary to fall in love. I latched on to him and kissed him with all my might. We wiped our faces and committed to being happy together for as long as possible, knowing any future relationship would be long-distance. Our last day together was at the Pride Festival of San Francisco, where we both agreed to come out publicly on social media.
I went home to Florida, I told my parents everything. Maybe it was the flutter in my voice as I spoke about him or the way I begged them to facilitate our long distance relationship, but I managed to see him two more times that summer. His parents were equally supportive, as one of those visits was him coming to my home.
Over the course of my first semester freshman year, our relationship continued to blossom, despite attending two different schools. We had visits about once a month, and thanks to the fairly alternative structure of his haughty liberal arts college, these visits often spanned over a week. We made it work.
I’m an emotional kind of guy. I fall hard, fast, and deep. With him, love was everything I wanted it to be, everything I felt it was supposed to be. We laughed a lot, taught each other, and learned one another’s bodies like our own silhouettes. He wasn’t just my boyfriend—he was my closest confidant, my most dedicated teacher, and my best friend. Losing him meant having to totally restructure the future I had so thoroughly envisioned for myself. It’s not that I had the slightest clue what I’d be doing with my life, but that no matter what it was, I saw him by my side.
The break-up happened in February of my second semester of college. I had begun pledging a fraternity and my classes had gotten a lot harder. During his visit in January, he spent more time in my dorm room than I did—I was drowning in newfound commitments and rush events, so much so that they began to take precedence over my relationship.
My bustling schedule only continued to exacerbate our relationship. My business was compounded with callousness. He had become insecure, unwilling to communicate. Mere hours before I was scheduled to hop on a bus to see him for Valentine’s, he cut ties. Rather than sitting on a bus seat, I was sinking into the one behind my desk.
I attend a university that prides itself on demanding academics and a subversive culture of elitism. I love my school, but I’m not naive to its repressive social systems. People work hard and play harder. We pride ourselves on being some of the best students in the nation, such that we forget that we are human. There’s not a lot of conversation about personal wellness, much less that which is often misconstrued as weak or feeble, like mental health.
Despite my innate love of learning and how accustomed I was to excelling academically, I couldn’t bring a pen to paper. I was fumbling to get up in the morning and practice basic hygiene—long nights in the library studying for my encroaching midterms seemed out of the question.
Rather, I focused most of my energy trying to piece together my lost relationship; it consumed me. I would fantasize about our montage summer until I’d thought of something clever enough to text him, something I knew would illicit a response. He didn’t take the high road either; he would often send me nostalgic photos or engage me in conversations about “what happened” and “where we went wrong.” Eventually, we both deluded ourselves into thinking we could remedy our relationship. I bussed ten hours to his school in East Jesus Nowhere. After lots of sex, crying, and arguing, I found myself on a bus back to the mid-Atlantic, driving down a road just as emotionally volatile as the one I’d first traveled to see him.
Our attempts at rekindling the relationship failed. He had emotionally stagnated and I had become an eruptive force of anger, confusion, and pain. We ceased contact. I did some damage control on my grades and dragged myself through the rest of school, eager for a summer that I hoped would be rehabilitative and healing.
No one, throughout my break up, really helped me take care of myself. Nobody stepped in or encouraged me to fight for the academic excellence and emotional independence I was used to. It was no one’s obligation, but there were plenty of people—friends, family, professors—who would have stepped up had they known how to, or had they known the turmoil I was facing to begin with. The biggest problem I faced in this battle of mental stability wasn’t that I was alone, but that I couldn’t be with others. We live in a world where discussions of mental health, in any capacity, are spurned. It didn’t matter how normal the experience of lost love is, how relatable my problem was—mental instability is a blacklist topic. I was expected to act like my break-up didn’t shake me, when it did. Difficult break-ups are viewed as the petty, disillusioned concerns of rom-com protagonists or people who watch too much daytime television, when in actuality they hit all of us at the core. People were scared to reach out and tell me their own experiences because of the pervasive damnation our culture has on speaking to or about mental health.
The beauty of break ups is their ubiquity—everyone gets their heart broken. Yet talking about it is often impossible. My attempts to open up to friends and family often devolved to incoherent stuttering; I was afraid. I have—we all have—grown up in a world where discussing emotional distress and vulnerability is a sign of weakness. I didn’t want to be weak. I didn’t want to be chastised or condescended to, so I just didn’t. I tried to internalize the issue, deal with it myself, and I handled it irresponsibly. The only person I managed to ever talk to about my broken heart was the man who broke it.
What are we supposed to do when we find ourselves not just emotionally stricken, but estranged from the one person we trusted with such vulnerabilities? We associate heartbreak with vapidity and melodrama, and it’s wrong. Break-ups are shit; for me, it put my whole life on hold. I was ashamed to admit it, which only exacerbated the problem. I didn’t and still don’t suffer from mental illness, but that doesn’t mean that mental health can’t be messy. Love is messy, break-ups are messy, life is messy. To act as though our mental or emotional responses can’t be messy isn’t just naive, it’s damaging.
People didn’t need to understand the nuances of my relationship to help me cope with a pain that’s just as common as falling in love in the first place. All they needed was for me to open up. But in a world where I felt wrong for being sad, I often didn’t give anyone that chance.
A year from the day we met, I had him in my dorm room, naked except for some Christmas lights and a beer-stained Santa hat we’d drunkenly accrued at a frat party. He beamed at the camera as I giggled and took a bunch of pictures. He detangled himself and sat on my lap. He looked me in the eyes and said, “You take care of me. You are strong for me.”
He was right; I did learn how to care for him, be strong for him, love him unconditionally. I kissed him just as he demanded, thinking nothing of how that moment would stay with me forever. What I’m only realizing now is that, while I’d learned to help him, I never learned to help myself. Mental health is an inherent struggle we all face, yet one we’re all constantly avoiding and failing to learn from. Mental health is hard to dissect. There’s no clear “how to” when we suffer emotional blows; however, these sufferings are inevitable.
I am not weak for opening up about my mental health. Weakness results from fear, from an unwillingness to challenge the status quo, from choosing what’s easy over what’s right. Weakness is pretending I’m not allowed to be sad, that I don’t suffer. I don’t have to be OK all of the time. I don’t have to act as if losing my first love wasn’t one of the hardest emotional struggles I’ve ever had.
My break-up hurt, but not talking about it hurt way worse. Mental health is hard, but it doesn’t have to be convoluted. Following my break-up, I thought my biggest challenge would be getting over him; as it turns out, my biggest challenge was getting over myself.
Reece Sisto is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. Photography by Reece Sisto.