You would think a lifetime of watching rom–coms and reading paperback romance novels would have prepared me for my first heartbreak. It didn’t even come close. I guess it’s because those stories usually have a happy ending, or at least the kind where the two people grow from the pain, move on, reflect fondly over their time spent together, and all that other flowery shit. (I’m looking at you, La La Land). But when I went through my first breakup, it felt like I’d reached the end of a cliff—there was nothing beyond but rock bottom. 

We’d been friends since we were 11 and started dating when we were 14. For three and a half years of high school, my days went like this: Wake up and text him good morning. Drive to school half an hour early to hang out with him before first period. Spend the handful of classes we shared holding hands under the table. Wander the halls after school sneaking kisses and laughing about nothing. Text him every five minutes until bed. Repeat. 

Yes, we were gross, but I was in love. He was my first boyfriend, my first kiss, my first everything, and he knew me better than anyone. He knew I sometimes slept with my closet light on, got irrationally nervous ordering food at restaurants, and wished my parents would get divorced. I knew he hated bacon, was legally blind without his glasses, and still wished his parents hadn’t gotten divorced. I didn’t know who I was without him. 

That’s why I panicked when we started drifting apart during our senior year of high school. The more he pulled away, the tighter I held on, wondering what I was doing wrong. Still, I was shocked when he broke up with me while we sat in his car in our high school parking lot. He avoided my eyes as he told me he wanted to focus on himself before college. (“It’s not you, it’s me”). The months that followed were, and still are, the worst months of my life. We saw each other multiple times a day, every day, in classes. I was constantly on the verge of tears. Everyone we knew took sides in the breakup, and I lost one of my closest friends in the process. Just two months later, he started dating someone else, and his words about focusing on himself played on repeat in my head whenever I saw them together. Yeah, bullshit. 

My family didn’t know how to help me. My parents put me in therapy, then took me out after two sessions because it was “just a breakup.” I became a regular at my guidance counselor’s door. I still came to school earlybut instead of seeing my ex, I sat crying in my band director’s office as he awkwardly (but kindly) told me that heartbreak doesn’t last forever.

I didn’t believe him. It felt like my best friend had died, and a stranger with his face had replaced him. The worst part was that I didn’t understand why things went downhill. If the person who knew me best in the world didn’t want to be with me, what did that say about me?

The above version of the story was the one I told myself over and over. It’s the one I really believed, but it’s not the truth. Or not the full one, anyway. 

It took me months to figure it out. In the meantime, I was hurt and confused. I scoured internet forums looking for answers. Why did he break up with me? Was I not good enough? Was there something wrong with me?

I found the subreddit r/relationship_advice, a forum for people to post about their relationship issues. I recognized bits and pieces of myself in other people’s stories. Someone would post about having a clingy, emotional partner, and my stomach would sink as the commenters clamored for a breakup. I read post after post about people doing hurtful things that I knew I’d done. The comments were decisive: It was manipulation and emotional abuse. 

The parts of myself that I saw on the subreddit were honest and ugly. I hadn’t consciously acknowledged them because they didn’t fit into the story I’d told myself about the breakup: We had the perfect relationship, he sabotaged it out of nowhere, and he didn’t even care that I was hurting. 

The following is another version of the story that includes everything I didn’t want to admit: 

I tied my self–worth to him and our relationship. Whenever we had an argument, I felt like it was an attack on me. I guilted him by saying that I didn’t deserve him and that I hated myself, forcing him to forget the argument and comfort me instead. I was suspicious and jealous of his friends, and I became passive aggressive when he chose to talk to them instead of me. I wanted all of his time and attention. 

After we broke up, I still texted him every day, hoping that we would get back together. I’d tell him that I was lonely, I was depressed, I was suicidal. I manipulated him into supporting me. Finally, when he decided to date someone else, I blew up our friend group by lashing out at anyone who stayed in contact with him. I didn’t lose my friends—I pushed them away. 

I was insecure, controlling, and emotionally abusive. I had painted myself as the victim in my own narrative, but in reality, I was the villain. 

As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I knew it was the truth. Though I eventually moved on from the pain of the breakup, the realization that I had such a lack of self–awareness clawed at me. At that time in high school, it was easy to wave away any doubts about my actions. I thought I was just saying what I felt. How could expressing my emotions be manipulative? 

I learned through Reddit that using words and feelings to control another person is the foundation of emotional abuse. It’s a form of abuse that can be difficult to recognize because the tell–tale signs—which include irrational jealousy, guilt–tripping, and intentionally withholding affection—are often subtle. They might initially appear like the run–of–the–mill arguments that all couples have. In my own relationship, I never thought I was doing anything wrong. Looking back, it’s because I used my emotions as an excuse to completely ignore his. 

It’s three years later and I still think about him. Not because I miss him—the perfect relationship I thought we had wasn’t real. It’s because I’m still afraid that I might be lying to myself about my actions. It’s my obligation to carry my fear so I’ll never act that way again. 

It took me years to come to terms with my role as an abuser, but I was able to change my narrative—by destroying it and starting again.