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I don’t recall when the idea first occurred to me but I remember asking him over text, after spending half the evening fighting at The Cheesecake Factory, if he would wait for me. “Him” was my boyfriend at the time and South Africa was where he would have to wait for me to return from. He never actually responded to my message and I fell asleep on Valentine’s Day in a fit of desperate tears. We eventually addressed the possibility of me being away for five months in a cursory fashion, as we did with every dysfunction in our relationship. We were both scared of what was going to happen to “us” but instead of being realistic about the trajectory of our lives, we continued living in the complexities of our own fantasy land.

Our future was promising, we assumed, even though our ideas of what the future held secretly differed drastically between the two of us. From the very beginning, our happiness lived in the future, always as far away from where we were as one could possibly get. The only reason we held onto the notion of being a couple was because our overambitious vision of what our life could be like looked pretty good. However, day-to-day we struggled with cohesion, ending phone calls in fighting matches and temporarily burning bridges for the sake of dramatics. In those moments, studying abroad was my closest acceptable equivalent to running away from every miserable facet of my ordinary American life. When my idea to leave the country finally did occur to me, I jumped wholeheartedly on board.  

We agreed to continue our relationship while I was away. He insisted that it was “only five months” and that my time in South Africa wouldn’t affect our relationship in the longterm. For him, my return signaled the start of a new chapter in our lives, one that would propel us closer and closer to what was becoming more obviously his vision of our relationship, not ours. Truthfully, I was doubtful my return would change anything for us but I was too desperate for his approval to notice at the time. After all, I had been ignoring my gut for the greater part of our relationship, consistently nullifying the “this isn’t going to work out” feeling with a halfhearted justification. This time was hardly different but it did require me to stay over 7,000 miles away for nearly half a year. This fact effectively allowed me even more time to bury my head further into the sand. I figured that my problems could wait, especially when I was about to embark on the greatest journey of my life. There was little use in worrying about something I mentally filed under “My Life in America.”

Our first month and a half of long distance worked somewhat decently. We talked regularly and when I was experiencing the sharp pains of culture shock, I cried and complained to him over FaceTime. He had always been the textbook example of a “shoulder to cry on.” At some point in our relationship, he began receiving more of my stories of woe rather than those of wonder. Looking back, I can only attribute this to his unwillingness and hurriedness to hear anything positive about my life outside of our relationship. Our existence as a couple subsisted on negativity, judgement, and complaining.

In August, everything started to change for me. I was about a month into my South African experience and I was, as Holly  Golightly would say, “divinely and utterly happy.” I made a few friends with some of the girls in my house and I was starting to get a real feel for Cape Town. South Africa was beginning to feel like home and quickly became a safe haven from all the negativity I was experiencing back in the States. I was also finally warming up to the idea of going out for a few drinks, an activity I had previously avoided. On my first real night out, I met a South African boy with long blonde hair who spent his free time surfing and traveling. He was engaging, captivating, a little mysterious, and enormously charming. By the end of our brief conversation, he promised my friend that he would teach us how to surf so we gave him our numbers. I thought very little of our exchange.  

Fast forward a few weeks, blonde boy seemed to be into me and to my surprise, I was into him. Suddenly, every problem I ever had with my boyfriend was magnified and the reality of my relationship status was staring me in the face. I wanted to be free but I couldn’t let go. Ultimately, after tears and difficult FaceTime conversations, my boyfriend and I agreed to open our relationship for the duration of my trip… which didn’t technically make my emotional involvement with blonde boy any more allowable. In retrospect, it’s clear that we were putting bandaids on problems that bandaids couldn’t fix. Agreeing to an open relationship was merely an illustration of me desperately hanging on by the thinnest thread, afraid to let go of something that defined me for over three years.

About two and a half months in, my friend and I had a falling out and blonde boy disappeared. It became obvious that my problems I thought were bound by national borders had followed me. They weren’t in other people or in unfortunate circumstances. They were challenges that lived in me and it took feeling rejection after three years of stability for me to finally see that those challenges were holding me back from living the happy life that I always wanted.

I spent the next two weeks completely alone. It felt good to finally take inventory of my spiraling thoughts and feelings. When I took time out for myself, I started identifying the issues I was running into in every area of my life. I discovered thought patterns that left me feeling unsure of my own identity and caused me to search for approval, emotional stability, and appreciation in the outside world. I realized that I had been denying myself the self love I needed for far too long, convinced by socialization and life experiences that I didn’t deserve it and that there wasn’t enough to go around. That’s when I decided I had to start thinking differently, if only to keep myself from losing it when I was the furthest away from home I had ever been.

I eventually got over blonde boy. Not because of time or distance like the stories usually say but because I finally understood that I was too valuable to waste my time on someone who couldn’t see it. I was too tired to give out chance after chance to people who abused them and contrary to my previous beliefs, I did deserve happiness. I was seeing myself as something worthy of my own love and care for what felt like the first time and I vowed to stop emotionally neglecting myself.

My grandmom used to tell me that she learned to take care of herself first from her mother. She would always say that to properly care for someone else, you had to have first cared for yourself. When she talked about this, she always used the example of her mother taking a few minutes to fix her appearance before her husband came home after an entire day of looking after the kids. My grandmom never talked about this idea in concerns to emotional stability, so I spent most of my life believing that emotions would just take care of themselves. Emotions and thoughts, I assumed, were supposed to be felt as erratically as one pleased. The brain did what it was supposed to, I thought. It took a little while for me to understand that changing your life starts with first addressing your perspective and then understanding and managing your emotional reactions to it.

Later on in the semester, I found another South African boy who, at the time, I respected a lot more than blonde boy. We spent a decent amount of fleeting time together and got along really well but he eventually rejected me because he had just come out of a very serious relationship. We established some sort of casual agreement between the two of us that I never truly agreed with in my heart of hearts. He protected his own heart by being as unaccommodating as possible and for awhile this made me angry. For whatever reason, I wanted more than he could offer at the time so the rejection and cold reactions still came as a disappointment. But this time, after examining the situation in a positive light, the blow didn’t hurt quite as badly and his inability to move beyond his past could hardly touch my newfound sense of self-esteem. I stopped taking it so personally. Fortunately, I learned a lot more from his absence than a relationship with him could have ever provided.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what happened to my boyfriend who I talked about earlier. I was wondering the same when I returned to “My Life in America,” having experienced the enormous amount of self growth I just described. Sometimes I look back on what I did in South Africa and wonder if any of it was too selfish, if I broke too many hearts in the process of mending my own. I often have to remind myself that South Africa, including every irresponsible thing I did there, was the first time I really thought about what I wanted and needed emotionally. Coming out of that experience, I knew that my now ex-boyfriend and I couldn’t resume our relationship for quite some time or at all because I could see more clearly who I was and what I wanted moving forward. I knew that the life I started to envision for myself while abroad could never fit neatly into the relationship we had before I left for South Africa. It was only natural for us to rethink our lives together upon my return. Fortunately, he had done some growing himself and we managed to be at least somewhat on the same page when we agreed to cordially end things.

I expected to be torn up about our breakup when I came home but I was and still am more than okay. If anything, I’m grateful. I’m grateful for South Africa for pointing me in the direction of something much more valuable than any relationship the world could possibly produce. And I’m grateful for time. In five months I learned more about myself than I would have if my life had continued as business as usual. I’m not that girl anymore, asking men to wait for her and crying tears on Valentine’s Day. I’m a lot more with much less.

Published by Shawna Robertson