“Raw and retching”: what it’s really like to experience heartbreak – and what the films get wrong

When author Radhika Sanghani ended a serious relationship, she struggled to find films that really reflected her experience. Here she explains how the raw pain of heartbreak is far removed from the romcom stereotypes. 

The moment my boyfriend and I realised we were truly breaking up, I started retching. I hadn’t eaten dinner so there was nothing inside me to throw up, but I still had to run to the bathroom. I spent forever sobbing and retching over the loo while I realised my relationship was over and the future I’d imagined with him would never happen.

This is the unglamorous truth of heartbreak

I’d been with my boyfriend for a year and we were together during lockdown, so things had felt even more intense. We both loved each other a lot, and after becoming part of each other’s families I’d assumed we’d stay together forever. But that Thursday evening, five months ago, we realised we both wanted different things and there was no way to work it out. It was over.

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I’d experienced heartbreak before – I’d even written a novel, Thirty Things I Love About Myself, all about a woman healing from a break-up, inspired by my own five years earlier.

But, in the same way mothers often forget the pain of childbirth, I seemed to have forgotten just how agonisingly painful it really was. I felt like the ground had been pulled from underneath me. It was such a shock that I fell apart, barely eating, losing a stone and constantly crying.

The thing about this level of pain is that you feel desperately alone, like you’re the only person in the world who has ever felt this way. The sense of isolation makes the pain even worse, so I searched in vain for a film, book, TV show – absolutely anything where I could see my own experiences reflected back at me.

Only, I couldn’t find anything.

Bridget Jones
“In most films about heartbreak, the lead character spends a few days in bed crying with ice cream. Suddenly she’s okay again.”

In most films about heartbreak, the lead character spends a few days in bed crying with ice cream and then goes out drinking with her friends. Suddenly she’s OK again. In Bridget Jones, when Mark Darcy seemingly chooses Natasha over Bridget, she’s sad until her friends show up to take her to Paris. I could barely leave my house to go to the supermarket, let alone another country. 

Even in P.S. I Love You, where the main character’s husband dies, she’s able to get dressed up and hang out with her friends. The only thing I wore after my break-up was a faded sweatshirt and shorts.

I googled ‘films about heartbreak’ and found the likes of 500 Days of Summer, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Crazy, Stupid, Love. I couldn’t bear to rewatch any of them; these were funny, light-hearted romcoms where the worst pain was depicted with a bit of light crying (all with flawless make-up) and lots of drinking. I’d decided to stop drinking alcohol so I didn’t feel worse the morning after, and when I cried (with zero make-up in sight), I howled loudly into a pillow.

I tried to look up celebrity interviews after break-ups; maybe real-life would be more accurate? But none mentioned anything I could relate to, like retching over the loo and having to force yourself to eat a banana because you hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. Until I found a quote from Emma Stone. She tells The Interview magazine: ‘I remember being on the floor… I have never felt anything quite like that. It was so visceral. It’s like someone has killed you and you have to live through it and watch it happen… It was awful.’

I felt so much better. Finally, someone was talking about a break-up in terms I could understand – until I realised she was describing a break-up she’d had when she was 14. 14! I was 31, and years away from the hormonal angst of puberty. Surely I shouldn’t feel as bad as she did back then?

“It was only when I suddenly remembered a scene from the Sex And The City movie that I truly found my experience reflected on film.”

It was only when I suddenly remembered a scene from the Sex And The City movie that I truly found my experience reflected on film. It’s when Big jilts Carrie before their wedding, her phone falls from her hands, and she’s completely numb. Her friends take her to Mexico, where she spends days lying in bed unable to speak or move. She can’t eat so Samantha feeds her yoghurt with a spoon. She looks at her reflection in the mirror and her face is grey.

This was more like it. My face looked just as grey as Carrie’s – neighbours I’d barely spoken to stopped me in the stairs to ask if I was sick – and while my friends hadn’t spoon-fed me yoghurt, they’d sat by my side congratulating me as I managed to eat soup.

I watched this scene on repeat, much to my friend’s concern – “Are you sure you want to watch it again? Won’t it make you feel worse?” But it didn’t. I felt so much better knowing that someone, even if it was a fictional character, had felt the way I did. And when Carrie laughs for the first time since her heartbreak, I knew there was hope. I, too, would laugh again. 

That, to me, is the magic of seeing yourself reflected in art. It takes away the loneliness of the pain and offers hope. If Carrie could do it, so could I. (Though I always turned the film off the second Big came back on the scene, because I knew that was where our experiences parted ways; there was no way my ex and I were getting back together.)

I began opening up to my friends about how I felt, and they shared their similarly raw experiences of heartbreak with me. They shared their go-to resources, and though there weren’t really any films that summed up what we felt, we all loved Eat Pray Love (mainly the beginning where we find the author Elizabeth Gilbert heartbroken).

Later, I found a Facebook post from Gilbert where she truthfully described heartbreak. “The bottom has fallen out of your life, you don’t know how you can survive this.” She’d accompanied it with a meme that said, “Hey you know that person you thought you couldn’t live without? Well, look at you, living and shit.”

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The truth is there really aren’t that many honest, accurate depictions of break-ups out there, either because people are embarrassed to be vulnerable about their pain, or that by the time they’re healed and ready to put something out there, they’ve forgotten just how awful it was.

But when you’re in pain and you find something that helps you feel seen, it can make such a difference. Suddenly, you know you’re not alone and there’s a glimmer of hope. If they can survive, so can you.

As bad as a broken heart is, it doesn’t last forever. Mine was five months ago now, and after giving myself all the self-love, self-care and support I needed, I barely recognise that sad, grey girl who couldn’t eat.

Instead, I’m thriving. I’m happier than I was in the relationship I was so devastated to lose. Even though there were times when I really didn’t think it would happen, I can confirm that I am, again, officially “living and shit”.  

Thirty Things I Love About Myself by Radhika Sanghani, published by Headline Review is available to buy now. 

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