Strolling hand in hand down leaf-scattered paths with the one you love, your body hums with connectedness to the trees, the wind and the sun shining only for you.
When the relationship ends and you are dressed in yesterday’s sweatpants, shuffling down those same paths over and over again in your memory is like being caught in a miserable loop that won’t stop playing. You are stuck in the purgatory of Phantom Load, betrayed by the very attachment that at first felt so good.
Phantom Load is the power an electrical device draws when it’s plugged in but not in use. It’s also the emotional quicksand we find ourselves in when a relationship ends, but we are unable to unplug our hearts and fully let go.
Finding love is delicious. It tastes like victory: sweet but fleeting. Losing, on the other hand, lingers.
Though we desperately want the pain to end, we end up stoking it into flames, letting it feed on song lyrics (“Yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive”), photographs, and all the other detritus we used to cherish; nursing that decadent, socked-in-the-gut breakup hangover. Why can’t we just unplug and save ourselves this unnecessary pain? Maybe because when it comes to love, phantom load serves a useful purpose.
The plummet that follows a breakup can be so vast that its very enormity expands the world for us, albeit in a direction we’d rather avoid. But that’s where growth usually occurs. How would we ever evolve if everything was perfect?
And who says we’re supposed to feel good all the time anyway?
Pema Chodron, and Chogyam Trungpa before her, says that everything is workable, even—or especially—if it hurts. Though it is our tendency to try and avoid pain, if we stay plugged into it, we can gain a lot of spiritual mileage from the crushing end of a relationship. Hell, if we’ve got to suffer, at least let it bear some kind of fruit. Phantom load isn’t just for bartenders, therapists, and songwriters. If we can white-knuckle ourselves through the painful process of healing, we can use it to deepen our practice.
Clinging to a relationship after it ends may drain us of momentary power, but over time, recovery can regenerate us more than the relationship ever did. Along the path of healing, we suffer, but we learn. Perhaps then, phantom load is a way to reorganize our energies, bolster and reclaim ourselves even though we mostly feel like crying or throwing up.
Ironically, although healing from a breakup feels isolating, it is also a reminder that we are all connected, not only to one another, but to our true natures as well. When we are tested with loss, tempted by the many creative methods for alleviating pain, we have a choice to make. Perhaps staying plugged in until the memories of love burn themselves out is the best way to honor the time and attention we gave to the relationship, and thus, to honor ourselves.
Losing love is a common (if not inevitable) human experience, but enduring the loss connects us to one another in a way that skipping through sunny pastures simply can’t.
We cannot be fully in a relationship and not somehow be changed by its ending. We cannot love and lose and not mine some serious gold from suffering the loneliness and disappointment that follows the end of a relationship with someone we truly loved.
At the height of this terrible vulnerability, we are fully connected to the soft, lonely heart that lives deep within all of us, the heart we try to shelter from pain even though we can’t help risking it again and again for love. If you’ve loved and lost, you are inextricably bound to everyone else who’s loved and lost. All of us have at least this common ground upon which we are reminded what connects us to one another.
Phantom load then, is not about the depletion of power and the loss of love but about the rediscovery of both at a time when we need them most.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Cami Krueger / Editor: Catherine Monkman