How to Survive a Breakup: Get a Houseplant — An essay by Monica Prince

How to Survive a Breakup: Get a Houseplant

By Monica Prince


“Water it.”


In January of 2014, you are exactly halfway through your graduate program. You’re teaching, writing, taking classes, mentoring, and trying to have a social life all at the same time. You do a dumb thing and start sleeping with Shane, who has a girlfriend. It’s not the worst thing you’ve ever done, but it’s one of the stupidest. One night, he comes over and after he cums, he says he loves you.

You’ve never felt a lie before—no one could have prepared you for the icy blade twisting in your gut. As soon as he said it, you felt sick. There is no way in any conceivable universe this man loves you. Love isn’t supposed to feel like the hangover after a night of mixed liquors and gas station chicken biscuits.

The next morning, you wake up alone. Your body feels like it ran a marathon or was hit by a steam train or was spit roasted over a fire for twelve hours. Who knew grief and guilt could be physical? You drag your useless self to your car and drive to the health services building. But instead of checking in with a nurse, you climb the back stairs and make an appointment with a counselor.

“Are you in danger of harming yourself or others?” the receptionist asks. She’s Black. You never learn her name, but she reminds you of your mother.

“I don’t think so,” you say. She holds your gaze for a beat before typing something into her computer.

“Can you come next Tuesday?”

Usually counseling appointments take close to two weeks to set up. Tuesday is four days away. Maybe you look worse than you feel.


Kim, a lovely white woman with a caring voice, meets with you every week, more often than is typically recommended. Everything about this is unusual. In the first appointment, she asks you how you’re feeling.

For forty minutes, you tell her this:

In the morning, you can’t get out of bed. The alarm goes off repeatedly until it finally stops. You calculate the amount of time you have until your first appointment—be it a class to teach, a class to attend, a thesis meeting, an on-campus event—and decide if you can stay in bed a little longer. You skip essential parts of your routine—exercising, making and drinking tea, showering, putting in your contacts, eating something—to stay in bed.

In the afternoon, after most appointments have been addressed, you might crawl back into bed. Or you might open some wine. Or you might binge Netflix, or put a pizza in the oven and wait for it on your kitchen floor, drinking straight from the bottle.

Sometimes, a scared little girl in your brain, desperate for some kind of attention, sends you to the bar at three in the afternoon for happy hour and makes you drink eight gin and tonics during the four-hour window, rendering you useless for the rest of the night. Sometimes, she finishes a whole box of kettle corn and a season of NCIS when you should be grading. Sometimes, she makes you burst into tears while teaching a lesson on rape culture, so you send your students home, cancel class for the rest of the week, and hibernate under your duvet, four bottles of wine at the ready beside your bed.

Right now, she doesn’t make you want to die. In eight months, she will. You’ll have dreams about slicing open your thighs with the red IKEA paring knife in your kitchen, swallowing all the pills in your medicine cabinet, or driving your car into Lake Sinclair. In eight months, you’ll call a suicide hotline, but you’ll end up convincing Giselle on the other end that you’re really okay and just need to sleep. In eight months, two days after that call, you’ll walk into a psychiatrist’s office, right after blacking out while driving and almost hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

But right now, you feel like a walking body of wasted time and alcohol poisoning.

You can’t tell Kim what it feels like, but you have words to describe it that come close: lethargy, fatigue, sadness, restlessness, lack of appetite, desire to be alone. “But aren’t you an extrovert?” Kim asks. You nod, but you don’t know how to explain it—lately, you cannot leave your house. You cannot face anyone.

Kim suggests you find a distraction for now, and as your sessions progress, she will help you develop coping mechanisms. You learn to do your own hair. You cook. You create a “business hours” philosophy to decrease burn out. You start to feel better.

In April 2014, Sinjin comes to visit Milledgeville because two weeks prior, someone broke into your house and stole your laptop. At this point, you’ve been in therapy for four months. You have suicidal thoughts more than once a day. You thought you were getting better. Kim says you have severe depression, but you don’t believe her. After you get robbed, you agree.

Sinjin comes to visit because he believes everything can be fixed. In the health care industry, he should know better. He should know some diseases have no cures, like cancer and alcoholism and depression. And yet, here he is at Wal-Mart, buying you tomato and basil plants, insisting that keeping something alive will keep you alive.

He will apply this same philosophy to Otis, your pug, who, in a year, will be dropped into your lap without much forethought on your part. A plant is not a pug, you will think to yourself, but you’ll keep him alive anyway.

By the time Sinjin blows through in his insensitive why-are-you-so-sad-you-have-so-much-to-live-for way, you’ve started and ended the same illicit affair with Shane five times. He keeps seducing you, then apologizing, then finding a way back into your bed. It’s fucking with you so badly that you can’t tell Kim. You can’t tell anyone. He’s not even a good guy, you tell yourself foolishly—sells drugs, cheats on his girlfriend, never goes down on you—but you can’t stand being alone and his attention is addicting. You want someone to want you so badly you don’t care who it is, who he’s really committed to, or what the consequences may be.

This uncontrolled need for attention, this desire to be wanted the way you want to be wanted[1] no matter the cost to your self-esteem, emotional well-being, or physical health won’t kill you. But dammit, Monica, you might not survive what it does do to you.

The semester ends. On the mornings you wake up to an overcast sky, you give up on the rest of the day. You piddle around the house—eating snacks, watching Netflix, scrolling through Facebook—but you never open the front door. On those days, your tomatoes suffer. The basil wilts. You forget they exist until the next day, when you leave to go for a run, and there they are, on the front porch, asking for attention.

As the days get warmer, toward the high eighties and nineties, you get better about watering the plants. You make a point to leave the house once a day, every day. By the end of May, the tomatoes start to bud and ripen. The basil shows up in all your meals. You start to feel better, start to work harder at staying alive. Maybe Sinjin was right, you wonder. Maybe if you stick around just a little longer, things will improve. You stop fucking Shane. You meet someone new. You secure a summer job in Houston teaching creative writing to middle school students. The tomatoes get bigger. The basil gets thicker.

You ask a friend to housesit for you while you work in Houston for the month of June—but when you return, all your plants are dead.

[1] Ntozake Shange, “no assistance,” For colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

Monica Prince received her MFA in poetry from Georgia College & State University, and her BA in English Creative Writing from Knox College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in MadCap Review, Subterranean Blue Poetry, Texas’s Best Emerging Poets, TRACK//FOUR, The Shade Journal, and elsewhere. Her choreopoem, Sestina: A Black Woman in Six Parts, will premiere in Selinsgrove, PA in April 2018. She writes, teaches, and performs at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.

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