Harriet Walker: 'Heartbreak is like living with a scarecrow'

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If the readers of this column are anything like me, they will surely know the bleak, dull pain of attentions unnoticed, of love thrown back in one's face and of doormattish acts of supplication used and abused without the faintest sign of any returned affection. They're the hallmarks of a normal adolescence.

I have more memories of standing alone in corners trying to look busy than Morrissey. Of taking two hours to get dressed and then spending two minutes at a party before my heart was broken. Of being the life and soul, and checking out of the corner of one eye every 10 seconds or so to make sure it hadn't gone unnoticed. Of laughing great decibels of Fake, just so I wouldn't cry.

These experiences teach us how to socialise in a world in which things don't always go our way, in which we catch ourselves thinking that other people might be paying attention to what we're up to, and are swiftly reminded of our insignificance as swiftly as we were dumped by the guy who used to walk the same route home as us, with whom we had nothing in common but pavements and pelican crossings.

It is those incidents that teach us how to act like an adult, like a real person. So when you see people who clearly haven't learnt this lesson, who are still acting the way you did when you were 15, it is puzzling.

You see, as I was acting like a real person at a party last weekend (two parts standing in a corner to one part laughing hilariously at a joke I didn't understand), I witnessed some Behaviour. It made me angry, and scornful. It made me lose my patience and then wonder why.

What I witnessed was the sorry interplay between a pair of people who had formerly been attached. A depressing dance of "How are you, I'm fine, me too, bye, see you" – that's how it should have gone. What actually happened was that the former girlfriend embraced the new girlfriend (whom she had never met before) and swished her off to a corner to discuss how fine she was with the extant fact of there being a new girlfriend. Then another ex-girlfriend intervened and they all had a chat about it together.

The new girlfriend looked at the other two as if they were mad; the formers talked with all the emotive tone and warmth of an AK-47; the boyfriend stood, lost, in the middle of the room, looking as horrified as he did awkward.

It pains me to say this, but I was disappointed in those women. They played out every single one of the hysteric, weird, psychotic clichés that men like to use against us when they have done something wrong. That was the problem: this guy had done nothing wrong. He had turned up to a party thrown by his friends. Some relationships had ended, another one had begun – but some lives had not moved on. And in not moving on, those lives did that teenage thing of thinking they were more important than any of the other lives in the room.

Heartbreak is like living with a scarecrow that stands behind you for six to nine months, ensuring nobody else comes near. The empty, sucking feeling you get when your beloved finds someone new is akin to having your head squeezed down a plughole while somebody does the washing-up in your stomach.

What you need to do in that situation is remain as far from that person as is physically possible until the scarecrow has been replaced with a tin-man, some heartless day-by-day automaton who will get you through until Oz can give you back your emotional range.

What you should never do is turn up to a party where you know that person and his new person are going to be in the hope that you can charm him into having you back and her into not noticing what you're trying to do.

Snogging someone whose name you don't know on a chair next to the person whose name is etched into the back of your eyelids is not the answer. "Losing your coat" in order to rummage in between your ex and his new girlfriend is no solution. Leave your coat, leave the party – your jacket of mortification will keep your cheeks burning for days anyway.

But at least, as it dawns on you that you've left your dignity behind, you will learn what the rest of us learnt as teenagers. And you will never do it again.

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