52 Hours at Breakup Boot Camp
Posted June 1, 2018 7:12 p.m. EDT
My five-year relationship with my live-in boyfriend ended like this: I had an abortion and he had an emotional affair with an Instagram model. Then I lost my mind.
Among other attempts at self-healing, I have tried casual sex, dating apps, uppers, downers, day drinking and sobriety. I also tried somatic healing, boxing, Buddhist meditation, ayahuasca and, finally, because it was offered to me for free by a publicist, Botox. “A few pricks may ease your blues,” she wrote in an email last March. Well, I thought, at least I wouldn’t look so sad.
There’s this horrible, aching thing about heartbreak. My sanity has been mostly restored by months of diligent work in a 12-step program for people addicted to unhealthy sexual and romantic relationships, and I don’t harbor even the slimmest sliver of a desire to rekindle things with my ex. But I’m struggling to let the story of my breakup go, especially its painful end.
So when I saw an ad for something called “breakup boot camp,” I knew I wanted in.
Held at a luxurious log mansion on 14 rolling acres in Saugerties, New York, Renew Breakup Bootcamp offered a chance to reset. Over a weekend in April, I joined 13 other participants for a series of yoga classes, therapeutic workshops and meditative sessions. All meals were prepared by an on-site nutritionist.
The program — which is really more like group therapy than a boot camp — is the brainchild of Amy Chan, 36, who was a marketing executive before she started this all-female retreat, billed as a “a scientific and spiritual approach to healing the heart.” (My session was the fifth iteration of the program, which was founded last year.)
Of course, two nights and three heavily scheduled days of spiritual rewiring don’t come cheap. The weekend cost between $1,295 and $2,495, depending on lodging, and participants had the option to purchase additional one-on-one sessions with some facilitators for an extra $145. This, on top of the cost of transportation, makes Renew a rarefied type of therapeutic gathering. Twelve-step programs, on the other hand, are free and available worldwide.
Yes, this weekend was bougie. But bougie felt nice.
Friday: Filling Our ‘Hungry Ghosts’
I was the first participant to arrive, and after hugs of greeting from Chan and Trish Barillas, a life coach who helped facilitate the retreat, I was shown across the lawn to my lavender tepee. A braided rainbow rug was stretched across the tent’s hardwood floors, and in between two warmly made beds there was a propane heater and a mini fridge stocked with SmartWater for me and my roommate. Roughing it, we were not.
Participants arrived in ones and twos, and from all over: California, Texas, Maryland, Vermont and Toronto, as well as New York City and New Jersey. We were mostly white and ranged in age from 29 to 52. The previous boot camps Chan hosted were more diverse in terms of sexual orientation, she told me, but this weekend everyone was here about a man.
Naomi Arbit, a behavioral scientist who developed much of the Renew curriculum, told me that many heartbroken people used their former partners “to fill their feelings of emptiness or loneliness.” Before they enter into new relationships, she said, “people need to learn how to fill their own hungry ghosts.”
Although I realize she was talking about spirituality, at Renew we ate well too. Everything was gluten-free and mostly meatless. Our first lunch was a Thai-inspired shiitake mushroom and rice noodle soup with a vegan niçoise salad.
Before we could sit down to eat it, the house’s alarm system began to bleep, triggered by seemingly nothing at all. No one in the program could figure out how to make it stop. We were secure, but our security system indicated otherwise. Finally, the property manager for the estate — a man! — had to drive over and sever the panel’s faulty wiring. A few women complained that they could still hear a beep, which then turned out to be coming from the master bedroom, where the alarm persisted. He cut into those wires, too. I wondered if anyone else was seeing the symbolism.
“You guys are coming here, thinking you’re healing from an ex,” Chan said later that afternoon, as we gathered on deep couches around a fireplace, beneath the benevolent gaze of a dead buffalo’s stuffed and mounted head. “You’re not. It’s recycled pain.” Here at boot camp, she explained, we’d be peeling back emotional layers to identify the patterns that no longer served us.
We went around in a circle, sharing the stories of the breakups that brought us there.
Then it was time for yoga — “the sun is in nice, luscious Taurus,” our instructor said between poses — and some life coaching. We all applied essential oil (rose) to our wrists and were encouraged to make lists of the events surrounding our breakups. “Write down the facts,” Barillas, the life coach, instructed. These reminders, she said, would help guard against the highlight reel of our memories: “Anxiety keeps you in the past and the future, when it’s too painful to be in the present.”
Dinner was quinoa and chicken thighs with ratatouille, and for dessert, there was blood orange ricotta cheesecake so delicious that I ate it with my hands.
Saturday: ‘Feelings Aren’t Facts’
After breakfast — which in my case, consisted of more of last night’s cake — we had our first session of the day with Elaina Zendegui, a clinical psychologist from Rutgers who came to speak about emotional regulation and self-compassion.
She encouraged us to seek our own forms of validation as a tool for self-soothing. There was validation in seeing themes from our own lives in the stories of strangers, she said, and also in labeling our feelings.
Zendegui asked us to pick a painful thought (“I’m too much” — there, I’ve said it) and then walk backward through the framework of it: I’m aware/that I’m noticing/that I’m having the thought that/I’m too much.
The exercise echoed something Barillas had said the day before: Feelings aren’t facts and they don’t define us. Sometimes, when you’re spinning out, a little forced perspective can do wonders. I’m not too much, even if I sometimes feel that way.
That afternoon, we were given several hours of free time to process our thoughts, write in our journals, walk about the grounds, relax in the sauna or meet for elective one-on-one sessions.
I elected to meet with Maria Soledad, a stunning Colombian woman, who told us she was trained in “psychomagic” (“a performative act that we do to treat the unconscious”) and the Tarot de Marseille. She had me pull six Tarot cards and then spoke to me about them from the first-person perspective of my inner child.
My cards — the Pope, Emperor, High Priestess, Empress, Star and Moon — told us many things. For one thing, I used to be in a relationship in which I wasn’t being seen. Check. For another, I was about to get a lot more visibility and be under the spotlight. Hello!
“Just be you and everything magnetizes, everything shows up,” Soledad said. “Don’t call, don’t beg. You do you.” I loved her. Dinner that night was miso salmon over forbidden rice. We spent the evening talking about various attachment styles — anxious, avoidant and secure — and before bed, we wrote and burned letters to our exes.
Then we chilled out with a gamma brain wave meditation led by Soledad.
Sunday: ‘To Be Seen and Heard’
Things got much more intimate on our last day at boot camp. Sunday morning was dedicated to tantric energy movement and breath work with Gina Marie, a holistic healer who said that she specialized in sacred sexuality and emotional cord cutting. We swiveled our hips for five minutes, then shook in place for five more. Then we hyperventilated on yoga mats, to the point that I lost feeling in my fingers and hands, and some women moaned and screamed. Ecstatic breathing — it’s a trip!
We also met with a professional dominatrix who goes by Colette Pervette to talk about — among so much else — sex, fantasy, communication and shame. “We have so many sides to ourselves, and yet we show one, maybe two, to our partner,” Pervette said.
Everyone partnered up to share secrets with one another — practicing vulnerability and honesty — and, as a group, we reflected on the experience. “To be seen and heard as a sexual being, it felt nice,” said a divorced woman from Vermont. We were proud of her, and of ourselves, because we were a group and her growth was ours, too.
My own moment of breakthrough happened the day before, while talking with an intuitive counselor. “He’s never going to change,” she said. “He’s got to be careful.” In that moment, I knew what she meant. I realized how much I had changed, that all the hard work I’d done on myself was paying off. I hadn’t cried in months — I was all cried out from months of moping — so it was deeply cathartic, luxurious even, to feel so deeply. Her words softened something in me.
After lunch, and before tearful hugs goodbye, we had one final fireside chat with Chan, who prepped us before sending us once more unto the breach. “Our romantic partners aren’t here to make us happy,” she said. “They’re here to make us conscious.”