Five-thousand feet above the ground, I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me, trying to ignore the skydiving instructor strapped to my back. We had something in common: I’d just been dumped; she was celebrating her divorce papers coming through. Come at us, ground.
A breakup is the perfect time for a radical act, and perhaps even something more long-lasting than hurtling out of a plane. Guardian Australia spoke to five people who broke new ground while on the rebound.Sarah Darlison is a midwife who found that caring for others had also infiltrated her personal life. She’d lost herself trying to help her partner with his mental health. “When it all ended, I needed to find myself again,” she says.
‘Eventually you’ll get to your destination’
She’d seen the movie Wild, in which the protagonist hikes her way out of grief, and, inspired, she booked a trip to Everest base camp with a tour operator. The sense of having a mission helped immediately, even just training at home by hiking with her father. Once in Nepal, being overwhelmed by the beauty and scale of Everest took her renewed purpose to the next level.
“I went on my own, but your group stays at little villages along the way, and there were people from all corners of the world,” she says. “I just remember laughing the whole time. It was the best possible thing for my mental health.”
Darlison says this epic trip taught her perseverance. “It was a real tough experience because of the altitude, and people were getting helicoptered out, but you’ve just got to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then eventually you’ll get to your destination,” she says. “That stuck with me when I came home. If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, eventually I’ll get through it.”
“There were some cheap shots”
The best writing comes from painful experience. For a comedian, it would be practically impossible to ignore the experience of being traded in for a younger model.
“Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” Sami Shah confirms. His show for Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2021 was called Cuck, and while much of it documented the tumultuous political times of 2020, the final 15 minutes detailed his own crisis – his former partner having an affair.
“She didn’t call it an affair. She said she’s polyamorous. Which is hipster for ‘cheating’.”
“There were some cheap shots that I’m not proud of,” he admits, “but I avoid ‘slut shaming’ and things like that. Being the aggrieved party wasn’t the interesting thing to explore. The thing that resonates with people is when I ask if anyone else has been cheated on. It would always surprise me how much pain people had in their eyes. The wound is still there.”
Shah’s material in Cuck slingshots from outbursts to discussion of depression. (“I’m a brown man on a plane, hoping it crashes … is that terrorism?”) It seems wrong to admit how funny the footage is, but then, the show did get Shah his comedy mojo back. “In the last three years my comedy career hadn’t gone anywhere and I couldn’t figure out my voice anymore,” he says. “Doing this show made me feel reinvigorated. This is something I love doing; it’s a way of processing the world that matters to me; and it connects with other people.”
And, Shah says, Cuck helped him move on. “I’d done Zoom therapy sessions and got drunk with friends and cried, but by the end of the four weeks of performing this every night I had moved on so far emotionally that I was more focused on where to pause for dramatic effect,” he says. “You get a level of control over it and you can put it behind you.”
“I danced in the moonlight”
Pippa Coram is an internationally touring circus performer whose life was ripped up by the roots when international borders closed, separating her from her romantic and professional partner, with whom she had a double act. Their relationship didn’t survive the dilemma of who should leave their family during the pandemic and join the other, and her career similarly crashed. “I lost my sense of identity,” she says.
As her mental health deteriorated, she made some uncharacteristic choices. “Quitting alcohol and focusing on self-care were powerful ways to back myself,” she says. She took a camper van north to mental health rehab in Byron Bay.
“I was cry-driving all the way but it was also really special because I’d see a random road sign and turn off and explore, finding these beautiful gorges where it was just me and the eagles above me.” Every event seemed significant on this trip, perhaps because Coram’s normal distractions had fallen away.
Deciding to say yes to everything, she took up a therapist’s suggestion and, after checking out, booked herself on to a women’s “rewilding” retreat. Having been taught how to build shelters and fires, each participant endured 24 hours alone deep in the forest, without food. Coram spent all day building her shelter. “I had this incredible sense of pride when I finished, like I can’t believe I actually did it. I danced in the moonlight until I had the courage to get in,” she says. “The experience made me feel that, if I could survive that, I can survive anything.”
‘Getting stronger was transformative’
After she lost her 29th Muay Thai fight, Emma Thomas’ partner “told me I should give up,” she says. “It made me realise he wasn’t on my side at all.” Thomas is a former professional Muay Thai fighter living in Bangkok who writes the blog Under the Ropes. When her relationship broke up, her ex, another fighter, admitted he’d only been with her because it meant he could live in Thailand.
With her confidence at an all-time low, Thomas took up a new sport: powerlifting. Even though she’d been a fighter, Thomas hadn’t seen herself as particularly strong. “I had to be small to fight, and I’d also made myself smaller around [my ex],” she says. “People described me as shy or a doormat.”
Now she was on a mission to feel powerful. “I was intimidated trying out the classes, and I wasn’t naturally good at it, but I fell in love with it,” she says. Soon, she went from training to competing, placing first in her weight class in her first competition.
Now she volunteers with Bangkok Rising, putting on community events for women. “I really wanted to extend the benefits that I’d experienced, so I got in touch with the Thai Powerlifting Federation and we did three workshops with female instructors and athletes as a fundraiser for a shelter for women who are escaping domestic violence,” she says.
“In powerlifting, you can see your progress very clearly. Seeing more weight going on the bar and knowing I was getting stronger was transformative for me.”
‘Life’s too short, I need to go’
When Gemma Cannizzaro Loyer’s partner ended their relationship she wanted to get as far away from home – even the people she loved – as possible. “It affected me in ways I’d never experienced,” she says. “I completely lost my appetite and didn’t have a full meal for two months.”
Loyer quit her job at a law firm, finding work at an NGO in Cambodia that supports older people’s rights.
“I had wanted to move to Cambodia for many years but it was now that I thought ‘life’s too short, I need to go’,” she says.
Two weeks before Loyer was due to leave, her ex said he’d made a huge mistake. They decided to try a long-distance relationship. “It’s hard – rebuilding trust while living in two separate countries,” Loyer says, but she knew it was vital that she maintain her vision of living in Cambodia. The placement was meant to be a year, but within four months volunteers were flown home as Covid-19 made headlines.
Back in Melbourne, the relationship fell foul to the strains of the pandemic, but this time Loyer knew they had at least given it a good crack. Inspired by her time in Cambodia, she started her own social enterprise, an events agency that supports community programs. Not only did heartbreak bring about a complete change in career – one she feels more ethically aligned to – it opened up a whole new mindset.
“Grief can be the most beautiful thing,” Loyer says. “It can lead to these new adventures and open, vulnerable conversations with people.”