Coming Out of the Chrysalis
Author & activist Paul Thorn talks about his new book, The Broken Heart Toolkit, and finding a better sense of self
by Alina Oswald
If someone you love hurts you, cry a river, build a bridge, and get over it,” an anonymous but wise person once said. Yet, finding the strength to build that bridge is no easy task. It requires time to heal and courage to find hope yet again. Sometimes, hope might seem lost. And yet, we can find it in the form of a new book by Paul Thorn, The Broken Heart Toolkit, an easy-to-follow survival guide that outlines how to build that bridge “from heart-hurt to heart-healthy.”
Many might be familiar with Paul Thorn’s book, HIV Happy. Living with HIV since the age of seventeen, Thorn has also lived through the darkest decades of the epidemic. In the process, he has become an HIV activist, using writing as his tool to fight AIDS. Recognized worldwide for his work, Thorn also played an important role in overturning the travel ban preventing HIV-positive people from entering the United States, back in 2009. A few years later, in 2014, he was a finalist for the Stonewall’s Journalist of the Year.
In HIV Happy, as well as in The Broken Heart Toolkit, Thorn writes about “finding a better sense of self.” In HIV Happy he explains the steps to finding or rediscovering that sense of self in the face of loss of health, “in the face of illness,” and in his latest book, in the face of loss of love and being left broken-hearted.
Both books, HIV Happy and The Broken Heart Toolkit deal with change and the often long and difficult journey we sometimes have to take through that change. To better emphasize the message, Thorn uses the chrysalis metaphor in The Broken Heart Toolkit, but in an unexpected way, yet one that makes perfect sense. “It’s not anything to do with any eventual rebirth, turning into something beautiful,” he writes. “The lesson we can take however from the chrysalis idea is that change takes time.”
While he wrote HIV Happy with a specific readership in mind, Thorn wrote The Broken Heart Toolkit for a larger audience. What makes The Broken Heart Toolkit unique in a sea of self-help books about mending one’s (broken) heart is that it offers a practical, step-by-step guide that readers can use to find hope, self-love, and love again.
In order to achieve that, one has to reach acceptance. That’s easier said than done. It takes practice.
In The Broken Heart Toolkit Thorn explains, “Emotional pain has the potential to be the touch-paper for immense personal growth if we choose to use it as such. The first step to working with this pain is acceptance of the way things are in this moment. That sounds great in principle….
“Life isn’t ‘black or white.’ Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just accept and live with the ‘grey’?…If we could accept things as they are, be grateful for what we have, and be happy with our lot, wouldn’t life be so much easier?”
Oftentimes, relationships that shape our lives, at least in part, are “like a movie that exists only in our mind.…It’s as if we go into relationships very well-meaning, acting like a Jane Austen character in a romantic costume drama, but potentially coming out the other end like Glenn Close in the movie Fatal Attraction, trying out recipes for rabbit. Once the relationship has imploded, if we can’t emotionally move on (to use another character analogy), at the extreme we can become like Miss Haversham in the book Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Jilted, still in her wedding dress, she waited into old age for her man to return, only to eventually fall into the fire.”
In order not to fall prey to fiery, damaging relationships, the author encourages us to look back to each of our relationships, even the failed ones, and learn from them, see them “as a gift” or a lesson in love and life. Only when we learn these lessons can we truly move on with our lives and find that hope, acceptance, self-love and someone to love again.
And when we are ready to move on with our lives, Thorn offers a list of categories we should consider to revisit in our lives: Health and Self, Relationships, Home, Work, and Finances.
In his book, the author explains each one of these categories in great detail.
The first category, “Health and Self,” covers not only physical health, but also emotional health. “Being kind to ourselves” is important, in our lives and our love lives. “The most important relationship we can have is with ourselves.” Thorn writes. “You occupy the top step of the pyramid.…Sometimes, to rebalance things we have to be purposely selfish—in the most positive way. Having self-worth to put our own wellbeing first is going to be difficult for some, but not doing so is down to old programming and we have to choose change. Try it—you might be surprised!”
Relationships we have with others are also important. They help us learn who our true friends are, and what individuals “we need to keep at arm’s length for our own preservation.”
Home, Work, and Finances define the building blocks of our lives. They offer a sense of safety and security. But “truly understanding and knowing the difference between what we need and what we want is liberating,” Thorn writes. “It helps us to focus on what’s really important.”
Nowadays, the author tries to focus on and improve the quality of his life, or what he refers to as “QOL.” He started working on this goal by writing a list of things he’s grateful for, seeing the glass half-full.
Maybe what we, the readers, can take from Paul Thorn’s new book is not only a toolkit to help rebalance our lives and the relationships in our lives—with ourselves and with others—but also to learn about the power of gratitude, see the glass half-full and give ourselves a good reason to see it that way.
Written from the author’s heart, and also from his personal experiences, The Broken Heart Toolkit is a workbook that anyone and everyone should keep handy. It is a survival guide in particular for the broken-hearted living with HIV.
“People living with HIV often experience a sense of urgency about things generally,” Thorn says. “This can lead us to get into relationships that aren’t right for us, especially as we grow older with effective treatment to manage the virus. No one wants to get old and be alone. When we are in a relationship with the wrong person, we’re not available for the possibility that the right person might come along.” He advises, “Better to have a sound relationship with yourself first. You can be HIV-positive, happy and feel whole without being in a relationship. Get your relationship right with yourself and you will attract the same.”
Paul Thorn’s upcoming book is a new edition of HIV Happy that will also touch on HIV and aging because “none of us are getting any younger and [aging] is going to bring new challenges for people living with the virus.” He further explains, “Two years have passed since the first edition of HIV Happy. The book actually turned my life upside down after it came out! Life became very challenging. It was time for me to really live the book. I’ve made some mistakes, learnt a lot along the way, and think I can develop some of the ideas that I originally presented further.”
Alina Oswald reported on the Silence=Death Collective reunion for A&U online.