It’s breakup week on This Is Uncomfortable. We’re talking retail therapy, impulsive tattoos, hefty bar tabs and spur-of-the-moment travel — all things people have done to cope with heartbreak. But the end of a relationship can also be a new beginning. When you’re suddenly single, you have the opportunity for a reset. You can get to know yourself a little better, figure out what brings you joy, and what you want going forward.
No one knows that better than Lam Thuy Vo. She called herself “a walking Noah Baumbach movie” after her divorce in 2013. “I was just, like, sobbing openly everywhere. There’s just snot dripping down my face.”
Lam wanted to better understand her emotions and needed some tangible proof that she was getting better, so she used her skills as a data journalist to analyze her recovery from heartbreak. She started a blog called “Quantified Breakup” where she posted data visualizations about what she was spending money on, where she wandered on meditative walks and bike rides, and how often she was crying in public.
Her posts struck a chord with more people than she expected, and taught her a lesson about vulnerability and bringing her whole self to work.
Plus, a TIU listener named Fenny booked a one-way ticket to Japan after she ended a toxic relationship. She told us she wanted to get as far away as possible for a hard reset. While there, she discovered a new passion that changed the trajectory of her personal and professional life.
This is Uncomfortable November 16, 2023 Transcript
Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.
Lam: Suddenly you get hit by this, like, awful sadness. And, um I remember just like bursting into tears in the streets, in the subway.
Reema Khrais: In the Summer of 2013… Lam Thuy Vo was heartbroken.
Lam: Like, I was a walking Noah Baumbach movie, you know? Like, I was just, like, sobbing openly everywhere. There’s just, like, snot dripping down my face. [Laughter]
Lam had just asked her husband for a divorce. They’d been together for four years, married for just under two. And she was the one who ended things…
Lam: But I loved the man…right, like I really, really did. And I think the biggest thing was that when you believe so much in a story that is marriage, right? And you get divorced, it’s kind of like you’re taking away a faith. I don’t know how it’s like to lose your religion, but that’s what it feels like.
Reema: Mm hmm. Yeah, it’s like you’re mourning, these larger ideas of, of how you thought life should unfold.
Reema: And that can feel shattering.
Lam: Yeah, and then suddenly you have to be like, okay, who am I now? How do I reconfigure that and how does it look?
Reema Khrais: Cause as shattering as breakups often are, they can also be an opportunity…a reset that can spin your life in a completely new direction.
I’m Reema Khrais and welcome to This is Uncomfortable.
This week on the show…the surprising way Lam found closure and how it would go on to impact not just her day-to-day finances, but also her career.
And then later…our spending can be a window into how we’re feeling… we’ll hear from listeners who recovered from heartbreak with the help of a little retail therapy.
Lam: The way in which I introduce myself is I say “hi, my name is Lam. It rhymes with mom and you will find out why.” I am very aggressive about nurturing people. [laughter]
Reema Khrais: Lam is the kind of friend who will show up to your place with a platter of fruit or a set of ceramic bowls she made just for you.
Earlier this year, she made multiple clay cat fountains. When I told her that I wanted to make something like that for my cat, she spent the end of our conversation telling me how, and then even followed up about it. She’s generous and open in that way.
Lam: I tend to be very, um, excitable, like a golden retriever energy, puppy energy
Reema Khrais: But back when Lam was married, she felt like a completely different person.
Lam: There were dynamics that made me feel like I had to hide myself.
Lam: And like the way in which I was, was. Like golden reliever energy with everyone was something that was not something he wanted to like have me share with other folks.
Reema: I see, like you felt like you had to mute your personality and how you moved through the world.
Reema Khrais: She couldn’t keep making herself smaller for him. She was depressed and couldn’t take it anymore, so she asked for a divorce.
Lam: There’s this like moment of relief after all this tension of all this holding on But then after that, you’re just kind of like, so what now?
Reema Khrais: After all the commotion of separation… deciding who gets what, coordinating with lawyers, her husband moving out…Lam was left alone with the heartbreak. Her life fell into the chaos of deep despair.
Lam: You’re in this haze of like feeling like garbage, right? And and then you’re sleep deprived, you feel so much anxiety, you can’t fall asleep. And so you’re having a headache from crying too much because you’re dehydrated.
Reema Khrais: And while this was going on, she still had to show up to work and be professional. She was 26, living in New York City. She was early in her career, working as data journalist… parsing through the news and making visual representations.
Lam: I felt like a robot. I was doing like journalism that was objective, there was no room for creativity
Reema Khrais: Even though the work was compelling, it was another area of her life where she felt like she had to shrink. She loves digging into a data set, loves finding the patterns and drawing the story out of a mess of numbers – but there’s not a lot of creative flair you can bring to an Excel file.
One weekend, in the midst of the heartbreak, Lam went to a journalism conference. She was pretending to be ok, smiling all day before sobbing in her room at night.
At one point, she went on a walk with a supervisor who she felt comfortable opening up to. She was telling him about the conversations with lawyers, how bureaucratic and cold divorce can be.
And in this moment when she felt like she was stuck, fumbling to try and pick up all the pieces of her life, he casually offered her a path forward…
Lam: This person was like, you know, have you ever thought of doing data visualizations around your divorce?
Reema Khrais: What if you applied what you do for work to help you cope with this heartbreak? Like he told her …you could analyze your life the way you would a data set for a reporting project.
Lam was intrigued.
Lam: I was like, I have so much frenetic, nervous energy in me right now. Every night I can’t sleep anyway. Why not turn it into something?
Reema Khrais: This idea makes a lot of sense to me. Friends and therapists will tell you to journal when you’re going through something difficult. Helps to get your feelings on paper, but to also have a record, to be able to more clearly track how you’re feeling.
But imagine what you could learn about yourself if you have the skills – and motivation – to elaborately track all sorts of personal data, to treat yourself like a science project that you analyze from a distance…
Losing a deep love can feel insurmountable…but maybe a data self-portrait could help.
Lam: Think about the massiveness of that feeling and then having a scientific method that brings order to that chaos.
Reema Khrais: Lam got to work.
First, she dug into the data of her life: how much she was sleeping, where she was going, who she was texting, how much money she was spending…
Then, she began creating extensive spreadsheets, made pivot tables, and found patterns. Like for example, she tracked how often she cried in public. It peaked in October, two months post-break up. She cried in public a total of ten times that month. Meanwhile, when you look at how often she was texting her ex husband (cause you know, they were still in touch to finalize the divorce) their communication was at its highest that same month.
Lam took all these feelings of heartbreak, relief, loss and confusion and organized them with numerical values…took them outside her body and made them simple numbers on a computer screen. Lam quantified her breakup.
Lam: That is what data journalism is. You look at a bunch of different data points over time, and you try to make sense of it. You try to find trends, anomalies, see things as they change over time. That was my way of figuring out how the hell I was feeling at that point in time.
Reema Khrais: This weird, squishy feelings project would live on Tumblr, this was 2013. She called it Quantified Breakup.
One of her early posts was inspired by the iconic scene in Forrest Gump after Jenny leaves Forrest.
Forrest Gump: That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run…
Reema Khrais: He walks out of his house, starts running and doesn’t look back.
Lam felt trapped in the apartment, so filled with memories of her ex…she was overwhelmed with this desire to flee.
She started going out just to get away with no plan of where she’d end up. She used data from her phone to track those breaks for freedom – made maps where her adventures are immortalized.
You can look at Quantified Breakup today and see her, a small squiggle of color in this massive charcoal field of Brooklyn. She’s a small green line drawing the wandering path of a 30 minute run around prospect park. A weaving yellow line of a bike ride to Chinatown, a long pink line showing the subway ride home from work when she didn’t want to get off at her stop. She just took the F train all the way to the beach at Coney Island.
She wrote below that map…
Lam: Ascending from the wormhole, I left everyone behind, and I sat there and stared at the black ocean. I suddenly was really, really small, and it felt really, really grand.
Reema Khrais: Lam kept digging into the data of her life…
The thing I was most excited to hear about was her spending during this time
Lam: Let me see. It is all in a neat folder somewhere…
Reema Khrais: She could pull up her old data sets to show me
Lam: Quantified breakup. Uh…
Reema: So what are the things that you were tracking financially?
Lam: I wanted to better understand all of my, I guess, um, flexible spending, whatever you call that. I wanted to better understand how much of it was… stuff that I actually needed and how much of it was useless, frivolous stuff that I bought just to feel better.
Reema Khrais: She gave every purchase she made a score on a scale of useful to useless. I asked her in total how much she spent on frivolous stuff during this time…
Lam: Here we go the total of frivolous spending was $2,417 in 3 months and 95 cents.
Lam: That’s a lot… oh god, I bought one dress that was $280? No, oh no, it was a dress and a shirt. I bought, I spent $280 on clothing?
Reema Khrais: According to her post… which she called Stupidly Awesome Spending Sprees, other useless things she got include a fern plant, a card game, shoes, a little bowl shaped like a pig and lots of movies. The purchase she considered most useful was a new backpack ‘cause her ex took her old one.
A lot of her spending was just good ol’ fashioned retail therapy. But she also bought things to help her rediscover herself. A dramatic shift in your life can force some introspection.
Lam: Relearning what your constellation of your life is gonna be means also trying out different versions of yourself.
Reema Khrais: Lam knew what young, before-she got-married Lam was like, she knew what married Lam was like, but now she had to figure out what divorced Lam was like…what did this version of herself enjoy? How did SHE want to spend her money?
She bought a MIDI keyboard. Young Lam had played in bands …
Lam: I used to do that. That is my old self. I used to be a singer. I used to work with like musicians. Why don’t I go back to that old self?
Reema Khrais: But then she did the thing a lot of us do, she played the keyboard a couple of times, lost interest and then gave it away. Then she thought…well I really like writing…let me get back to that.
Lam: So I bought myself a dumb, very fancy, very, very expensive, like an 87.73, um, fountain pen. I don’t know.
Reema: Oh, that is an expensive pen.
Lam: Yes. *laughs*
Reema: How did it feel when you bought it?
Lam: Oh, it’s great. Like especially when you come from an immigrant household, where you’ve been told to save every penny, to come to a point where you buy yourself not just any fountain pen, but a fountain pen that costs $87.73…
Reema: Mm hmm. Mm
Lam: it is kind of like a big way of signaling to yourself, “Hey, you deserve a little bit for making it through the day.” Right?
Reema Khrais: To be clear, this kind of spending was not normal for Lam. She’d always been careful with money. Her parents had drilled frugality into her from a young age. And in her marriage, because money was often tight, she felt restricted in what she could buy for herself.
Lam: In that weird dynamic I was trapped in, I think I lost myself. A lot. And so like buying stuff to remind myself as I hold it as I look at it that I am that expressive, excitable like person again. That was something that was part of the rebuilding.
Reema Khrais: As she was analyzing her emotional recovery, this little project she made just for herself, as a kind of journal, an experiment in vulnerability… it was getting noticed. A journalist wrote about Quantified Breakup in Fast Company…and then another journalist wrote about it in The Cut….
Lam: and then someone else wrote about it, and it just kind of spread like wildfire.
Reema Khrais: But during all this, Lam was doing a lot better and she had proof: the charts showed her that she was no longer going to sleep at 3 or 4 am, she was posting more frequently on social media, her public crying fits had gone down and she’d exchanged 7,252 texts with friends who helped comfort her…
She’d processed what she needed to process.
She made her final post In 2015, two years after her divorce…
Lam: But what was interesting was like, it was a one off and one done, but like, what I learned through it was also those technical skills and those really interesting, skills of like looking into social media data.
Reema: Right! You were training and didn’t even realize it.
Lam: Yeah, I was.
Reema Khrais: These skills she had developed to fill the sleepless nights, to gauge her own well being, were suddenly very relevant as the power of social media ramped up in the twenty teens. The skills she learned helped her get a fellowship at BuzzFeed.
And then that coding work led to a book deal. And then research fellowships at Harvard and Brown.
Reema: So in this strange, perverse way, your divorce propelled your professional career, essentially?
Lam: It is awful, it feels weird, but yes. I have no idea how it happened, but like, the thing that I thought was a creative respite from the work that I was trying to do became the thing that helped me rebuild and reframe my career.
Reema Khrais: She never expected this project to launch her into the spotlight. She didn’t think talking about these squishy feelings would get her anywhere… but suddenly people were recruiting her because of those squishy feelings.
Lam: I guess similarly to how I sanitize myself in a relationship, I also sanitize myself in the work world.
Lam: This merging of my personality and my artistic self that I used to like keep from the professional world is actually okay to bring into that professional world.
Reema Khrais: She realized that honesty and vulnerability are fundamental parts of herself that she doesn’t want to dim in any realm of her life.
When I’ve gone through break-ups in the past or when I’m consoling friends who’ve had their hearts broken, I find myself always leaning on the same piece of advice. The thing you know will probably help you in the long-term, but you really don’t want to do, and that is to actually sit in the feelings, despite how intense or painful that might be…it’s basically what Lam did. She just took it to the extreme
Lam: Discomfort is part of growth, right? And as much as I hated all of this, like, it’s like stretch marks. Your skin literally tears when you grow, right? When you grow a belly, when you’re becoming a mother. Like your skin needs to tear, which is literally a destructive process, and then heals from that. And I think, I don’t think that’s a bad thing always. Um, and so yeah, sitting with these emotions now that I look back at it, there’s like almost like a a maternal part of me that looks back at myself 10 years ago and it’s just like, “Hi girl, you gonna be okay, you’re going to be fine!”
Reema: We’re gonna get through this.
Lam: yeah haha.
Reema Khrais: Today Lam is doing great…she’s a reporter at the Markup and a professor, teaching the next generation of data journalists.
And she actually just got engaged! She says this new relationship is a lot healthier.
She can be her full self. No shrinking.
After the break…more breakups.
But real quick, I want to plug our newsletter this week. Sticking with the theme of this episode…I asked the team to share their favorite songs, articles, movies, and pints of ice cream for getting over a break up. Even if that’s not what you’re going through right now, you’ll want to check out our producer Alice’s playlist and some recipes for my favorite comfort foods. If you don’t already subscribe to our newsletter be sure to do that at marketplace.org/comfort
Reema Khrais: Something I really liked about Lam’s story is just how much comfort she found in the things she bought after her divorce…like that $83 fountain pen.
I think after a breakup, our bank statements can tell us a lot about how we’re feeling…like if you’d looked at mine in the past, you would’ve seen multiple expensive haircuts and therapy sessions.
We put a call out asking what sorts of things you all bought after your relationships ended, …and we got a pretty wide range of responses…
Theo: My ex fiancé had such a thing about lamps. He never explicitly said that I couldn’t get a lamp, right? Um, if I ever asked him, it was always, Oh, but I hate them so much. Oh, but the lights already work in the house. So, when I moved into my new place, I bought myself a Moroccan lamp. I wanted it to just be beautiful and it really became, this symbol to me that, I’m able to do things that I want now.
Serena: Last year, I got a tattoo of a snake eating itself on my neck, as a response to the breakup of what was basically the first real relationship I had as a trans woman. This neck tattoo which ended up being $500 Canadian, serves as a real talisman, to really focus on me setting my own boundaries around what I want in bed and also what I want in life.
Dan: I had a breakup that made me really realize that I needed to take a lot more time to understand how I worked in relationships. I purchased a bunch of books on topics like emotional intelligence and communication and relationships and really took some time to understand how they applied to my life. I really viewed it as sort of a year doing a master’s in myself. And it really, um paid massive dividends.
Ingrid: Approximately 4 years ago I became a triathlete because of a breakup. I would be shocked if I’d spent less than twenty grand on this, quote, hobby . At the time that I became a triathlete, 20 grand would have been two-thirds of my annual income. But, not planning on stopping anytime soon.
Duncan: About two months ago, I broke up with my boyfriend, quit my job, and I immediately went to the piercing parlor and got my ears pierced. And then I went home to my roommate, I was trying to show off my cute little piercing. He was like, “Break up with your boyfriend, quit your job, Get an ear pierced. Really going through a moment.”
Miller: I was separated starting March 2017. And that summer I found an incredible off-season deal from Laser Away [laughter] for a laser hair removal treatment. I believe it costs $2,500. So by the time of my first, like, single dumb, flirty, free summer, I was, um, very shiny and bald like a dolphin, and it was great. [laughter]
Jasmine: So the biggest splurge that I ever did after a breakup was booking a trip to Greece. I had never gone to Europe before, and I had watched “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” and Greece looked really cool, so I booked a trip, and my best friend was like, “Hey, I’ve also always wanted to go to Greece, can I come with?” And so we went, and by the end of that trip, we were not best friends anymore, we were boyfriend and girlfriend. And now we’ve been married for four years.
Reema Khrais: That was Theo Sullivan, Serena Lukas Bandhar, Dan Phelan, Ingrid Stolt, Duncan Routh, Miller Pyke and our editor, Jasmine Romero.
We noticed several themes in the submissions… like a lot of you all got tattoos after a break up, there were a good number of bar tabs, which is maybe not so surprising… and travel was also a really big thing.
One listener, Fenny, told us about the time she packed her bags and flew from her home in Canada to the other side of the world.
Fenny was in her early 20s working in marketing when she was going through a really rough break up. She’d been in an emotionally taxing relationship and had tried to leave seven times. Each time, her ex convinced her to come back. She needed to do something more dramatic.
Fenny: I booked a ticket to Japan.
Reema: What was your financial situation like at the time?
Fenny: It was terrible. It was a really bad time to be making a decision like that, because I was, for the first time of my life, living paycheck to paycheck.
Reema: So it sounds like you didn’t have much of a plan.
Fenny: No, my plan was to stay as long as I could until I got over him.
Reema Khrais: She found cheap places to stay, but at one point she had less $100 in her bank account. Eventually she stumbled across an Alpaca Resort where she could stay for free in exchange for work.
Fenny: So I found myself in this tiny remote mountain in Japan where I cooked for all the volunteers every day, that was like my work, and the other volunteers were all travelers from all over the world and they tended llamas, they cut trees, like, they did everything that needed to be done.
Reema: Oh wow.
Fenny: And it was probably one of the most transformational month of my life just because I’ve never been in a situation where I felt so isolated, but in a good way.
Reema: Hmm. Were there moments where you were like, what am I doing here?
Fenny: Oh, every day!
Reema Khrais: I mean, yeah! She was on this remote mountaintop thousands of miles from home with very little wifi. She was responsible for feeding a dozen people on a really tight budget, only able to get to a grocery store once every couple of weeks. She’d always really enjoyed cooking, called it her love language, but she’d never fed more than a few people at a time, so this felt like a fun challenge.
Fenny: I really liked how much freedom I felt, like the choice. I decided the menu, I decided like, what everybody ate and I liked seeing how happy people got when they ate my food, and it brought me a lot of joy.
Reema Khrais: She found that she was so busy in the kitchen, she didn’t have time to think about her ex. And, unlike the marketing jobs she had before Japan, working in the kitchen didn’t actually feel like work.
Fenny: One of my friends at the camp was like, “Oh, you should do this for a living. You’re so good at it.” And then I was like, “Oh, I should go to culinary school.” And then everybody chimed in and said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.”
Reema Khrais: So she googled culinary schools and thought, “Well, it doesn’t hurt to apply.” She interviewed for one in France… in French… over the very spotty wifi in the mountains…
Fenny: I wanted to keep running away, but also I wanted to keep pursuing this thing that I discovered that brought me life. Um, it was like the happiest I felt in the last year.
Reema Khrais: And she got in! Her parents helped out with her tuition, and she moved to France to learn from the masters. After the program ended, she worked in restaurant kitchens in Norway for a year…and then she decided to study nutrition.
Today, four years after her break-up, Fenny works as a personal chef back home in Canada.
Reema: And so how do you like that job?
Fenny: I love it. It combines everything I liked from my experience in Japan and like my desire to help people. Um I really just love being able to cook people food that they miss because they’re on a diet or because of their health restrictions.
Reema: Wow. It’s wild to think that your relationship essentially led you to becoming a private chef.
Fenny: Definitely. Yeah, I feel like breakups are tough, but it’s one of those rare life moments where it really pushes you to jump out of your comfort zone, I mean, cause you’re already in a very low pit anyway, can’t get any lower, might as well see where it takes you, right?
Reema: Yeah, no, that is a really nice way of thinking about it. It can be really sad, but it can also be a reset, which is exciting.
Fenny: Yeah, you don’t get too many of those.
Reema Khrais: Alright that’s all for our show this week. You know, I should say we always love doing stories about the intersection of money and relationships, so if any of this resonated with you or sparked a memory that you’d like to share with us – or if you have a completely different thing you want to talk to us about – you can always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
H Conley: This episode was lead-produced by me, H Conley and hosted by Reema Khrais. We wrote the script together.
We got additional support from Alice Wilder and Hannah Harris Green.
Zoë Saunders is our senior producer.
Our editor is Jasmine Romero.
Sound design and audio engineering is by Drew Jostad.
Bridget Bodnar is Marketplace’s Director of Podcasts.
Francesca Levy is the Executive Director of Digital.
Neal Scarborough is Vice President and general manager of Marketplace.
And our theme music is by Wonderly.
Reema Khrais: Alright, we’ll see y’all next week.
The future of this podcast starts with you.
We know that as a fan of “This Is Uncomfortable,” you’re no stranger to money and how life messes with it — and 2023 isn’t any different.
As part of a nonprofit news organization, we count on listeners like you to make sure that these and other important conversations are heard.