(Not) Eat, Pray, Love
Are you a fucking idiot? my Doctor questioned with wide eyes and a shake of her head. I sat in her small, windowless office while my heart raced and a pain gripped my chest. It had been there for months, and if I am truly honest with myself, more like years. I thought I was having the world’s longest heart attack. No… No, I don’t think so I replied hesitantly. My uncertainty seemed to be the only thing I was certain of in those days. Can’t you see what is right in front of you? Can’t you see this guy* is cheating on you? she asked, this time her voice kinder, her hand resting on my wrist.
I had the belief that the world would open up and swallow you whole when you realised the person you loved was being unfaithful. Then again, I actually never thought it would happen to me. By him. To us. Amazingly, the world didn’t swallow me up. The receptionist’s phone rang. The air-conditioning buzzed behind me. My Doctor jiggled her foot underneath the desk. My chest pain fluttered to nothing. I felt nothing.
In hindsight it should have been obvious, but it took her words to pull me out of the confusion of long told lies, misrepresentations and dishonesties to make me see what had been going on behind my back. I sat in her office for another hour as she explained to me, an intelligent and grown woman, what I needed to do to get the man out of my life. The man, who I had loved for 6 years. The man, who had done things to me that I couldn’t fathom or explain. The man, who didn’t deserve a crumb of my love. He needed to go. But this is not his story. This is mine.
I left her office still feeling numb. I went home. I packed my things. I left.
Fast forward a few months and the fallout of the breakup was still wrapped around me like unwanted garbage. I was confused and aimless. One day I found myself in a busy bookshop wondering what I could do to make myself feel alive. Happy. How did the feeling of being happy again actually happen? How could I make it happen? To me. Right now.
I turned and saw Eat, Pray, Love sitting on the shelf in front of me. That was it! I needed to go to Italy - pronto. Italy was going to be the answer to all of my problems, I just knew it! Of course I was going to skip the tough parts that Liz Gilbert went through. I didn’t need to do the hard work; it had been done (India really seemed like a lot of hard work didn’t it?). Liz had shown me how it could be done in 3 steps. I was just going to skip to the last step and swap Bali for Italy. Surely that’s how things would work? I could just sit in Florence or Positano or Cortona and it would make me happy again. Complete. That would happen, right? Easy. I marched back to my office and informed my boss that I was going to Italy. For 2 months. On my own. Immediately.
My family and friends were supportive but concerned. 2 months in Italy on my own, after an end of a relationship seemed like a good idea in theory. But really, wouldn’t I be happier at home, surrounded by those who loved me? There was no stopping me. I was going to Eat, Pray, Love myself back to happiness. I packed my bags and flew the 20 something hours to Italy and waited eagerly for happiness to come back the moment the wheels hit the tarmac. When that didn’t happen, I thought it must be at the baggage carousel. Nope. Not there either. Surely it was waiting to join me as soon as it could? I didn’t realise at the time, that no, happiness wasn’t about to just come back without some work, and it wouldn’t just happen the moment I landed. No, Italy had other plans for me.
Italy taught me how to be lonely. Very, very lonely. I had lived overseas and away from my home and family for years and had experienced homesickness before, but the loneliness I felt in Italy? I felt that deep in my bones. I spent my time in Tuscany, walking miles on old cobbled streets, reading books in quiet cafés and rugging up against the frigid winds that blew through the small villages. I impatiently waited for happiness. It was coming soon right? How much longer did I need to wait? Days passed before I realised that I hadn’t spoken to anyone. Not a single word had left my mouth in 5 whole days when my misery finally bubbled to the surface and I desperately called my Mum from a deserted train station begging her to just TALK TO ME. About anything! I didn’t care. I needed to feel that I existed. That I mattered.
As we all know, Mums always seem to have the answers to all the hard questions. If yours doesn’t then you need to speak to mine. She knows everything. Go to the sea. You need the sea she said. I had been landlocked for weeks. The horizon was full of trees and fields and not the endless watery horizons that I was used to growing up in Sydney. I missed the meditative lapping of water on rocks and the frothing of the waves around my knees. I missed the sound of seagulls screeching and bickering and the taste of salt on my lips. The sea was part of me. Part of what had always made me happy. So I listened. I went.
I travelled to Cinque Terre and as the train worked its way through the rock tunnels the sea flashed in front of me. I caught glimpses of a soothing, wonderful azure sea which danced before my eyes. I was where I needed to be. I felt relief. I sobbed. The woman sitting next to me cautiously inched away. I sobbed some more. I spent days staring out at the endless blue sea. The briny air wrapped itself comfortingly around me as I ate countless bowls of clam spaghetti in the old restaurants that nudged the shore. Something had shifted inside me - I felt alone, but not lonely. There was a shiver of happiness that danced around me every so often. I could brush it fleetingly with my fingertips but never quite grasp it fully.
One morning as I sat on a rock overlooking the sea, Isabelle an American woman with long curly black hair introduced herself and asked me to take her photo. She smiled broadly up at me as I shyly clicked away at the camera before she came to sit next to me. I normally avoided small talk with strangers, but something about her was different and made me feel like we were old friends already. Isabelle was on her own Eat, Pray, Love adventure but was in a much, much better place than I was. As we sat on the beach and talked for hours she regaled me with stories of trysts with smouldering Italian men, of evenings spent with families she had met wandering around the small villages and dancing until the small hours of the morning at a stranger’s wedding. She positively oozed happiness and I was deeply envious. I desperately wanted to steal even the smallest slice of what she had. To feel the warmth of contentment wrap around me like a familiar coat. To feel that safe and secure in myself.
As the day wore on we drank from bottles of wine and filled our stomachs with hot focaccia while the sea brushed gently at our ankles. The sun eventually sank into the sea in flames of orange and purple as we strolled the streets licking lustfully at colourful gelato. Later that night, as Isabelle boarded her train we exchanged numbers. We promised to stay in touch. We hugged and then hugged again. I was sad that I had only been able to spend the one day with her. As her train pulled out of the station sadness was immediately replaced by something else. A flicker of happiness sparked in my chest. Then it billowed out and took hold, nearly knocking the breath out of me. Hello old friend I whispered out into the night. Gosh it felt so damn good.
Happiness had not returned in the way I had dreamt - there was no Felipe to sweep me off my feet. No Ketut to make me laugh with his eccentric ramblings. This was a million times better. Isabelle had reminded me that my happiness was my own feeling to find, to construct and maintain and I couldn’t rely on it coming to me and landing neatly in my lap. I needed to be aware of the things that made me happy - like being near the ocean - and also have the willingness to take a chance on letting people near me once again. I’m so glad I took the chance with my dear friend Isabelle. I’m also very grateful that she decided to take the chance on me.
* Obviously not my darling husband who is ah-mah-zing! :-)