I wrote this essay for the tenth anniversary of Eat Pray Love – author Elizabeth Gilbert put a call out for people to say how her bestselling book had changed their lives. Their stories will be published in book form, entitled Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It in April this year. My story didn’t make the final cut so I thought I’d publish it myself here.
Dedicated to Katherine.
I was given a copy of Eat Pray Love at the airport by an American girlfriend. A girlfriend who knew I was struggling with my marriage and no doubt hoped it would make a difference to my life.
Initially I was wary of the Julia Roberts quote on the front cover, telling me she’d given a copy to all her girlfriends. ‘Ugh – self help,’ I thought. As I browsed the pages in the airport bookshop I saw a few mentions of ‘god’ that made me roll my eyes a bit. ‘American navel-gazing ‘hallelujah’ twaddle’, I thought.
But I started reading the book on the plane to San Francisco. And it spoke to me. Who was this woman, singing my life with her words?
The marriage that on paper, seemed perfect. Nice guy, nice house, nice life. And yet it wasn’t enough. It was making her miserable. The desperate nights on the bathroom floor.
Although I hadn’t gone as far as a bathroom-floor experience, I was feeling increasingly desperate. The year before this holiday I’d had an epiphany on a work trip. I’d just turned forty and had an encounter with a man at a party that had reset the way I saw myself. He looked at me and described what he saw – “half woman, half girl,” he said. He told me I was beautiful and sexy, that he didn’t usually go for older women (only a four-year difference, mate) but there I was in front of him. I didn’t know what to say. No one had ever said those words so clearly and directly to me. Including my husband.
I was in the midst of a boom-time, career-wise. I was spending most of my time in the office or in the pub after work, celebrating the achievements of the team I was working with. Increasingly, I’d started to feel that my husband didn’t want to celebrate any of my success so I’d started to stay out night after night, to get it all out of my system before I went home.
The work trip was to Cannes Film Festival and I‘d been invited to a party hosted by one of the big studios as I’d been working with them on a huge project. And boy, was I ready to party.
I danced energetically and happily with one guy for most of the night. He was from my part of the UK and we got on well. It felt so good to be with someone I could be openly celebratory with, there in the balmy Cannes night, in the gardens of a beautiful villa.
At about 2am the whole group headed back to our hotel in Juan Les Pins and after an aborted attempt to go skinny-dipping in the pool, the others drifted back to their rooms. I was still high on the experience of the party and couldn’t face going to bed. I went to my dance partner’s room.
At this point, you’re going to think, ‘oh she slept with him’. Reader, I didn’t. We went out on his balcony and looked at the night sky and talked. I’ve always loved that song, ‘Strangers in the Night’ and now I know why. This guy lived in America so there was no real chance of meeting again. It was a one-off encounter.
It was around 4.30am when I decided to return to my room. We hugged each other at his door and agreed that it had been one of the best nights we’d ever spent. Nothing more than a brief kiss happened, but it was as seismic as full sex as far as my life was concerned. More so.
I returned to the UK and he to the US, but there was a crackling line of electricity between us that lasted for months, even years, after. I felt as though I’d been jolted awake after years of sexual slumber. When I returned from Cannes, my husband joked that he thought I was having an affair. I wasn’t, but he could see that something in me had shifted.
The plane I was on a year later was heading to San Francisco, where Cannes guy lived. It wasn’t the whole reason I was going, but it was a strong part of it. He actually chickened out of meeting me by telling me he was in the UK when he wasn’t, but that trip sealed my fate.
I’d read Eat Pray Love on the flight out to SF and spent the week with my friends thinking about my situation. I remember a moment, sitting on a lakeside somewhere in Sonoma, watching my friends swimming then laying my head on my drawn-up knees. I needed to be free and I needed time to think about how to do it.
The answer came a few months later in the form of a promotion, and with it, financial independence. I walked home from a shopping trip one day (I did these frequently on my own – more escaping from home life) and told my husband as soon as I got in. I wanted a divorce.
And oh, the sadness of that moment. He was one of my best friends. We’d shared adventure holidays together, built homes together, stood next to each other when parents had died, when jobs were lost.
Crucially, though, we hadn’t held each other when the bad things happened. One of the main reasons why I felt the way I did was because he simply hadn’t been there to support me when the chips were down. He’d pretended to be ill when my mum died, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. He’d ignored the fact that I was in London during the July bombings. He’d got angry when I nearly drowned in a river.
He just didn’t care.
He didn’t love me enough.
He was a good friend, but not a great one.
But now I could break free, and in doing so let him go and find a new life with someone he might be able to love properly. Maybe he’d even start a family, as I’d been resolutely childfree-by-choice.
With Elizabeth Gilbert in mind, my first action, post-separation, was to book a holiday to Thailand on my own. I’d thought about Bali but I was keen not to become a Gilbert Groupie and just shamelessly copy her journey. I pictured Bali filled with women-of-a-certain age, all roaming around yearningly looking for a Felipe of their own.
As it turned out, I wasn’t looking for a Felipe – I needed freedom, not a new, permanent man in my life. In Phuket, I found Dougie, a young Aussie Thai boxer, who carried me round the island on the back of his moped, my hair streaming behind me as I grinned with joy. Like Cannes guy, he’d approached me with candour about my older-woman attractiveness, saying I was ‘cool’ and much more chilled than the younger women he was used to. He’d had testicular cancer some years before and was just trying to enjoy life. We enjoyed it together for a short time.
In a way, that first Thai holiday was my ‘bathroom floor’ moment. I cried myself stupid in my hotel room for three days before getting out and meeting Dougie. I’d been surrounded by couples in a lovely hotel and found myself weeping into my dinner, night after night. Only the good offices of friends made me wash my face, put on a nice dress, and walk into the nearby town to see what was going on. I was so afraid, but there was nothing to fear. Dougie and his friends were there.
But that holiday wasn’t enough for me. It had been a test to see if I could holiday alone, so I immediately booked a return visit to Thailand when I returned home. Next stop, Koh Samui.
My longed-for freedom came as I found myself befriending two Thai women and whizzing round on their motorbike, one in front of me, the other behind me. ‘Farang sandwich’, I quipped, ‘farang’ meaning ‘white European’. At a club in Chaweng, I met Andrew, another Aussie, who was still partying on New Year’s Day, after a big New Year’s Eve on Koh Pha Ngan. We danced, we laughed, he marveled that I was in my forties. I loved it. I loved him.
Those Thai holidays became the first of many, and now I am a seasoned solo traveller. I’ve even started a blog about ‘flying solo’ as it’s something that’s come to define my new-found independent status. In many ways, Dahab in Egypt is my Bali, where I have friends I return to frequently. It is my happy place.
At home, I can go for a drink or have dinner on my own and it feels like the most empowering thing a woman can ever do. I haven’t found my Felipe, but in a sense I don’t want to right now. The end of my journey hasn’t happened yet and I can’t wait to find out who’s waiting for me.
Eat Pray Love made me do all of this.