The title of the first chapter of my book is “Eat, Pray, F*** You”. It manages to make people snigger, but also taps into a wry understanding that I am calling a time-out on the cliche of woman-goes-travelling-to-find-herself. It’s no smear on Elizabeth Gilbert – the hugely successful author of Eat, Pray, Love, a book charting her own journey post-divorce to Italy, India and Bali. Gilbert is known for being wise, and she has helped many people struggling through tough times to make sense of what they are going through.
But the concept of Eat, Pray, Love has become shorthand for what women should do when figuring out life after a trauma. And I think it over-simplifies the idea that you can find the solution to your sadness in other things.
In one sense, going travelling alone can be seen as a great act of female liberation – shrugging off societal expectations and materialistic trappings to travel the world. But I do feel that there is an expectation for women to have some of the answers to their domestic mess at the end of such a journey, while for men travelling is seen as just a grand adventure.
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I don’t know that men – or male authors – are expected or pressured into finding love, for instance, at the end of their travels.
And in any case, trauma is not fixed by another person. I learned the hard way that you can have the best support network around you, but in the end, the person getting you through your darkest times is you. You are the one who has to get through the first terrible moments of a day steeped in loss; you are the one who has to somehow shower and get to work. And you are the one who has to decide the world is a place worth living in.
The solution to all of that is not going to be found while eating spaghetti in Italy, or lying on a beach in Asia.
Yet when my husband Rob died, I honestly believed that maybe I could fix my sadness by leaving and going to a place where no one knew me. I wanted someone to soothe my trauma, and I turned to the narratives that women have been taught to operate to.
The first is of course the “happy ending” narrative. You meet the love of your life, you get married – the end. But after living this out it all came crashing down. That’s when it was time for the “Eat, Pray, Love” narrative, which is that when everything does spectacularly shatter, you should drop everything, go travelling, find yourself, and come back a better, more whole person.
Ironically, because I was depressed at the time, I couldn’t organise myself enough to quit my job and go travelling. When I was finally ready two years after Rob passed, what I realised, between quitting my job executive editor at HuffPost and deciding to go travelling, is that trauma does not operate to longitudes, latitudes and postcodes. Nor can it be fixed by some wise old man in an ashram, or by chanting with beads. A lot of that work has to start first at home, and with the self.
If I had gone travelling when I was still in the rawest stages of my trauma, I think the blow of realising that it couldn’t fix me would have been devastating.
But when I decided to go to New Zealand, India and Nepal, two years after Rob passed away, there were two elements to the travel. The first was spending time with my parents and finding out more about our family and where I had come from. The second was to travel alone and be still and quiet in the outdoors.
Grief changes who you are as a person at an emotionally molecular level, and I wanted to know exactly who and what I had turned into. It was daunting at first. What if I placed myself in these silent, remote landscapes, and I was driven mad by what I saw reflected back at me?
But over time, I learned a lot about my family and understood that I actually come from people who have overcome so much – from my grandfather who was a Freedom Fighter when India was ruled by the British, to my mother who had pioneering surgery to fix her hole in the heart and went on to have children despite being told she couldn’t.
I don’t mean to belittle the “pray” aspect of Gilbert’s book – clearly people still crave mystical answers to the unknown chaos in their lives; just look at the resurgence of crystal healing and witchcraft going mainstream.
But I found that the knowledge of who my family was gave me more guidance and strength than any collection of words from an unknown stranger.
And using that, I went hiking in the mountains and kayaked on lakes as still as glass – and found something so much more profound than I ever could have imagined.
There were no lightbulb moments. I didn’t go looking for love. I didn’t find the solution to my sadness, but I learned how to reconcile and move forward. When I came back from travelling, my sister Priya said I seemed different, in a good way.
What it gave me was a sense of stillness that I was able to bring into every aspect of my life back in London.
Whether it was merely the act of taking a risk, or being away from my social bubble, I went travelling to see what kind of person my grief had turned me into, and I was proud of what I saw in the reflection.
But I also wanted to finally experience what it felt like to be free of expectations and to work out what I wanted for my life.
By the end of writing my book, I didn’t know when I’d next be in a relationship, whether I’d have kids, or even whether I’d be able to make a success of my career starting as a freelancer.
But what I feel I’ve gained is so much more valuable than a neat set of answers.
I didn’t go to find myself, but I did in the end truly see myself. Through travelling, thinking, meeting new people and understanding myself better, I feel more capable of being open to adventures, and handling whatever tough things come down the line.
In Search of Silence, by Poorna Bell, is out on 2 May