“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, author Eat, Pray, Love
This week celebrates the tenth anniversary of a book that, quite literally, changed the lives of millions of people around the world. In fact, so many lives were touched in a profound way by Liz Gilbert’s bestselling “search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia” that this week she released her latest book, Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It. It’s a collection of stories written by a select few people who went on to do something big and important in their lives after reading EPL. And just like them, I too was touched by her story.
I was given EPL as a Christmas gift in 2007 by my dear friend Kelly. Little did I or Kelly know at that time that she had just given me, perhaps, the greatest present I have ever received.
Shortly before Christmas, I underwent the most traumatic event of my life. The months leading up to the holidays were filled with many hard-won accomplishments. That May, I had finally graduated from college after six years of working through and paying for school out of pocket. That September, I landed my first “real” job working in my field for the Brookings Institution, a prestigious public policy think tank in Washington, DC. That summer, I started dating someone I pined over during my college years. And by December I had saved up enough money to move out on my own and into a brand new, red-line-adjacent DC apartment. Life, by most calculations, was good. I had achieved all the things I worked so very hard for.
And that’s when the other shoe dropped.
I’m not sure I want to go public with the details at this time, but it is completely accurate and not at all hyperbolic for me to say that shortly before Christmas, I lost everything. I still had my degree, my job, my boyfriend, and my apartment, but everything else was gone. And I was distraught.
My amazing, beautiful, kind, and supremely generous friends came to my rescue quicker and stronger than I could have ever imagined and without me even having to ask. These women, each of them, are my soulmates. Their support during that time is something I have never taken for granted. Their constant friendship over years tells me I have done something right in my life for me to be surrounded by such wonderful and special people. But despite the strong support system I had in my girlfriends, even they couldn’t prevent the sadness, anger, confusion, and constant rumination that inevitably sets in when trauma occurs.
Falling into a depression, I found I absolutely hated being alone. And I hated silence. Silence forced me to listen to my thoughts. Incessant thoughts. At work, I would blast the music in my earphones so loudly that my coworker would have to ask me to turn it down. I would avoid going home for as long as possible, staying late at work and even coming in to the office on weekends. I would do anything to avoid going home. When I finally did go home, I would rush into my empty and quiet apartment to turn on the television. Even just a few seconds of silence were too much.
I spent as much of my weekends as possible at my boyfriend’s house where I seldom talked about what happened. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t want to burden him. I thought if he saw me always smiling, positive, and strong –capable of handling my emotions on my own– that his feelings towards me would grow stronger. And frankly, he seemed entirely fine with not having to hold me up emotionally. He never asked how I was handling everything. Never commended me on how well I was handling it all. Nothing. My projected strength allowed him to complain to me about the trivial things going on in his world without so much as batting an eyelash at the absurdity of his coworker drama in contrast to my actual trauma. I was there to support him through the minutia of his life, but I didn’t dare bother him with the heavy trauma in mine.
Although I played the role of an impossible Superwoman, sparing him from having to be a supportive boyfriend, on Valentine’s Day 2008, my boyfriend apparently felt I hadn’t weathered enough and decided that day was an appropriate day to breakup with me. After calling several girlfriends after midnight on the 15th to cry over the breakup, and then watching The Notebook (just keep pouring that salt, girl!) I cracked open Eat, Pray, Love for the first time.
“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, author Eat, Pray, Love
Eat, Pray, Love is the first book I recall ever receiving, as an adult, as a gift. It’s the first book I recall, as an adult, voraciously reading. Though it was a distraction for me, rather than avoiding reality, reading it forced me to confront it. Reading forced me to sit in silence and be comfortable in it. Reading precluded me from blasting my music or having the TV on in the background. I found pleasure in absorbing the words. The words were therapy and Liz was my therapist. But instead of me having tell her my story, she told me hers. And in reading her story, I found she already knew mine.
She didn’t know the details of my story, or, you know, me, but she knew my pain. She knew my hurt, anger, and confusion. She had a record on repeat in her head too. It was almost hard to believe I, a single woman of color in her mid-twenties just starting out in her life and career, found myself relating to a divorced white woman and successful author approaching her forties. And yet we somehow got each other.
But it wasn’t just the recognition of pain that healed me. I lived vicariously through her journey, as we all did. I found joy in her joy of eating and touring Italy. I felt calm and peacefulness while she struggled with the geet in India. And my broken heart was mended as she found love in Bali. Her words and her story allowed me to process my own circumstances in a healthy and productive way. Her words gave me new perspective. Food for my nutrient starved thoughts.
Life didn’t magically turn around for me once I read EPL. I still struggled. I still hurt. The tape still played, but not as loudly or as frequently. And sure, time does heal all wounds. But because of EPL, the wound clock sped up, and I started to see the many blessings all around me. No matter what, no one or nothing could ever take my achievements away from me. If I still wanted to have the happy life I had always been working towards, I had to relentlessly pursue it.
By spring 2008, I was volunteering a few times a week at a local yoga studio. I explored DC with friends and on my own. I learned to be comfortable in silence and by myself. I felt less anxious about being alone in my apartment. I got a library card and read book after book. I started dating again. I volunteered for an Obama phone bank that fall. And instead of spending my evenings in the office working, I started a fashion blog at the suggestion of a colleague.
None of these things I attributed to EPL at the time (maybe the yoga…). The healing is what I gained from Liz’s story. And a new soulmate.
Each year, as an homage to EPL and Liz, I make a trip to Mecca and reread the same worn copy Kelly gave me nine years ago at Christmas. This past fall, I went to a book sale at my local library where they had a copy of EPL. I bought it in hopes that someday I can do for someone else what Kelly did for me. I guess you can say Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It.