The following is my essay submission for the "Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It" contest held earlier this year by Elizabeth Gilbert. My essay didn't get selected for inclusion in the anthology, but it was an important personal piece for me to write, and admittedly difficult to submit. I have hemmed and hawed about posting it here but decided that even though it wasn't right for the anthology, I'm proud of the work I put into it. I've added it to a growing list of rejections--a list I actually love building because it means I am continuing to show up and try. XO
I’d hear the words tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth like a drumbeat in my heart—a prayer, an encouragement, a promise—that if I could find a way to do it, I would be forgiven and free. But I couldn’t find any version of the truth that didn’t make me a monster. I searched, even prayed for “good enough” reasons to leave: lies, a big betrayal, hidden addictions, a mortal flaw in him or our relationship, but never found anything but my solid, kind, just-as-promised man. We didn’t even have a long history of disappointing mediocrity I could point to and say, I’m sorry, I love you, but I just can’t do this any longer.
No version of the truth was acceptable. I was the flaw.
The flight from Boston to Washington D.C. is 1 hour and 15 minutes, 442 miles. In 2006, I made that commute once or twice a month for work. I picked up Eat, Pray, Love at the airport bookstore during one of my typical pre-flight laps through Logan. It had just come out and seemed to be everywhere. As we sat delayed on the runway for over an hour I read the first hundred pages, weeping in disbelief. Less than one year before, I’d married a wonderful, handsome, true blue kind of man. We were happy; it was a fit. And now suddenly (or was it? Hadn’t I looked at my own reflection in our bathroom mirror more than once before the wedding and, as if watching someone else, saw my lips mouth the words, “it’s not going to work”?) I couldn’t shake the feeling I wanted out.
Reading the first few chapters was like scrolling through a long, personal fortune cookie. Like some letter from my future self where I recognized the truth in the ending as my own. And the deep sorrow wasn’t just that, but also knowing we hadn’t lived through the middle part yet. We’d only just begun. I read the words, “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth” over and over and shook my head, eyes closed, pressing out hot tears. Impossible. The truth was totally impossible.
It’s not as though my husband had tricked me and quickly—or even slowly—became someone else. He was exactly who he’d always been, had promised to be. His steadfast love for me was an antidote to the fickle version I grew up with. Our relationship had been a catalyst for my own growth and self-esteem in such profound ways and now it was as though I had propelled too far forward.
While whole acres of me adored him, I couldn’t fully swallow the idea of staying in it, with him. What kind of criminal asshole did this make me? Couldn’t this very good life we were building be enough? Who leaves an otherwise good marriage and man because of a gut feeling? I knew I owed these questions time.
In the years that followed, I was too much of a coward and lacked the emotional equipment to make a clean break, so I made a dirty job of it instead. I hid in the attention of other men and alcohol and work. I hid in friendships and music and activities he didn’t enjoy and I pointed out our differences as often and with as much spite as I could. I hid in the corners of the life we built, never veering too close to the center where all my shame and guilt and my connection to him lived. And all the while I loved him; I’ve never really stopped loving him. Just not the way he deserved or I needed.
If you plotted the trajectory of our marriage on a line chart, it would look like this:
One line chugging consistently upward mapping: my disappearance into alcohol, the space between us, and lies.
Another line, beginning in the third year, steady as stone: our love for our daughter.
A third line, plunging steadily downward, then disappearing at the end: his heart and self-worth.
The last line: same as above, but mine.
On July 2, 2012, he moved out. I still couldn’t tell the truth, but we had freed ourselves of the immediate grip of my destruction. I often wrote letters to myself in those last months and the ones that followed him leaving—letters like the one Liz had written to herself in Italy.
“I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you…I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.”
When I didn’t have my own words, I opened up the book and wrote hers down, word for word. I carried these letters in my pocket as I cried in the bathroom at work, or on the train ride home so many Friday nights, drunk and crushed by fear.
So many times over the years I visualized my husband and I meeting sometime in the future like two cool blue souls, as Liz had with hers on the rooftop in India, forgiving each other, lifting above their transgressions and circumstances. For a long time it was just me up there crying, begging him to join me. Eventually he did in a dream, right around the time I started to forgive myself.
Without him there to watch me, in the year after he moved out my drinking went from troubling to dangerous. Near constant blackouts. Total lack of control. Crippling anxiety. A DUI and another accident where I totaled my car. One Saturday in June of 2014, I woke up in my bed, alone and hungover yet again. I opened my eyes and noticed the walls were splashed with red from the wine I’d spilled the night before. The familiar murder scene I’d created a hundred times. I’d been trying to get sober for almost a year and just couldn’t keep it together. Despite my best intentions and all the evidence laid out before me that proved nothing was left for me in drinking, I couldn’t stay stopped.
That morning I padded to my kitchen, took out a sheet of paper and pen from the drawer and with my shaking hand wrote myself the same letter. But just the end this time:
“I will never, ever leave you.”
Then in caps, “I WILL NEVER, EVER LEAVE YOU.”
I posted a picture of my bare summer feet with these words laid over them, “I WILL NEVER, EVER LEAVE YOU” to Instagram. The caption explained to this small group of strangers that I drank again. I sat on my kitchen floor and cried as notifications of encouragement pinged through my phone like popcorn.
Later that summer, for my birthday and as an act of solidarity, I had the words “devo farmi le ossa” tattooed on my inner arm.
The phrase, which means “I need to make my bones” in Italian, had stuck with me since reading it (p. 178) because it meant we have the power to choose, to decide, to cultivate our own strength. Not willpower-strength, but something deeper–a co-creation with the universe, a dance we agree to enter in grace, in acceptance, in humility and recognition that our part is only a piece, but is the piece we must own. For me, it was an act of accountability. I was finally, at the age of 37, agreeing to do my part: to show up, to take true accountability for myself, my truth, my circumstances, despite the fact that I fucking hated this card I’d been dealt with addiction. I did it before I was ready, of course. I did it because I knew it was time. I did it, really, because I didn’t want to die.
I often thought of Richard from Texas as I was struggling to get sober. As silly as it sounds, it gave me heart knowing such a funny, bright, beautiful soul had been out there as a recovered addict himself, living a full life, cracking jokes and espousing wisdom in India. I often imagined him saying, “You have the capacity to love the whole world one day, Laura,” just like he had said to Groceries (Liz) and in my gut I knew I could. I could love the whole world one day, but I had to get sober first.
As I write this today I am approaching one year of continuous sobriety. My relationship with my (now ex) husband is workable for our daughter, peaceful, and—at least on my end—underscored by the kind of love and kinship one has for someone with whom they’ve fought a war.
Eat Pray Love didn’t make me travel far, but on that 442 mile flight to DC nearly ten years ago, it started to serve as a 334 page map, replete with clues and keys, for the long journey into myself.