My cousin, who had just been through a divorce herself, said this to me eleven years ago. I had been talking to her about my plans to travel the world. At the time I thought what she said was ridiculous. Escape myself? I was only being an adventurous 35-year-old. Long before she said this to me, she had recommended that I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I had read it and a lot had resonated with me, mainly the description of a divorce being like having a really bad car accident every single day for about two years.
To be honest – I didn’t actually know what to do after my divorce. I was successful at work and I poured myself into that. I remember going into work on the weekends and just sitting in my office, doing nothing, because I didn’t know what else to do. I continued driving around and around the block before I went home because I didn’t want to go home. I had no children to keep me preoccupied- most of my friends at that time did. I spent a lot of time going to children’s birthday parties.
I was very sad, very much a broken spirit. A week before my divorce was processed, an old friend of mine was in a horrific car accident. I was in touch with her mother – she was in Intensive Care- very badly hurt. On the day I went into court for the divorce proceedings – she died. It has always felt strangely significant that she died on that same day. I remember she and my ex-husband literally holding me up, one on either side of me -when my father was in Intensive Care. She was a joyful soul – we had been friends since school. We used to plot and plan how we would change the world. We went on long road trips together and we laughed a lot – she was very funny. She loved sunflowers. She loved the way their faces followed the sun. A beautiful, special soul.
When I was a child, I used to “run away” under the dining room table. I would take supplies and sit there until someone came to find me, which they always did. This time I decided to run a lot further. A friend of my sister had suggested a French Immersion Course in France. It felt like as good an option as any. I had read every self-help book that existed at that time. I had also consulted a wide range of spiritual healers – some charlatans, some maybe not. Nothing could take away the despair I felt; how utterly miserable I was. The world felt to me to be full of pain. South Africa was in turmoil again. Thabo Mbeki was about to be ousted and all corruption charges dropped against Jacob Zuma who was all set to become President of South Africa.
Running away from yourself is not easy. Believe me, I have tried in all sorts of ways. The problem is that wherever you go, there you are – I am spouting clichés, but all are true. Nevertheless, I packed three very large suitcases. I packed up the house, resigned, sold my car and left.
I wasn’t even being very original – Elizabeth Gilbert had written the definitive book. But while her journey is a search for everything, mine could be described as a rapid retreat from everything that mattered. My family, my work, my friends. My destination was Villefranche in the south of France. I signed up at L’Institut de Francais to learn French. Everyone was very positive about my decision. But, I think, they were at their wits end about how to help me.
It isn’t possible to be joyful when you despise yourself. And I did really hate myself for a long time. It is only when you meet yourself with open and compassionate arms that you can truly love other people or the world or anything. And experience joy. Because my world was joyless. I felt like I was trapped in a Groundhog Day replay, where every day was the same and nothing made sense. By the time I reached Villefranche, I had lost track of what day of the week it was.
You can’t escape yourself. You never can. I was to learn this and keep on learning it until I got it.