When Suzanne Gravelle left her life behind to embark on a spiritual journey of self-discovery, she had no idea that her experiences would one day inspire thousands of readers. Married at 19 and a mother by the age of 20, Gravelle was a caregiver for most her adult life. By the time she was 50 and her youngest child had moved out, she found it difficult to adjust to a life with few responsibilities.
It's an issue that most parents face, she said. They fantasize about life after their children have moved out, but when the time comes, they feel lost.
After battling depression and feeling an aching detachment from those around her, Gravelle employed a level of personal freedom that most people find unnerving. She abandoned her responsibilities, both personally and professionally, and began a solitary life.
In her memoir Unfinished, Gravelle reflects on living off the grid. The Eat, Pray, Love-style book centers on her lone travels throughout her native Canada.
The International Business Times had the chance to ask the author how people have responded to her debut work and why writing is cathartic.
What has struck you most about people's reaction to the book?
Everyone that I have spoken with, as well as the book's reviews, have impacted me greatly. Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed my story and journey would have such an impact on so many people and inspire them to change something about themselves, which in turn changes something in their life.
I have been overwhelmed by the e-mails and people who just come up to me and say, Suzanne, your courage to step outside of your comfort zone, to seek the truth and to seek change for yourself has been so inspiring. I wish I could do something to bring some joy to my life. I wish I had the courage to take steps to change the things in my life I do not like, but I don't know how or I am too afraid. It has been amazing to realize and understand that my words could affect one reviewer enough to say to me ... Suzanne, your book and your journey has literally changed my life.
You have said that I found myself wanting space ... wide open space. Why do you think life can become so suffocating for women?
Not just women, anyone who has been responsible for another person, a caregiver in any way for long periods, can identify with the feelings of being suffocated. But in my research, it does appear that it is mostly women who are feeling suffocated and unable to breath. ... Not one person I have spoken with became the image of the person they saw many years ago. This is normal since we change our desires as we grow. Most often they cannot even tell me who they want to be, because they have been so many people for so many for so long they have never had time to think about themselves. So when the time comes and they suddenly find themselves alone, perhaps with an empty nest, they aren't sure what to do with themselves. This is why there are so many breakdowns of marriages or people switching their life up ... trying to find themselves.
For many years, we are responsible for the needs of others, and, because we have no choice, we carry out our duties without even thinking about them. We just do it, and, over time, we lose our own identity. We think we know who we are; we think we are all together when in reality we have learned to split ourselves into so many personalities for so many people that, slowly, over years, we have learned to switch up our personalities to quickly to deal with the person right in front of us. Then suddenly we find ourselves in a position to now perhaps explore ourselves and our life, and we don't know what to do. We find ourselves saying things we never thought we would say, like, Oh my god, I don't know which person I really am or which person I really want to be. I cannot even tell you have many people, mostly women, want to run away from their life ... especially mothers and wives. Most of the mothers I speak with cannot wait for their children to move out ... not that they don't love them. ... They just want to breathe and start a thought and finish it.
Naturally, you were apprehensive about leaving your life behind. What was the main reason that you didn't immediately retreat back to your comfort zone?
I could not retreat. My conscience would not allow me to. Sure, there have been many times over the past two years that I have wanted to. I missed my own home, my own bed, my own kitchen, but I was overwhelmed with feelings that I want my life to be different from how it was. When the loneliness encompassed me to the point of debilitating me for long periods of time, I would get into my truck and drive further away from the comfort zone. I could not go back without accomplishing what I have set out to do. I will not ever say, I did not finish what I started.
Very few people are able are able to abandon the life they know and venture into the unknown. Why do you think people are so afraid to explore what they want out of life?
I don't think it is a case of being afraid to explore what they want so much as it is impossible for them. Responsibilities keep them bound to their house, children, career and so much more. I could not have done it without the support of family and friends. This may have been enough to send me back to the comfort of my easy chair, but thankfully I never had to deal with that. I truly believe that everyone can change something in their life to improve their daily life.
I believe fear settles into the soul, and doubt fills our mind, whispering to us, We cannot possibly do that. So again, they retreat back to their comfort zone, wishing, yearning and sighing about a life they think they cannot have or deserve.
There is an amazing moment in the book where your mother basically tells you to leave your life behind one day and focus on yourself. How much did her advice factor into you releasing a book?
My mother was a wise woman, but she too was afraid to step outside her comfort zone. Her words reverberated in my head while I was a puddle on the floor trying to piece together why my life suddenly turned upside down. Her words and images continued to come back to me -- of watching her and listening to her wish she could have something different in her life when her children moved out of the house -- and made me more determined I was not going to be like my mother. I was going to act on the calling for adventure. She died at the age of 47 with regrets of not following the yearnings she had to explore her own desires. I was not going to be my mother in that way.
Did you initially think that your quest for self-discovery would lead to a book?
No, I had no idea I would write a book of my very personal self-discovery journey. My desire was to find a publisher to publish my children's book series. It was during a conversation with a publisher explaining what I was doing, and he said, Suzanne, you need to write about your journey, as so many people will identify with your plight. And he was right. ... Everyone can relate to some part of my journey.
How has writing helped you make sense of your experiences?
Writing it down has helped put this journey in perspective. Even if it wasn't for a book, I was still journaling to help me keep focused. In the beginning of my journey, my mind was so convoluted with sadness it was difficult to keep myself organized, and days began to run into each other, and I could not keep track of myself. When I look back at all I have accomplished in the past two years, two books and 90,000 kilometers [56,000 miles], I would never have been able to explain it or remember, so I had to write it down. Writing is also very cathartic, and I recommend people write down what is happening in their lives. It's a guide to use to be able to see where you were, where you are and where you want to go. Writing has set me free. ... Seeing my words, my life on paper allows me to say ... Wow, baby ... look where I am!