On Panic Attacks and Pain au Chocolat

429602_552639564756498_198065503_n "I can't believe you wrote about your anxiety and panic attacks.  That was so brave."

Since publishing My Grape Escape in November I have heard this from many readers.  I always find it surprising.

For me, writing about the anxiety and panic attacks I struggled with during and after my law degree at Oxford wasn't a conscious decision.  They were so intergral to that juncture in my life that to leave them out would have felt (to me) like I was telling a story that made no sense.

The agents who read my full manuscript weren't big fans of the anxiety aspect of my story. They said it would be a hard sell to publishers.  I believed them.  I am not sure where it is written (I personally blame Peter Mayle) but there appears to have developed a rule whereby memoirs set in France should stick to descriptions of fresh baguettes, humourous linguistic misunderstandings, and eccentric french people wearing berets.  The only acceptable emotions are exasperation and wonder (and just for the record, Peter Mayle is a master at these two).

Of course, My Grape Escape includes a lot of the above - because during the months we renovated La Maison des Deux Clochers we did enjoy lots of delicious french food and wine and were surrounded by a crew of fascinating, eccentric french people (we were in Burgundy, after all).

My story, however, also included the emotional messiness underneath the surface.  This made a lot of people very uncomfortable.  I heard from another agent who said he would be interested in taking on the book if I eliminated the anxiety angle altogether.  I thought about this long and hard but decided that I just couldn't do it. The story of My Grape Escape without talking about anxiety felt inauthentic at best, dishonest at worst.

Don't get me wrong, I am as much a sucker for glossy surfaces as the next person.  I find it bizarrely soothing to flip through a copy of Real Simple magazine and delude myself for about fifteen minutes that life can really be that tidy.

Still, glossy images capture my attention for a while, but never for very long.  Honesty is ulitmately what holds my interest - in people, in writing, in life.

Honesty always leads me to the same conclusion.  This human journey we are all on is a wild, complex thing. It is joyous, it is tortuous, and it is anything but tidy.  More importantly, we are all on this journey together.  The more honest we are, the more we can support each other.

I am most touched by the readers who thank me, most often in urgent whispers, for writing openly about my struggles with anxiety.  Somewhere along the line these people have been made to feel that they are defective because they are a mix of many complex, seemingly incoherent parts.  "No," I tell them.  "You are not defective.  You are just beautifully human."

A glorious life is still possible with depression, or an anxiety disorder, or health issues, or family trauma.  You can have your panic attack and enjoy your pain au chocolat too.