It was the day of my interview at Elle magazine and things weren’t going well. The adaptor had caused my hairdryer to die a sputtering death, the emergency appointment with a local hairstylist had left me looking like I was cosplaying as Nanny Fine, and the taxi driver had found my accent so confusing that we were hopelessly lost. I was late when we finally found the right building, sweating in the muggy September heat, trying not to appear like the Irish eejit who couldn’t figure out the New York subway system. (Reader – I was that eejit.)
That day was to set the tone for much of my time working in New York. No matter how nice everyone was and no matter how many friends I made, I always felt as if I was constantly making mistakes. I was useless; everyone was quicker than I was, sharper, better. And so I did what I always did when I felt inadequate – I stopped eating. By the time I arrived home at Christmas, I had lost two stone in weight. My parents were sick with worry but I told them I was fine, that I had it under control, that I would gain weight. I promise. When my mother saw me again that May, she started to cry. I told her I was fine, that I had it under control, that I would gain weight. I promise. She looked at me and she said, “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe anything you say anymore.”
It’s a strange thing, recovering from an eating disorder while working at a fashion magazine. Twice a week, I would see my therapist and the nutritionist and agree that I was worth more than my body and then I would go to work, where the entire industry was predicated on the idea that your body was your worth. To be beautiful was to be successful, to be admired, to be loved; all things I desperately wanted. And to be beautiful meant being thin. But still I steadily gained weight, giving myself permission to fully inhabit my body again. I fleshed out, not just the skin on my bones, but my own limitations and expectations for what I could hope to achieve. I began to think that maybe happiness wasn’t just for other people. Maybe it could be mine, if I was brave enough to claim it.
I returned to Ireland in September 2011. I didn’t have a job, my boyfriend had broken up with me, I had approximately €50 in my bank account. I moved in with my parents, lying in my narrow childhood bed, wondering what on earth I was going to do. I had failed. I was 26 and for the first time, I didn’t have a plan. All I had was time, and the open spaces and hollowing silence of the country air when I walked through the fields every morning, taking another step towards an uncertain future.
My life had fallen apart and so I fell with it. I started to write. The book that was to be my first novel, Only Ever Yours, came to me as if in a fever dream, spilling onto the page with such speed that upon rereading it, there were entire passages that I had no recollection of writing. Only Ever Yours was published in 2014, winning multiple awards, the film rights snapped up. I was flown first-class to New York where a party was thrown in my honour, Eva Longoria and Laverne Cox attending and telling me how much the book had meant to them. My second novel, Asking For It, was released in 2015, hitting #1 and staying in the top 10 charts in Ireland for 52 weeks. People began to recognise me, approaching me on the street to talk about my work, and while they were invariably kind, it made me self-conscious in a way I couldn’t properly articulate. To make it worse, that visibility was accompanied by vicious online abuse. I would wince every time I looked at social media, confronted by people who seemed to hate me for no apparent reason other than that I was a woman with an opinion. I told myself that I didn’t care, but I was lying. It was impossible to understand – all of my dreams had come true and yet I still wasn’t happy. I felt empty, a cipher that wore the mask of “Louise O’Neill” and smiled blankly for the duration. When I found myself idly wondering if I was heading for a breakdown, I knew something had to change.
I began by telling my agent to turn down all requests and invitations for 2017. I became a semi-recluse, chaining myself to the desk while finishing my third novel, Almost Love, and writing my fourth, The Surface Breaks. I took a vow of chastity for the year, wanting to focus on my own happiness rather than moulding myself into whatever was necessary to be the cause of it for someone else. I spent less time on my phone and more time in nature, hands stretched out, telling the universe to fill me with whatever it was that I needed – silence, love, joy. With peace. I made my life as simple as I possibly could – because what was it that actually mattered to me? What did I truly love, in the end? The words on the page. The 7am yoga class, saluting the sun as it rose. My godson’s hand in mine. My mother’s hugs and my father’s laughter at some terrible joke that he’d just made. The food that I ate because I believed, finally, that I deserved to be nourished.
I don’t know what the next year will bring. I’m aware that I cannot continue to burrow away in this cocoon of safety I have created for myself in West Cork; this gentle, slow life I have created is only temporary. I will, eventually, need to move out and I will need to move on. There are more books to be written, more adventures to be had. Men to be kissed and loved and new friends to be made. Maybe heartbreaks to endure, and obstacles to be overcome. There will be risks to be taken, I know.
But I am ready, I tell you. I am ready for all of it.