We’ve all had dodgy boyfriends. Bad dating experiences. Pain to overcome. But Jessica Jones’ memoir, The Elegant Art of Falling Apart, may make you think twice before complaining about your life. We follow the Aussie but UK-based writer as she chronicles her colourful life experiences, relationships and health issues. But then breast cancer hits, and she has to face it full on – with the help of friends, family and boyfriend Nick. But what happens when you beat breast cancer only to find your relationship imploding? We chatted to Jessica about her book, which hits bookstores this week.
Hi Jessica, thanks for talking to us. The book’s a rollercoaster, just quietly. How does it feel seeing your story in print finally?
I veer between feeling immensely proud and utterly horrified.
Was it a cathartic experience writing the book? How long did it take you to write it – was it a dribs-and-drabs writing affair, or a project you tackled solidly for a long time?
I began by recording my day-to-day experiences on my blog, Chemo Chic – A Guide to Surviving Breast Cancer With Style but that didn’t tell the whole story. I needed to write The Elegant Art of Falling Apart to try to make some sense of what had happened to me. To write the book I had to re-live all of those traumatic events. For months I would sit down and stare at my laptop for an hour, force out a couple of paragraphs and then find myself on the floor sobbing and beating the carpet. I had to go back into therapy in order to manage such a difficult process. Then it all came in a rush. I wrote day and night. My poor editor had the monumental task of cutting almost half of the manuscript. Despite being painful, the writing has been important in bringing me to self-acceptance. I sincerely hope that my book might help somebody else to get through a crappy time in her – or his – life.
Is there a way of elegantly falling apart?
Ultimately we all have a choice: to fall apart with lipstick or without. Tissues are always mandatory.
What would be your advice or tips for people whose partners are going through a major illness?
Get support! At first, illness can seem quite romantic what with all the drama and opportunities for heroism. But this is a long, hard road. At some point you will become emotionally drained by trying to continually support someone who might be experiencing huge amounts of fear, anxiety, depression and pain. Then your own ability to cope may start to break down; insecurities may manifest in irritability, outright aggression or seeking solace in drugs, alcohol or affairs. My friend Dominic* wrote honestly and eloquently about his experience of his wife Lucinda’s* breast cancer. When life throws us a curved ball and we’re triggered into horrific fears and projections over which we are powerless, everyone reacts. But for men there is an additional burden. So, don’t let yourself get isolated whatever you do. Find someone who understands what you’re going through, so you’re not going to have to listen to a load of advice. I think advice is the last thing that anyone needs.
What or who got you through your lowest point?
Friends, friends, friends. And my family.
Do you think you’ve always been a resilient person, or has life forced you to become so? How can we become more resilient, do you think?
Resilience isn’t a condition of being tough, but of being flexible. Learning to roll with the punches. In my experience there are two essential skills: accepting life as it is, and asking for help. After I’d had cancer and then my boyfriend left me I began to break down both mentally and emotionally. At that point trying to be ‘strong’ and simply stand up to those kinds of blows would in itself have been a form of insanity. So, first I accepted that I was falling apart and then I put myself into a rehab where I could get help. This applies to all areas of our lives, not just to the crises: if the defective brake warning light in my car is aglow I hope that I might accept that there is something up with the brakes, not just carry on driving the car into the ditch of denial. Then I might take the car to a mechanic, rather than imagine that I should be tough (or clever or capable) enough to repair the brakes myself. Whatever happens in life, acceptance and seeking support are truly the keys to freedom.
You talk about your relationships a lot in the book. What have your dating experiences taught you?
Help! I don’t know how to answer this question. I sometimes wonder if I have learned anything at all. After some rather disastrous liaisons I thought that I had found a good man in ‘Nick’*, [who features heavily in the book]. I was wrong about that. For my part I am proud to say that I conducted myself with integrity throughout our relationship – up until the point when he left me. I did not react well to that betrayal but at least I have talked about it honestly in the book. I hope that I may have gained some wisdom along the way. I don’t want a relationship just to stop me feeling alone or inadequate. People often talk about finding their ‘other half’. I don’t want ‘another half’ – I want to be a whole person and be in love with another whole person. I have learned that love is an action and that I can make a new decision to take that action, every day.
How do you approach love and dating these days? What’s life like for you now?
The turmoil of the past two years has blown through. I am now feeling immensely content. Whilst I love to be loved, and would be very happy to be in a romantic relationship, I’m also very happy to be single. I’m just happy to be alive. This morning my cousin Ben* and I talked on Skype for an hour until we were interrupted by Mum and Miranda*, knocking at the door. Then Sheldon* phoned and we chatted about books and life. Later I went out to dinner with Iris*, Flossie* and several other friends. Now it is nearly midnight and I’m just getting down to doing some work. I don’t suppose I can complain about being lonely.
* All names have been changed