Do you wish or do you do?
Do you follow your heart or do you play it safe?
Many of us live on autopilot, ticking off items on a to-do list as we go along without even asking ourselves whether this is actually the life we want. As long as it is vaguely comfortable and meets expectations, be they ours or those of others, it’ll do.
And so we settle for safe choices, either because we lack the imagination to come up with alternatives or simply out of habit. Given enough time, the human animal will adapt to even the most adverse and destructive of circumstances.
For example, you can live with a chronic illness, you can spend years in crushing isolation, you can survive on almost nothing, you can even live without a sex life for years on end and remain standing. Eventually, familiarity turns discomfort into a comfort zone of sorts as your brain accepts what little it is offered.
This is how I lived for five years as major depressive disorder took hold, stalled my life, and proceeded to destroy my career and obliterate my marriage. But even though my writing voice was gone and my livelihood with it, I never stopped pushing back.
I refused to capitulate and let depression defeat me. I refused to accept illness as an inevitability. I refused to let it become a habit or an excuse. Instead, I saw the captor in my head as a nefarious element that needed either taking down or bypassing.
But since chronic illness is something you never get rid of, I’ve had to develop ways to outsmart it with the only tool I have, namely a malfunctioning brain that wants me dead.
Plus editorial skills that disappeared for five years and had to be painstakingly reactivated over many months.
Even at the bottom of the depressive pit, I never stopped questioning everything.
I spent a lot of time revisiting my past and asking myself how I had managed to cram so much life experience and so many countries into so little time. Or how I had managed to keep going under duress. Or why I had let depression force me into an ascetic life entirely devoid of what made me me.
And then I started imagining a different, functional future where I had not only recovered my writing voice but was using it to save myself. That vision was so impossible it became compelling and soon occupied my every thought.
Because communication is my vocation, I’ve always placed my trust and faith in the power of words and believed I could write my way out of anything. But belief is useless and even downright dangerous if not backed by evidence, and vocation ceases to exist the moment you no longer practice it.
After a five-year hiatus, I had become an empty shell without my raison d’être. Depression had alienated me from myself but it hadn’t completely destroyed my ability to remember. My past contained all the clues I needed: What I had done before I could likely do again.
There had to be a way, somehow.
My heart leaped at the thought of diving into words again even though there was every chance I’d sink, as I had almost every time I had tried during those five years.
But what if I managed to float or even swim instead?
Seeing possibilities where none exist is something only the heart can do.
Reason is too down-to-earth, too analytical to entertain flights of fancy and project itself into a made-up dimension. Lean on it too much and it’ll quickly override intuition and dreams. While doing the sensible thing is safe, it can also make you miserable when you realize you’ve settled for something that doesn’t quite fit.
Choosing to cut yourself off from the people, pursuits, and places that make your heart glad is a form of self-abuse. You can’t grow in an infertile soil. At best, you stagnate; at worst, you wither.
For five years under the yoke of depression, I withered.
I tried to accept my life had come to an end because it felt like it.
“You’re dying there,” a friend told me once and their words rattled me to my core. It only took them a couple of days to understand what I couldn’t, it was that obvious.
By then, I was writing again, trying to hold my own despite many false starts and failures. But other than to keep cranking out words day after day, I didn’t really have a plan. When my beloved stepmom was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, I had to come up with one, and fast. Not only did I need to find a way to get back to Europe but I also needed to figure out how to move back to the EU for an open-ended period of time.
After earning my first transatlantic airfare through writing and fundraising to cover associated expenses, I’ve spent 2019 in transit living out of a suitcase in transit between the US and the EU, freelancing while my geographical coordinates remain ever variable.
Regardless of constraints, limitations, and still being cash-strapped, it had been a while since the last opportunity to grow and evolve had presented itself.
The transition back to fully functional is ongoing and fraught with setbacks and difficulties so I’m back to doing what I had always done before depression: listening to my heart for hints and suggestions.
After being silent for so long, it has a lot to say.
There are innumerable risks associated with living a non-standard life.
Then again, my life to date has been rich in experiences and connections precisely because I never shied away from embracing the unknown. My motivation has always been the same: I might learn something new. This reasoning hasn’t failed me yet.
Curiosity guides me.
I am happiest when I can combine it with vocation and earn a living because my work is my life and vice versa. To me, the two are undistinguishable from each other. This sometimes lands me in trouble, which in itself is always a learning experience I can turn into story material at a later date.
Processing time varies wildly however, depending on the amount of trauma involved.
And yet, nothing ever gets lost as long as I can remember it, not even five years worth of crushing depression. It led me to take the biggest risk to date, when I publicly outed myself as mentally ill and set out to write about all the unspeakable consequences of chronic illness and hardship.
I never expected to turn the pen on myself until I realized it was the only way forward.
Whether this approach will act as a repellent to HR departments, I have no idea yet. All I know is there’s no balanced life by omission and concealing mental illness only serves to perpetuate stigma. Silence kills, and I celebrate still being alive every single day.
Do not let life pass you by; being fully alive means taking risks.
While I will never get those lost years back, I must prevent more of the same, which can be difficult.
It means I need to keep pushing myself and lean into the discomfort of not knowing exactly what happens next, when, or even how while trying to look forward to it anyway. Although we often like to pretend otherwise, isn’t that what we all do?
What are our dreams but clues about what the heart wants, repeated notifications to take action?
Heed them otherwise you might forever wonder what might have happened if you had.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.