Pinch me, I’m alive.
After losing five years of my life to major depressive disorder during which suicidal ideation was my daily reality, I really shouldn’t be here anymore.
Every single day, this realization still shakes me up, especially now that I’m back in Europe among the people, places, and values that made me.
Walking around the streets of Aachen, Germany, I blink away the tears I’m struggling not to shed. But I’m not sad, just bursting at the seams with the kind of joy I thought I’d never experience again, a combination of spontaneous happiness and awe.
Since the end of last year, I’ve been coming back to life with countless random epiphanies. Sometimes, they’re so powerful they knock the air out of me.
“Wow, is this what life is?” has become my most overused phrase, spoken in a mixture of wonder and gratitude.
Whatever I do on this side of the Atlantic, I’m easily overwhelmed by a tsunami of emotions that paint a stark contrast to the years that came before.
Every time I look at my parents for example, I remember that family love is a miracle that can sustain you during the toughest ordeals. But until December 2018, I feared I’d never see those I come from again after being away from them for six long years.
I tried to shield them from my illness because I didn’t want them to worry. They had raised me and now was their time, making the most of their retirement, unburdened, unhindered, and unworried.
When my stepmom received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, all masks fell off. I explained what happened and apologized for alienating them. We argued, we yelled, we cried, we hugged.
And then we got on with the urgent business of preserving life, putting up a united front to stave off the advance of the invader.
Germany held a missing part of my identity that I’ve come to Aachen to retrieve.
Much like Portuguese is the language that has been holding me together for months, German is also part of who I was before depression struck.
I dedicated my time at university to studying German and used to speak it fluently when I lived in Switzerland. Things got mixed up when I fell into Portuguese but the fondness I have for Goethe’s tongue never left me even though I neglected it for years.
German was always going to be a lifelong commitment. It is the legacy of my POW grandpa who spent WW2 in Nazi forced labor camps. He instilled in his descendants the need to build bridges lest history should repeat itself, and I took him at his word.
Thrust into a German-speaking environment again, I’m stunned to discover I can still understand people with complete clarity. More surprisingly, it takes only a few hours to permanently detangle German from Portuguese at long last.
Never mind that I’m also using English and Portuguese at the same time with some French thrown in, my brain somehow springs back into shape.
To have my recalcitrant and argumentative brain relent and work as it should without instant pushback is extraordinary.
Those 48 hours in Germany end up being another awakening, a renaissance of sorts in a place I love with people I love in languages that are all part of me.
Joy washes over me the same way depressive distress often does, in waves that carry me closer to being whole again.
Chronic depression and joy are neither mutually exclusive nor incompatible.
But for many of us, the illness is a cruel and demanding mistress that doesn’t take kindly to our attempts to ignore and override it.
Its lifelong presence means we’ll forever be holding hands with darkness even when we step into the light.
And no sooner have I settled into my seat for the train ride back to Paris that all my thoughts collide at the same time, as if on cue. The sudden influx of constant and unexpected joy has disrupted everything, and my brain is trying to revert back to familiar despair.
Cognitive dissonance always throws me for a loop and it is so brutal and frequent in Europe that my daily reality is a rollercoaster ride.
But because I existed apologetically for so many years, I’m still relearning how to be a human in the world. Within a hostile environment, I had to batten down the hatches to survive but coming back to life is contingent on letting other people in again, be they relatives or friends.
While I yearned for the time when I’d be able to reconnect with fellow humans in this way, it is a terrifying process fraught with mishaps.
When functional, many depressives spend an inordinate amount of time trying to warn others about the many ways our brain might malfunction so they don’t panic, get hurt, or run away.
Or worse, take offense, get angry, and grow resentful, as happened to me back in the US.
However, openness begets openness. Mine seems to invite that of those who have similar difficulties letting others into their heads. And right now, my parents can’t let fear or distress fester within so we talk a lot and for hours, every day.
And we laugh a lot too, against all odds, because humor is a vital weapon in the fight against the tumor.
The train journey feels interminable but I know I must pull myself together before I get back to Dad’s. In times of crisis, Portuguese electro pop can always be relied upon to work its magic.
When I arrive, I discover my parents not only waited for me for dinner, but my stepmom also made one of my favorite dishes. I excuse myself and run off to the bathroom for a few minutes so I can let joy wash over me, again.
Pinch me, I’m alive.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist 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.