In a flash, I’m on the kitchen floor, sobbing violently as my life disintegrates with a series of modest explosions. Soon, I’m cradling the corpse of everything I’ve been working for during 18 months, from the moment I stood up to depression with words to no language. My heart plays a funeral march, grief is my shroud, and my brain is numb but for the pain that turned half a decade of my life into a long, silent scream.
From 2013 to 2018, depression buried me alive. It was only when I wrestled my writing voice from the rubbles that I began to function again, processing life in print, word by word, out in the open. Choosing to come back to life in public is counterintuitive; life transitions happen behind closed doors. While we do share our experiences, we seldom share the process; grittiness and messy intimacy are inherently private.
Human dignity requires self-respect; self-respect rests on a modicum of general emotional housekeeping. Many of us believe that letting it all hang out in public is distasteful and yet we hunger for information and validation. We desperately seek confirmation we’re not the only ones struggling with life in this particular way. We yearn for narratives that nourish our own with the kind of hope only dispassionate realism can offer. To get there, we wade through the toxic waste waters of greed, eyeball pirates, and assorted hucksters selling pity by the pound from a leaky boat.
So why delve into the most vulnerable and least appealing aspects of humanness through a personal lens?
When my survival instinct finally kicks in, it gives me back my writing voice, reminds me of vocation, and throws me in at the deep end of the internet. As a journalist, personal essays were not part of my skill set then and I still wrestle with the ethical implications of so much disclosure now. Then again, any comfort zone had long disappeared, depression needed disrupting, and I had to find a way to get back on my feet without access to health care.
Because, like many insured Americans, I could not afford the co-pays so good health became a luxury as inaccessible as eating more than one meal a day.
This isn’t the first time I end up on the kitchen floor but it is the first time here, at home in the Netherlands; home, a concept that hasn’t quite registered yet. Although I moved in on the last day of 2019, my apartment still looks like a war zone, under-furnished, with packed suitcases, minus two cats. My two guardian angels in fur live in the Pacific Northwest for now and I miss them viscerally; for five years, they made up for the dearth of human warmth. They kept me alive and now they’re my phantom limbs, the part of my heart that stayed behind in America along with the hopes immigration had ignited.
And the ashes that resulted from depression turning into a personal Mount St. Helens and burning down marriage, career, and finances.
At first glance, there isn’t much you can salvage after destruction of such magnitude but for the skin you’re in. Since illness caused your self to change shape, you’ll have to find a way to make that skin fit again and accommodate all that you’ve become. Depression subtracts many basic human needs like love and keeps threatening shelter as food remains a challenge. It also takes away my words and livelihood for five years but it leaves me vocation, albeit very dented, battered, and sorry-looking.
This is how I become a self-reporter whose beat is the diligent documenting on survival in motion, using my own life as material. Initially, mine is the simple, isolated existence of a mostly housebound human in a house on top of a steep hill in a small, sleepy town in the armpit of Puget Sound.
What happened since wasn’t part of the script and the aftershocks followed me all the way across the Atlantic to the Netherlands via France, Portugal, and Germany as I tried to put the pieces of my cultural identity back together after six years in the US.
Against all odds, I still have a family even though we hadn’t seen one another since 2013 and I still have Portuguese, too. Our estrangement lasted far longer; tapping into the language my heart chose changes everything. It carries me through an entire year of living out a suitcase in motion while helping my parents navigate the reality of stage 4 cancer.
Variable geographical coordinates and exhaustion trip me up most days but I keep my head down, writing up a new life, word by word.
Much as I rage against the evils of personal branding that have people pitch themselves to the world with a tag line, I too am selling something, somehow. Whether compensated or not, anyone who types online is participating in the attention economy. And since writing is how I’ve been supporting myself so far, how can my contribution to the global dialogue help lessen mental illness stigma?
The process is my product, where survival, livelihood, purpose, present, and future intersect. But does it have value?
The pressure to parlay said process into a life of greater ease is immense so how can I do this with editorial integrity while not scaring off people? Starting with those who might want to hire me to work with or for them using language as a tool, be it for writing, editing, or copywriting.
If the process currently is the product then I, the human, am the marketing campaign for it and this realization shakes me up. If I’m the message, the messenger, the medium, and my life is the platform, at what point do I get acid reflux of the self or disgust others? How do I let you in without holding your eyeballs hostage for longer than is comfortable? How do I show you a tiny bright dot in the kaleidoscope of universal self-inquiry and encourage you to look for yours?
How do I conjure up hope when I frequently have none and how do I keep chronic depression at bay so I can keep working toward enlisting professional help? I’m no less sick than I was starting out, I’m no less poor either because birthing a new self takes so much more than a statement of intent.
Birthing a new self takes so much more than persistence and hard work and no respite and relentless creativity over a long period of time. It takes so much more than going through life in survival mode as I’ve been doing for the last year and half; it takes people.
It takes people and sometimes you’ll have none or they will be unavailable or you will have lost them; they died, they never lived, or they never dared try. The latter is the one thing I vowed to keep doing, try, no matter how matter times I may stumble, fall, and hurt myself as long as I can scramble back up to my feet.
That I should find myself on the kitchen floor again for the first time in a while seems to indicate the process is far from complete. It could realistically keep me in business for a lifetime as my kind of depression is chronic but my personal life isn’t my only stock-in-trade. But until I get the opportunity to branch out a little more, the process will have to find ways to pay the bills.
It currently does not and the mirage of therapy keeps fading away from view a little more each day as exhaustion slowly pawns all the hope it afforded me at first. And so I take to the page to dispel the fear of keeling over again, losing my writing voice, and watching vocation die with nary a whimper.
I flay myself alive to survive, I don’t just exfoliate and pare off emotional and intellectual calluses. This wasn’t planned either; this is my brain fighting for one more word, my heart fighting for one more beat, my lungs fighting for one more breath, still. The trusted partner my pen once was has turned into a razor blade and I struggle to hold it without bleeding all over everything.
And it’s a blood bath for anyone who comes near so I hold people at arm’s length lest my pen should slip and they end up as collateral damage in print. My pen does slip and they take it in their stride and they catch me when I fall and they wince in pain and they get up to their feet and then they still hold out their hand.
Every. Single. Time.
The textual midwifery it takes to birth that new self of mine surprises me because I keep wanting to write the news report — who, what, when, where, why, and how — file it, and move on to the next story. But the story is ongoing, stretching through the time and space continuum according to no known laws.
Apart from, perhaps, Murphy’s.
Why am I not further forward yet, I keep asking myself. I’ve been so busy surviving I forgot to live and have no clue about how to do human anymore. Without writing or the internet, I’d be hard-pressed to have any meaning to contribute to the definition of human. This is how limited my experience thereof has become since I started documenting the process to try and pull myself out of illness and hardship.
I’m a word processor in human form, I think, and my brain acquiesces by reducing the pressure I’ve been subjecting it to. “Think faster, deeper, differenter but for crying out loud get on with it already,” is an accurate polite rendering of my inner monologue on any given day.
This is the dark underbelly, self-love wrapped into an iron fist that keeps hitting me in the heart with alarming regularity. I still bear the bruises and scars of those five years my perception of the world is so askew I look forward to going to a neighborhood trash recycling meeting. So I can meet the neighbors and explain in my atrocious Dutch that I just moved in across the road from the community center. There are three households at the same number so two have letters. Mine’s A, “Thuis is… A wie aardappel!” I’ll tell them (aardappel is potato and the Dutch love frietjes, i.e. French fries). And hopefully they’ll volunteer a couple of words I can learn on the spot so my vocabulary comes to include more than potatoes.
To me, such occasions are part of my reentry into the atmosphere and every new interaction counts. I commit the date to memory only I am so tired I remember it wrong and I invent a Monday, Feb 20, mistaking a 1 for a 2. This is yet another sign my brain is grinding to a halt despite myself and I’ve ignored so many until now perhaps I should start paying attention. Yes, I have a smartphone but memory is a muscle so I flex it. And it gets cramps.
Because the process takes time and it doesn’t get any easier to accept, however many times you repeat this mantra in your head. What if focusing on ways to make it gentler for everyone and keeping going mattered more than getting there? There’s seldom an end in sight for chronic conditions but there are many ways to level up to greater ease the more experience you gain.
That’s what the process is, experience; you’re learning to become you as your past self catches up with your current self. Yes, you’ll feel like as naked and gooey and shouty as a newborn, defenseless, clueless, and lost but now you also have language, self-awareness, bowel control, and an indoor voice.
And no, there’s no running away; gotta keep taking one more step forward for as long as it takes until we’re steady enough on our feet to pick up speed.
Even sprinters still get the occasional side stitch and they too have to walk most of the time.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.