New year, new decade, and the pressure to self-actualize forthwith has never been greater, at least if you believe what the internet tells you. The beginning of the year is when gyms, life coaches, and assorted self-improvement gurus go all in about helping us out. Now that a new decade is upon us, the pressure is relentless and panic-inducing, or at least it became so for me when I took a closer look at the last decade. And promptly realized I had lost half of it, which felt a lot more momentous than mentioning in passing that depression stole five years of my life. Half a decade is quite the punch in the gut and despite relentless efforts to get back on my feet, I am still winded and exhausted.
This isn’t exactly the best way to conjure up new opportunities or approach anyone who might help you manifest them. Exhaustion is catnip to depression, it bleeds everything of color and distorts the most minute of inconveniences. Suddenly, you have even more problems than you started off with even though things are improving, at least on the surface. And no matter how much you take stock of what’s going on, no matter how many times you reframe your current situation, well, it’s still a challenge. Sometimes, it makes you deeply distraught and uncomfortable and you find yourself looking for an exit yet again.
The problem with running away is that whatever blights your life tends to follow; you’re the one person you can’t run away from. Since we’re stuck with us, maybe that’s why many posit self-love can radically transform our life. While it does help, it can never make up for our people deficit or even creature deficit; my cats are still in the US, I now live in the Netherlands. Being away from them is torture, all the more as the little things that sometimes undo me never did when they were around. They reminded me togetherness, warmth, and affection make anything bearable as they swaddled my pain into purrs.
For now, we must live apart so I find solace in knowing they are well, seeing their fuzzy faces on my smartphone, and occasionally logging into the cat cam. I watch the almost imperceptible rise and fall of two roundish, sleepy shapes now inured to the whirring of the robot in the corner. They sometimes wake up, look askance in my general direction, and teleport straight back into the Land of Nod. Pressing a button lets me talk to them but they cannot see me and I have no goddess complex so I don’t do it unless I’m flying in soon. If either or both meowed back at me, I know I couldn’t take it; the day Nuna the tabby had her nose on the cam, I spontaneously burst into tears that became irrepressible sobs.
Life without feline buffers who smooth away all the rough edges isn’t something I thought I’d ever have to get used to again, albeit temporarily. I would never have survived that half decade in the wilderness of mental illness without them. And I likely wouldn’t have tried to bootstrap recovery either because I had given up on myself by then but I wanted them to have a good life. To a cat, I’ve always taken this to mean unlimited access to fresh water and healthful food, shelter, stimulation, play, and rest. It’s not that different from what other living creatures like humans need to thrive but it’s a lot easier to achieve as cats spend most of their day asleep.
When you’re out for the count, your subconscious might be subjecting you to the tyranny of nightmares but your body is regenerating. And yet, sleep is the first thing to go when in the throes of disquiet; we sacrifice it so we can monetize more time, we’re too worried to surrender to it, or both. The urge to take action in the face of overwhelming chaos and adversity is human because you can’t stand things spiraling out of control. Being reactive will wear you out and make it more difficult to build upon an unstable foundation you were too tired to lay out properly so it would last.
Build your life upon quicksands, plug gaping holes with poorly thought out solutions and sooner or later, it will collapse. There will be no warning before everything fades to black and you end up a prisoner of your own head despite apparent good fortune. And if this has happened to you before, you will reflexively be anxious every time you attempt to affect change, pivot, reinvent yourself. This is where I’m at: Still pulling myself out of illness and hardship one word at a time, half a world away from where I started, minus cats but plus people.
Or rather, this is where I’m at again as I’m no stranger to moving from one country to another; I’ve done this my entire adult life. But never before had I set out for one destination and ended up somewhere else altogether that isn’t even close. I was moving to Portugal and ended up in the Netherlands, the safe place that carried me through an intense year of reconstruction on every level. After six years away, I reconnected with my family, I reconnected with the languages and places that hold my heart, the Netherlands being one of them. I’ve lived here before and, on my mother’s side, come from Flemish Belgians who were Dutch before Belgium was a kingdom. No one ever addresses me in English and it foxes me; little has survived from reading Dutch for a year at university some decades ago. The Netherlands and I are familiar to each other and yet still almost complete strangers.
Given time and the right music and literary recommendations, I can control this, I can improve my Dutch until it becomes reasonably fluent. Like being able to afford two airfares to bring the cats across to a home where they would be welcome and comfortable, learning Dutch is a project. For both, a year is a reasonable deadline even though you never stop learning a language, even when you are a native speaker. And things sometimes take longer than expected; I had given myself a year to put down roots in Europe again and I lived out of a suitcase until the last day of December 2019 but the journey started back in the summer of 2018. Before I even knew I’d be going on one.
I updated my goals and ambitions along the way, too; from starting to write again in the hope of funding a cat tree to moving back to the EU took many steps. And many, many catalysts, from terminal illness to those who held out their hand and didn’t yank it away when I took it, terrified of pulling them down with me. Little by little, they helped me understand the pointlessness of devoting mental bandwidth to what is beyond my control. When depression has battered your synapses into submission, realizing you don’t have to hang on to fear is quite the revelation.
I’m still afraid of a lot of things, chief among them my ability to survive; at the heart of it all, life is always about surviving first and thriving second. Whenever your ability to survive looks compromised, you start unraveling on some level or other. Maybe you’re snappy at a loved one, or you grow aghast at how little you seem to have achieved so far, or color starts bleeding out of your world again. Let it be, take a breath, then let go of anything that isn’t remotely within your control and focus on what is, i.e. your mind and how it chooses to react.
There is always an element of choice even though our mind doesn’t always consult us first; mental illness frequently causes it to bypass common sense. Depression finds the cloud in the silver lining and corrupts our thought process with lies, rendering us unable to see what is. With major depressive disorder like mine, there’s a default value judgment applied to everything. And it’s always catastrophic because the illness transforms your mind into a conspiracy theorist. But like Alex Jones, you can switch it off when it begins ranting and foaming at the mouth: Remind yourself this is depressive propaganda.
It’s not easy but it can turn into a habit the more you do it even though it may take a lifetime to master if your pathology is chronic like mine. I still haven’t been able to afford therapy so any progress I’ve made is the result of stumbling, blundering, and bootstrapping my way forward. It is both painstakingly slow and draining, with innumerable setbacks inherent to being exhausted all the time. Angsty desperation isn’t the best calling card though so if you’re in a tight spot, take care of your heart first, please, so it can continue to guide you.
Sit with yourself for a while, let your heart tell you what makes it beat faster, then start thinking about what you can do and who can help you. In this individualistic monsterhood we still call society, the people element is often left out of the equation yet it is key. The self-made mythology we love so much has a lot to answer for as it systematically erases all those who make success possible. Any success, including staying alive which we hardly ever celebrate although we probably should. Especially since we have to keep figuring it out as we go along; it’s a complete crapshoot and vastly unpredictable, even if you’re on good terms with your own self and love it to bits. I know I am and do even though I don’t always have my best interests at heart.
Perhaps you’re as alone and isolated as I was when I started out, mostly housebound in a house on top of a hill in the armpit of Puget Sound. I had no people but I had the internet and it saved me by helping me thinking forward and out loud in print among others rather than in a vacuum. And then the people on it made themselves known and went from being an amorphous, faceless mass to first names and last names, fellow humans.
Thoughts can sink you if you don’t take the time to pick out signal from noise and unpack what is at the heart of a particular emotion. A mind forced to hold it all in is like an oil tanker suddenly overturning in a breeze and spilling its cargo as it contaminates everything around it. Silencing our thoughts with noise and entertaining ourselves to death is a form of self-harm. Vulnerability is human and unless we accept it, embrace it, and let go of what is beyond our control, we’ll spend life in the brace position.
What if falling apart were a way to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle that makes us us every now and then, a way of enforcing resilience and adaptability?
You’re still here, well done, keep going.
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.