On Outsmarting Depression, one Little Deal at a Time
When you have to reframe everything to prevent your brain from derailing
The minute I realize I’ll only be away from the Netherlands for two Mondays and flying back on the third, the dread becomes a little more manageable.
Leaving the safe place where I get to recharge and regroup among those who have been holding me together for months is always difficult. Invariably, I’m torn between reluctance and gratitude. Reluctance because I’m never at peace anywhere else, and gratitude because I’ve found my place in this world and it’s filled with joy.
The latter is the most wondrous discovery of all, one that pervades every aspect of my life regardless of geographical coordinates. This love — for the empowering phenomenon needs a name and this has to be it — is portable and illuminates everything, even during my darkest hours. It glows and radiates, rippling out to all those I come into contact with; it is pure energy that keeps me going even when I feel I have nothing left to give.
Whenever I lose track and fall prey to fear, taking stock of this miraculousness enables me to refocus and ground myself in the present moment.
Living out of a suitcase in motion gets confusing after a while.
You learn to do without creature comforts, like a comfy pillow, your favorite mug, or knowing exactly where your socks are. Over nine months in, none of the things I used to attach any importance to matter anymore; there are new priorities.
Life itself is the main one. How to keep death at arm’s length is what my family has been doing for over a year as oncology tries to stall the progression of my stepmom’s stage 4 cancer. So far, she’s still here despite all but the first protocol failing but her quality of life is degrading a little more every day. As is my father’s, whose empathy will likely kill him eventually.
The end, we know, will come before any of us are ready for it so instead of focusing on death, we focus on making the most of life. This translates into time and attention, into the tiny gestures essential to the maintenance of love.
Love doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is always a joint effort made of myriad threads woven together into a thick, soft blanket that brings us all solace. This blanket is so large it can always cover more humans, and we invite them to huddle underneath as they appear, even by remote.
My friends in the Netherlands and my family in France haven’t met yet but the bond is already here, nameless but palpable.
It lives in my smile, in how I carry myself through the day, usually a little more upright but not always.
America, meanwhile, is the place where I can no longer be but where I must go for a few days.
On paper, my life is still there, in a small town in the armpit of Puget Sound, in a house on top of a steep hill where two cats patiently await the return of their indoor human.
After my friends and I shared chores at the weekend and it fell to them to go grocery shopping while I took care of laundry, they quipped:
“You don’t go out much, you’re an indoor Kitty!”
I fell about laughing; it sounded like they had unwittingly channelled my two feline companions whom I miss more than words can convey. At the time of writing, I haven’t yet found a way to bring them to Europe so instead of bemoaning their absence, I rejoice at the good life they enjoy. There are mountains to look at and rabbits to observe, there’s a fire to lounge by…
We are all doing as well as possible, albeit in different places until we can be one cross-species family again.
Lives in motion are subject to frequent change, their breadth expands and contracts just like the human heart does. I landed in Paris at the end of December 2018 as a puzzle outline; over the course of the next nine months, a picture emerged.
Against all odds, I managed to create the beginnings of a new life and now I must nurture and protect it from the parasite in my head.
There are roundabout ways to outsmart depression.
I’m forever doing little deals with the illness so it doesn’t get a chance to take over again and hold joy hostage even though it often tries. Sometimes, it will eat up a day and leave fingerprints as sticky as molasses all over the next day, too.
Dealing with the aftermath of a depressive episode can take as long or longer than the episode itself and is never not brutal. During those times, my command of language becomes tentative, so tentative I always feel like I’m about to lose my writing voice again. If that happens, the modest life I’ve been building for over a year collapses.
In the absence of hugs, the only respite I can get is a hot shower that forces me to surrender to the comforting sensation of water on my skin for however long I stand under it. Coffee, tea, water, music, an open window, and writing also help me refocus when going out isn’t an option because tears have liquefied my face.
I also try and sandwich difficult things between more pleasant ones, or inject some joy into unavoidable unpleasantness whenever possible.
I discovered a one-woman pastry shop around the corner from Institut Curie. Not only does this lady serve the best americano in Paris but her cakes are seasonal and surprising, and they always make chemo that little more bearable for my parents. Every 21 days, I abscond from the day oncology ward and go on a cake run, wondering if it’ll be the last.
And I carry a little yellow lion in my backpack, to remind me that everything changes, sometimes for the better.
After losing five years to major depressive disorder in the US, I arrived in Europe more than a little unclear about who I was.
Little by little, I found my feet as I retrieved clues scattered all over the EU. I never lived in just the one country so my cultural and linguistic allegiances are many.
And, for some reason I may never be able to explain, I shed them all upon immigrating to America.
When I found Portuguese again, everything else followed. The language my heart speaks turned into a superpower of sorts, the only thing that can soothe me when all else fails. Portuguese is also how I conjure up focus at will through music, and it has become my most reliable coping skill when deflecting depressive propaganda.
Portuguese and music are some of the many aspects of this portable love, love I trust to guide me, love I trust to help me harness gentleness and generosity in the face of necessary change.
When in doubt about the future, let the present prevail and remember it is an aptly named gift.
Surrender to the now, allow yourself to enjoy it, and let it carry you forward.
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.