Can you ever forget how to be a human in the world? When major depressive disorder imprisoned me in my head and threw away the key for five years, I lost myself almost entirely.
Such was the disconnect between my previous life and what I had become that I looked in the mirror one morning and had no idea who was staring back at me. After being mostly housebound for many years, I couldn’t even remember how to put makeup on with confidence and put my best face forward.
Somehow, the little gestures that make up daily human interactions were more difficult to relearn than my job.
Even though I lost my writing voice for five years, I’m a journalist by profession and writing has always been vocation. I did struggle a lot at first but it was nothing in comparison to how much I’m struggling with the rest of normal life as I try and put back together all the pieces of my identity.
Despite depression, I’m still a communicator at heart, endlessly curious about our shared humanness. On the professional front at least, I’m operational, motivated, and able to think strategically. And I haven’t lost the innate ability to build a rapport with random strangers from all walks of life in no time and under most circumstances.
On the personal front however, I’m a two-legged tornado made of chaos, confusion, and endless epiphanies.
The best part of coming back to life after being frozen in time for so long is rediscovering simple pleasures and deriving much satisfaction from them.
Life looks brighter than ever, bursting at the seams with color and possibility instead of being a uniform gray wasteland without an exit. But the mechanics of normal living still puzzle me.
When I started emerging, a simple americano in a coffee shop always tasted and felt like a miracle; being out in the world again was enough to make me tear up. It provided such a stark contrast to the darkness and silence that came before that I couldn’t help but be keenly aware of how far I had come. And how lucky I was to still be alive, against all odds, blinded by the light after years steeped in solitary confinement contemplating death.
I still feel this way on a daily basis, especially now that I’m back in Europe reconnecting with the people, places, and values that made me. Not a day goes by that I’m not mildly surprised by life, when it doesn’t blow my mind outright, which also happens often.
For example, my senses are frequently prone to overwhelm and nothing gets to me quicker than any display of kindness, care, and affection. When it comes from family, I accept it with gratitude. If it comes from anyone else however, I perceive it as danger, almost as if it were an attack.
Because depression rewires your brain and corrupts it with propaganda of the self-destructive kind. Until you no longer trust yourself, or what you once held as self-evident truths.
It’s not other humans chronic depressives fear but how our brains are going to react to benevolent souls who mean us well. As long as isolation was my daily reality, there were few human interactions beside home ones, and even then, I frequently felt invisible. It wasn’t unusual not to be spoken to for days on end. To cope, I detached until the absurdity of it all stopped bothering me. Now, the signs of marriage decay are anecdotes; I refuse to let them pull me under again.
Taking stock of my American life and uncovering the genesis of the depression that caused me to collapse and paralyzed me for years is an ongoing process. It’s also one I have scant time for as I’m in Europe to help my parents navigate the ever-changing parameters of stage 4 cancer.
Helping them means I must help myself first else I am of no use to anyone so I try and approach life one moment at a time. Lately, many of those moments have been epiphanies. As I reengage with others, I’m rediscovering how to get to know them, exchange ideas, and forge relationships based on mutual trust.
Accepting a fellow human’s interest in me as a person is the hardest part as major depressive disorder and my bizarre home life erased my humanity. Conversations frequently feel like revelations and I savor them. I was so starved of intellectual stimulation for so long that it was books that kept my brain on life support for five years.
Burgeoning friendship is a trip, in the sense that it feels like a hallucination.
After wishing for it for so long, I ended up wondering if it still existed in the real world or if it was just another figment of my imagination.
Fireworks in the brain are very confusing.
Human interactions are wont to spark off all kinds of emotions. From curiosity, to joy, to delight, to awe, to appreciation, growing new bonds is awkward when you’re coming back to life.
If you’ve internalized unworthiness as the default for a long time, you move around in the world with shackles around your ankles. While they can be invisible to the naked eye in a professional setting, they’re giant boulders on the personal front. Mine keep tripping me up and attempting to trip up anyone who comes close, too.
Much as you try to warn others and explain how your brain operates, you can’t help but believe they’ll soon realize they’d rather not know you. Being open about depression already exposes you but surrendering to vulnerability leaves you naked.
Without the barest hint of pretense to cover up your modesty, allowing another human being to see you as you really are is always a risk. And yet, this is what I’ve been doing since last July, one essay at a time, as bluntly as I can because mental illness stigma serves no one.
As you remember how to do human a little more every day, you must accept this isn’t an instant process and that it calls for immense patience both on your part and on the part of those you interact with.
If they don’t recoil and run away in horror despite your best efforts then you’re doing a far better job than you think at reentering the atmosphere and letting go of your past.
Welcome back to life and all that it has to offer, fellow traveler!
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.