The Only Valuable Success is What Matters to You
You get to define achievement for yourself
One day, I discovered I was dead in every sense of the word but for the inconvenient fact I was still breathing. Back then, being alive had been a burden for some years, one I spent most of my waking hours seeking to eradicate. In terms of execution, I went as far as tipping all the pharmaceuticals I had amassed courtesy of my script jockey bully of a GP into soiled cat litter. No matter how much I wanted to exit life, I knew I’d never have it in me to methodically sift through two days worth of fossilized turds and pee patties.
This was my first brush with tangible achievement in many, many years: I outsmarted a brain that wanted me dead; I saved my own life by taking away the one weapon that had been taunting me daily. Doing so cleared up considerable space in my bathroom cabinet and made me wonder what I might fill it with, what might feel like love on my neglected body. This was a novel thought; self-care is often anathema to depressives and I hadn’t seen a hairdresser for a year and a half by that point. While I had always maintained excellent personal hygiene, mine was a minimalistic, no frills approach; I was clean but I looked like death.
Since shops don’t sell hugs, I got a tube of body lotion instead. To funnel what little money I had at my disposal into such a luxury felt like a bold declaration of love to life. I decided to find out what might happen if I stopped dying for a while and tried to extricate myself from major depressive disorder stasis.
Was it even something I could do?
The magnitude of this task was as crushing as it was exhilarating. Crushing because lack of funds had always precluded access to much-needed therapy. As my illness had turned into an ongoing source of resentment at home and I had by then been left to hold my own hand for years, help would not be forthcoming. Unless I provided it myself.
Then again, depression had stolen my writing voice and left me bereft for five years, unable to rely on it to help me process life or indeed earn a living. When you can’t think, you can’t write but suddenly I was thinking again, being curious, and asking questions. Convinced there had to be a way to claw back some agency from the clutches of illness, I became obsessed with finding out how.
This is when exhilaration showed up. The ability to think again meant I should be able to salvage some editorial skills from the wreckage of depression if I put my mind to it. The only way to find out whether I could was to try. So I set out to relearn my job, one sentence at a time. I trusted vocation was still intact and would carry me but I was quite unprepared for how arduous the process would turn out to be.
When your voice has been suppressed, smothered, silenced for five years, it sounds alien when you get to use it again. Most of the words that tumbled out of my head and onto the page in those early stages were unprintable. First, I had to wrestle them out of my mind one by one and it wasn’t uncommon for a single sentence to take hours to complete.
I was so out of practice that trying to articulate a thought, any thought, was sheer torture. And on the rare occasions I succeeded, I realized there was always much left unsaid; I couldn’t help holding back.
Discomfort and doubt soon morphed into determination. My faith in the power of words had remained intact despite this long, unexpected hiatus, all I had to do was recover my voice, which had always been blunt. And not in the least prone to the kind of circumlocution my initial writing efforts yielded.
Upon realizing there was no way I’d ever cover up the five-year crater on my résumé, I decided to own my diagnosis rather than let it own me. I would no longer conceal my illness but document it by turning the pen on myself and using my journalism toolbox. Instead of focusing on the health care, money, or support I didn’t have, I took stock of what I had at my disposal: ample material, skills and experience, curiosity, and this wondrous newfound will to live. And thanks to the internet, I even had the platform.
All I needed was consistency and the willingness to keep learning, experimenting, and iterating. I had no clue where I was going but I had a clear sense of direction: forward. Being in motion after stalling for so long felt as bewildering as having a voice again after years of silence.
Instead of focusing on the general and unfamiliar unease, I gratefully embraced feeling again and ran with it, letting the constant whirlwind of emotions inform my work. But for the omnipresent specter of depression and hardship, my life is now unrecognizable from what it looked like in the summer of 2018.
Success can be as simple as no longer wanting to die all the time. Success can be as simple as proving to yourself you can commit to a task or a project and not let go, regardless of how exhausted or how beset by self-doubt you may be.
Success can be as simple as accepting all that you are and choosing to lead an unredacted life that doesn’t recoil when faced with darkness. Success can be as simple as harnessing your agency and refusing to embrace unquestioning conformity. Success can be as simple as determining what values and standards you want to abide by for the combined benefit of all rather than just for yourself.
Success can be as simple as doing work that is service rather than self-serving, even if it makes for a far more modest bottom line. Success can be as simple taking pride in the knowledge that you do your best day after day as you continue to tackle adversity and limitations, relentlessly. Success can be as simple as enjoying the journey instead of rushing to your destination, assuming you know where you’re headed. Success can be as simple as meeting the creative partner you’ve always wished for and throwing yourself heart first into new ventures.
Success can be as simple as knowing there are now hugs at the ready whenever you need them, a listening ear always within reach, a hand to hold that is not yours. Success can be as simple as looking back and being grateful for how far you’ve come instead of lamenting how much further you’ve got to go. Success can be as simple as still being alive, against all odds.
Everything else pales in comparison.
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.