When you Belong on Team Awkward
Our unredacted narratives are the building blocks of tolerance
After it went missing for five years, I was only able to recover my writing voice when I resolved not to hold back about why it disappeared.
I write about the fallout from the mental nuclear bomb that is major depressive disorder. From hardship to love via sexuality, no topic is off limits even though I’m a private person by nature.
And this disposition goes a long way toward explaining why I lost five years of my life.
Because depression is something that plays out within the confines of our own cranium, it’s invisible, and many people are still inclined to disbelieve it even exists. Being accused of malingering is common and can even happen in your own home, becoming a source of ongoing resentment. Especially when you’re so sick you’re unable to do much of anything beside survive, if that.
My situation was made infinitely worse by living in the United States where there’s no such thing as universal health care. Although I have the privilege of medical insurance, I could never afford therapy co-pays.
Instead, I was left holding my own hand and trying to outsmart a brain intent on killing me.
The last five years were a funeral wake for the livelihood depression obliterated. And then my marriage also started looking moribund and now barely has a pulse.
I had to do something.
Because mental health stigma is rampant, the topics I cover don’t crop up in casual conversation.
But into mortifying territory I ventured regardless, dipping a tentative toe into the cesspool of my broken mind before diving in at the deep end, shedding all shame in the process.
So what if my marriage is a dead bedroom? So what if my illness has catapulted my household into hardship? So what if I’m often suspected of being lazy?
As Nora Ephron was fond of saying, “Everything is copy” and she was the doyenne of awkward personal essays, paving the way for the rest of us.
Is your main source of income writing about your person online?
Cringeworthy though it may sound, mine is, and this is how I was able to reactivate my editorial skills, get back to work, and start coming back to life one word at a time.
And the modest income I earn did get me across the Atlantic after several months of diligent effort. I hugged my family again for the first time in six years at the end of December 2018 and writing is enabling me to be present for my parents as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for stage 4 cancer.
Of course, I write about this unpredictable, harrowing reality too because cancer is very much a family affair that has upended everything for us. So much so that I’m moving back to Europe, and I can do this thanks to my work being portable.
But that’s not even the best part of turning no-holds-barred online emoting into a living.
Thanks to technology, we’re more connected than ever and yet isolation is rampant.
At least in America, many humans do not have a fellow human they call their best friend, let alone more than one. Alas, I’ve witnessed this firsthand with my husband. These days, I no longer have a best friend either. At the end of September 2018, cancer claimed the man who was my North Star.
But opening up about the unspeakable online helps others in a similar predicament feel less alone. And therein lies the value of such work, because it connects people in myriad unexpected ways by creating a tribe of like-minded humans who support and look out for each other both online and offline.
What starts out as pixels and data packets has the potential to spill out into meatspace and take on a new guise altogether.
Inspiration, friendship, and support are but three of the more relatable aspects of the goodness radical honesty in print can bring.
For my part, I always believed the path back to wellness would be paved with words or simply wouldn’t be. When Anthony Bourdain took his own life and showed me my future it became urgent to put that belief to work. Although reading had kept me on life support while I was unable to string two words together, I felt someone might pull the plug at any time.
More than likely, that person would be me.
As a journalist, I never intended to turn the pen on myself.
When I realized I had so much material, I decided to do something with it. Depression is such a widespread scourge that my predicament might help avoid — or at minimum alleviate — someone else’s.
Society still looks down on anyone who has a mental and invisible illness, and it’s difficult for sufferers to go against stigma when we’re already so weakened. Writing about mental illness whilst in the middle of it presents quite a challenge, but when your condition is chronic and your survival depends on your ability to write, it’s do or die.
After five long voiceless years, I got angry at America’s inability to understand that good health is a basic human right and not a commodity. And I started vociferating in print, riding that anger.
I did this a lot at first because living in the US means never not being incandescent with rage. After a while, the outline of a dimension I had previously occulted started appearing. I went from being stuck in an increasingly distant past to inhabiting the present.
Having caught up with myself, I started dealing in spontaneous emotions rather than deep-seated ones. This was quite the surprise to realize I had left most of them behind, immortalized in various pieces of writing.
Words make good traps for the unspeakable.
Some days, I’m even able to switch back to the editorial autopilot mode that used to enable me to function under stress and extreme circumstances. In a sense, necessity, hardship, and urgency have recreated those conditions and I seem to be holding my own so far even though I’m always working.
But there are still many rough patches when I have to hang onto my keyboard for dear life, allow myself to feel everything in print, and push through extreme discomfort.
Falling silent is not an option as it would cause my entire life to collapse again.
When you can’t afford a therapist, you turn the internet into one and crowdsource wellness.
For those of lesser means, survival has always been predicated on being resourceful: This is what we do.
Although I have a lifetime of starting all over again in different places under different parameters doing different things, I’ve never had to do this before while severely impaired after a multi-year hiatus. There are limitations I must take into account and accommodate, like insomnia, ever-changing geographical coordinates, lack of funds, absence of medical help, family illness, grief…
So I share it all in print in an attempt to transcend raw emotions and get across to the other side, the side of reason and practical action. Fear and self-doubt show me the way.
Fear can act as a flashlight, bringing to the fore issues requiring urgent attention while self-doubt is a sure sign you need to dig even deeper.
For all of us, embracing our shared humanity without reservation or shame is the only way to build a tolerant society fully conversant with the reality of mental illness.
If we don’t speak up, nothing will change and depression will continue to kill in silence.
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.