Writing to Process Life
On seeking critical distance through words
In the midst of chaos, the page is the only landmark I have.
It is my one safe space, the place where I go when I need answers, directions, a portal into an alternate universe where solutions exist. Like an embedded journalist in the middle of a war zone, I’m feeling my way through the fog of an ever-changing reality, recording the inevitable progression of death as darkness threatens to tighten its grip on my psyche once more.
Darkness is my dance partner, the one who chose me and won’t let go, the one who stole my writing voice for five years and only allows me time alone with the page on the condition that I remain bluntly honest. As a chronic illness, major depressive disorder is a ruthless handler likely to recall me at any time should I ever slack or lose my focus. Being able to think and write is never a given, it’s something I fight for every single day.
Before depression hit, writing was already my vocation and how I earned a living; since depression hit, taking to the page has become a reflex, a coping mechanism of sorts. In a nutshell, my survival is contingent on my ability to think and produce words even when life gets so overwhelming it turns my synapses to mush. Which is every day since I made the decision to go back to Europe and be with my parents as my stepmom undergoes treatment for stage 4 cancer.
Although loving to a fault, my father isn’t an easy man, which adds another layer of complexity to an already challenging situation. Thankfully, the page is always here for me. The page can offer a moment of much-needed respite because articulating your thoughts forces you to take a step back. And sometimes you end up with your back to the wall.
The page has a strange way of getting you to look at what you refuse to see. By making you name the unspeakable, writing allows for the dissection of facts in minute detail, often providing missing clues. Scribbling something down can give you pause for thought, and that moment can be enough to trigger an epiphany that knocks you off your feet. These days, I tend to write notes into my smartphone, that extension of the self that has come to feel, behave, and perform like a second brain.
Sometimes, thumbing out an idea gives me a jolt so powerful I feel sick. I’m never not reeling from the encroaching presence of death in my parents’ life and I devote many waking hours to thinking how best to help them. This is the one thought that uses up most of my mental bandwidth, with reason. “When abuse becomes normalized and routine,” is what I once typed into my phone before almost dropping it in horror. Because I had finally stumbled upon a way to sum up the difficult situation I was faced with for most of my initial stay with my parents.
And if there’s one thing I’m familiar with, it is abuse. I come from it, I grew up with it, I had relationships steeped in it, and I even married it at one point. But it had never occurred to me before that my father could be prone to abusive behavior because he could do no wrong in my eyes. While there’s never any malice and he’s not even conscious of acting out, his wife’s cancer is making him impossible to live with. Her best ally, he manages all her care with a clear head and fierce organizational skills. He’s practical, observant, and thoughtful, always trying to find ways around her lack of appetite for example even though he can be quite abrupt and insistent with it, almost controlling. He’s terrified of losing her but instead of opening up, he lashes out at everything and everyone, including her and now me. Whenever I try and talk to him about it, he gets furious.
One night, he told me I could fuck off back home to the US — yes, in those terms — if I didn’t like it there because he still hadn’t understood I had come over to help him. Then again, before flying to Paris at the end of December 2018 I had been away for six years, grounded by depression and resulting hardship in America.
Although I’ve since then explained this to my parents, they didn’t understand and how could they? In Europe, when you get sick you get help and you get better because health is a basic human right there and financial resources have little to do with it. My stepmom’s cancer treatment is costing her exactly zero euros. My father felt I had abandoned him so I probably deserved his harsh words even though staying away wasn’t a choice. And yet, he subjected both my stepmom and I to verbal abuse on a daily basis for quite a while. After naming the thing and understanding where it came from, I was finally ready to deal with it.
Coming up against the limits of language tends to happen when you venture into uncharted territory. When the mind refuses to yield and transcribe something into words, I’ve learned to ask my heart instead. While the right word might resist me — or I might not know it yet — articulating how I feel about something will generally help convey the same meaning. This has been an efficient way of getting around the unspeakable although one notable exception remains: The connection that binds me to the muse, “The Thing” that can only ever exist between the lines.
To me, writing is not just my vocation, livelihood, and lifeline; writing is life. Framing life with words helps me gain some much-needed critical distance. Even when the event is recent, it’s always in the past and its retelling calls for structure and a clear conclusion that can only be reached through the act of writing. Writing is thinking out loud, meandering in print, navigating the twists and turns of a recalcitrant and reluctant self until you get to that one thing you were looking for all along: truth.
Truth is elusive and hard-won, often dependent on perspective and the ability to parse life with some amount of detachment. Writing is the quest of truth seekers dedicated to furthering our common understanding of what it means to be a human in the world, one experience, one word at a time.
For all writers are explorers.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist 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.