Standing at the bus stop in Paris, I spot a large vehicle from the corner of my eye and nearly flag it down.
This is how you signal to the driver you want him to pick you up when you’re standing at a stop used for several routes. I start raising my arm before noticing my mistake: It isn’t a bus but a garbage truck. Bar for the fact both vehicles are bigger than a car, this is where the similarity ends.
Granted, I slept only two hours last night but the moment gives me serious pause for thought as it isn’t accompanied by nausea or tingles. Earlier this year, I nearly collapsed several times due to exhaustion and the symptoms were random and debilitating.
Today, my brain played a trick on me without prior warning, a sure sign that I desperately need to rest before something goes badly wrong.
“Cool, another dinner party story for dark days,” I thought before I grabbed my phone and messaged my stepmom to share. There isn’t a day when she doesn’t need cheering up so the sooner, the better.
And then I got on with the rest of my journey to Paris-Nord where I boarded a train to Amsterdam, amped up on two extra strong cappuccinos. European high speed trains offer Wi-Fi so I use travel time to work and I had set myself the modest goal to stay awake until Brussels, i.e. one hour.
At that point, things got even weirder, too weird to even contemplate taking a nap.
I take this trip regularly and thought I was intimately familiar with it but today made me doubt myself.
I left Paris traveling backward but suddenly found myself traveling forward the minute the train pulled out of Brussels. It surprised me I had never noticed this before, all the more as I am a keen observer and pay great attention to detail regardless of how tired I am.
Then again, the last nine months have been intense and I cannot remember what it feels like to have a good night’s sleep, a day off, or wake up refreshed. Ever since leaving the US, I’ve been a burnout in slow motion ping ponging between several countries and two continents.
Am I having a challenging transport day or is my brain letting me down again?
An onboard announcement about reversed train composition and an alternate route cuts my ruminating short. The Brussels to Antwerp part of the journey isn’t the standard one. I run into the train manager on my way to get a cup of tea from the catering car and he confirms the anomaly.
I start breathing again. Of all days for the above to happen, of course it had to be on World Mental Health Day.
How very apt.
Mental health stigma sticks.
When I briefly emerged from my depressive funk to pitch and publish a political commentary piece back in 2017, it was met with derision by one reader.
He immediately urged me to get back on my meds, warning that I was losing my fragile grasp on reality. I would spend another two years mired in major depressive disorder and contemplating how best to kill myself. In total, I lost five years — between 2013 and 2018 — and my whole life fell apart.
When you live with chronic mental illness, there inevitably comes a point when you start questioning your sense of perception. This, alas, is one of the hallmarks of depression, which is akin to living with a head parasite that keeps gnawing away at your sense of self.
The parasite thrives on confusing its host with relentless propaganda that can shatter your identity.
Coming face to face with a stranger staring back at me in the bathroom mirror was one of the most singular experiences of my life. It was the moment I understood how utterly adrift in my head I was, like a prisoner in solitary confinement walking around in circles.
I had no idea who I was anymore nor could I recall who I had been before depression struck. Although I’ve never not had medical insurance, my household was far too cash-strapped for me to access the services I needed. My being unable to earn a living as a journalist because I could no longer think and therefore write turned into a source of ongoing resentment, too.
For five years, I was so incapacitated all I could do was exist, albeit reluctantly, while holding my own hand and trying not to let it kill me.
In September 2018, my beloved stepmom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and my best friend died two weeks later.
As the ongoing joke in Asterix goes, the sky literally fell on my little Gallic head. Although I had tentatively set out to write my way out depression and hardship, I now had to figure out how to get back to the EU fast. My father is his wife’s sole carer and he is now 72; devoted to a fault, he has appropriated his wife’s illness and, a year later, my parents both look almost as sick as each other.
Love jolted my brain and helped me find a way when I discovered it still lived within me although its human incarnation had been absent from my environment for years. The discovery was gradual and is ongoing but it carried me and still does, transforming my life a little more every day.
I follow love’s orders, no matter what it takes. Whenever exhaustion gets the better of me and causes my brain to derail again, I can’t afford to deviate and must push forward regardless.
In professional terms, this is where a journalism background is invaluable as I’m used to getting on with the job and delivering. Having worked as a tour director in many countries also comes in handy. When you’re responsible for the wellbeing, safety, education, and entertainment of up to 50 people at a time, you learn to set yourself aside. There’s an itinerary to follow and the one skill that ensures tours run smoothly is the ability to anticipate your passengers’ needs.
That’s one person’s needs multiplied by however many passengers you have.
However, you can’t be on the road non-stop; I learned this the hard way many years ago and this is why I now share my time between several places. I’d never have been able to find the mental or physical wherewithal to keep going otherwise.
My being able to be present for my family owes a lot to those who’ve been holding my hand since I returned to Europe last winter.
They’re the people who hold space for me — and I for them — something we’ve instinctively done from the moment we connected without having a name for it. At least not until I read a piece by Jonathan Greene which prompted me — and my friends — to dig deeper.
This enlightening discovery alone reassured us. Even though I still haven’t been able to access therapy as I don’t have set geographical coordinates yet, I’m doing a lot better than I was a year ago.
Understanding the love we give would always trump the love we receive unlocked a new life I’d never have dared imagine.
Returning to the Netherlands last night, I hugged my friends tight and looked at them with the same amazement I experienced the day we met and happens whenever I set eyes on them. “How are you even possible?!” I wanted to ask because the very reality of them seems to come straight out of a vision my head and heart would have co-created piece by piece.
In this world, rare are the fellow humans compassionate and empathetic enough not to recoil and run when darkness descends upon you. I may have made a lot of progress but I continue to do battle with depression every single day.
And suicidal ideation will likely never leave me either.
Nevertheless, my grip on reality is stronger than ever.
I’ve learned to parse the information my mind gives me and identify depressive propaganda.
While the necessary work of self-inquiry is something we must do alone, the unconditional support I’ve received along the way has been life-affirming and empowering.
It changed everything, from how I approach every new day to how I approach my work and what I seek to achieve with it. My aim is to help reframe the conversation on mental illness, self-worth, and what it means to be a human in the world. To me, the internet is a formidable force for the common good if only we use it intelligently rather than in a self-serving way.
My still being alive and turning my life around against all odds is incontrovertible proof the above isn’t a pipe dream. We’re at our best when we empower one another; the sense of belonging depression took away, fellow humans returned to me.
With every single interaction, be it online, offline, or both.
And no, it emphatically does not translate into a dollar figure; the rewards of the work I’ve been doing for over a year remain modest in financial terms. But this work has yielded human and creative riches beyond my wildest imaginings; the more connections I make, the more frequent epiphanies are.
Life opens up when you get out of your head and into the world, even if you’re mostly housebound and geographically isolated, which I was when I started out.
To paraphrase late Portuguese singer António Variações, “I no longer am who I was” and “I don’t wait for light to dazzle me anymore” simply because each of us is the light.
Ours are small stories told on a global canvas; every story we write helps power an intimate revolution paving the way for a gentler society.
Nothing human is shameful; our brains trick us but our hearts guide us.
This is reality: Let’s embrace all of it, together.